Wednesday, February 4, 2009

1024. Joker One

Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

Joker One was a book I received through the LibraryThing Early Review program. They send me this book in December of 2008 (or maybe January 2009) and I dutifully finished before it's publication date of March 2009. Like everything else, life caught up with me and this review got held-up in the big ether, so, very belatedly, I am getting it out.

Donovan Campbell was a United States Marine platoon commander and is the author of Joker One. The book is a memoir of his time as the leader of this platoon, prior to deployment, and during their time in Iraq, in Ramadi in 2004, during the height of what is now called the insurgency.

Over the years, I have read a few war related books, whether memoirs, historical perspectives or other such, recounting of things past, novel set in war (realistic or not), and simple description of key events that made history. It was always very hard to gleam, from all such recounting, whether the truth one read was an honest appraisal of the war described. In most cases, this was because the war I was reading about was so much older, whether it was Vietnam, Korea or World War II. Certainly, there have been some seminal books in the genre, but it is not my intention to remember them here.

What struck me from the beginning of this book, is the narrator's perspective on events. Like anything, when we read a book, we bring our own prejudices into the reading of the book. I personally try very hard to avoid this pitfall, but at the same time, I would be lying if I said that I was one of the war's biggest supporters. Nor did I go out and vocally oppose it, but that's another story, for another time. In hindsight, I have noticed, that many reviewers have taken the approach of bringing their personal biases in reviewing this book (pro or against the war and its effects). I would argue that this book is so great, that such an approach is completely unwarranted.

Here are the themes that struck me upon reading this book:
  1. It is made very clear that the author is a Princeton and Harvard Business School graduate. Yet, it is not that education which plays the biggest role during his deployment.
  2. The military are given certain parameters to operate within (one could say, their hands are tied, before the deployment even begins), however, the reality on the ground is different than the orders.
  3. The History of the Marines as an institution comes through those pages very strongly. Yet, for all that, Marines are soldiers, and soldiers are human beings, with human feelings, and human concerns and human problems and human failings.
The strongest truth in this book was its honesty. From the very first page it grabbed my attention and never let me go. That is why I mentioned it was important to forget your prejudices. You can not go into reading this story by hating the Marines for what they are doing. Open your eyes and read Donovan's story and hear it with your heart. Then you will understand what it really takes to serve in the modern military. If you might get to a point where you question how the military functions, or how it handles decisions handed down from the political leadership that could be an outcome of your existing preconceived notions, but in the meantime, you would have missed the human part of the equation; you would have missed the drama of men fighting along each other for a cause they were told was just and right.

There is another truth hidden in the exceptional story telling skills of Donovan Campbell. He cares. He cares for his Marines. He cares for his squad leaders, his NCOs, his sergeants, etc. He tries to always do right by them. This does not mean he is a "soft" leader, but every trial faced by one in the platoon, is faced by all. Ramadi in 2004 is not a welcoming place. There are many dangers, and many of the dangers come from within mosques and other off-limits type places. I do not know if the loses that this Platoon suffers can be regarded heavy in comparison to other Platoons, yet, you feel each one of them as if they were someone you knew. That is the greatness of the story that Mr. Campbell is conveying here.

Finally, one more compliment. At the end of the book, you get the feeling that something was accomplished and yet, a lot remained to be accomplished. Regrets were finally expressed, but they were not so overwhelming as to consume the tone of the book. This then is the highest compliment I can pay to this war memoir: if you had not made-up your mind about this war and you read this book, this would not help you decide, BUT it would give you a very clear and distinct perspective on what the American fighting men and women have to endure in persecuting this war. And isn't that what we all need? Better understanding? For others, this will be just a great war yarn.

On my personal scale, I have to give this book, four stars out of five.

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