Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Book Review and Commentary: “One Bullet Away – The Making Of A Marine Officer” by Nathaniel Fick

A few months ago in this space I offered a brief review of the movie “Jarhead.” This film was adapted from the book by former Marine, Anthony Swofford. Mr. Swofford tells the story of his experience in basic training and then as his unit was deployed in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It is a raw and often disturbing memoir. Comparing “Jarhead” with “One Bullet Away” would not be fair; they represent two different genres and are on two very different planes of analysis and erudition. To use a musical analogy: Swofford is a combination of Garth Brooks and Eminem; Fick is Beethoven!

I found “One Bullet Away” to be a riveting account of the development of a Marine Corps Officer – from his days as a classics major at Dartmouth to his decision to leave the Corps after serving under fire in Afghanistan and Iraq. Fick’s analysis remains consistently insightful and self-revelatory throughout the book. When placing the Marine Corps - its ethos, its methods, its culture, its leadership – under the microscope, Nate never shies away from examining his own performance and motives. I found his candor refreshing. That openness added to my willingness to accept his views of the broader issues laid out in this account.

Fick’s choice of epigraphs tells me as much about his thought process and his values as does his own writing. He begins Part I of the book, “Peace,” with this quotation by Thucydides: “We should remember that one man is much the same as another, and that he is best who is trained in the severest school.”

The rest of the book is Fick’s running account of the years he spent in the severe school that is the USMC. Part III, “Aftermath,” opens with this quotation from Augustine of Hippo: “Anyone who looks with anguish on evils so great must acknowledge the tragedy of it all; and if anyone experiences them without anguish, his condition is even more tragic, since he remains serene by losing his humanity.” I wish that some of our current leaders – military and political – could be made to understand the wisdom and profundity behind these words and sentiments.

By way of strongly encouraging you to read this landmark book, let me take you to the end of the story, and quote from some of Fick’s final words.

* * * * * *

I drifted after leaving the Corps. At age twenty-six, I feared I had already lived the best years of my life. Never again would I enjoy the sense of purpose and belonging that I had felt in the Marines. Also, I realized that combat had nearly unhinged me. Despite my loving family, supportive friends, and good education, the war flooded into every part of my life, carrying me along toward an unknown fate. If it could do that to me, what about my Marines? What about the guys without families, whose friends didn’t try to understand, who got out of the Corps without the prospects I had? I worried that they had survived the war only to be killed in its wake.

After channeling all of my energy into applying to graduate school, I got a phone call from an admissions officer: “Mr. Fick, we read your application and liked it very much. But a member of our committee read Evan Wright’s story about your platoon in Rolling Stone. You’re quoted as saying: ‘The bad news is, we don’t get much sleep tonight; the good news is, we get to kill people.’” She paused, as if waiting for me to disavow the quote. I was silent, and she went on. “We have a retired Army officer on our staff, and he warned me that there are people who enjoy killing, and they aren’t nice to be around. Could you please explain your quote for me?”

“No, I cannot.”

“Well, do you really feel that way?” Her tone was earnest, almost pleading.

“You mean, will I climb your clock tower and pick people off with a hunting rifle?”

It was her turn to be silent.

“No, I will not. Do I feel compelled to explain myself to you? I don’t.”

* * * * * *

I heard Nathaniel Fick read from his book a few weeks ago here in Boston. I had an opportunity to observe him responding thoughtfully to difficult questions about the war – his own involvement in Iraq and more global issues. I had a brief opportunity to speak with him and to question him myself. I came away from that encounter - and from my subsequent encounters with Nate in the pages of his book – with the following two impressions.

First, Nate Fick is the kind of gifted, brilliant, sensitive, personable, thoughtful, and well-balanced human being I would like to cultivate as a friend. He is currently pursuing dual degrees at Harvard Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Since I have strong networks in both of these schools, I expect that our paths may cross several times over the next several years, so I am hopeful that we will become friends.

Second, Mr. Fick strikes me as exactly the kind of individual we need to encourage to find a place in public service – either in an elected or appointed capacity. The combination of brilliance and well-grounded decision-making that characterized Nate’s military leadership career is precisely what is needed to steer our nation through the rocky shoals that lie before us. Fick seems to embody all of the best traits of a John McCain. I look forward to seeing him take the additional tools he is now acquiring on the banks of the River Charles and pouring them in a meaningful and substantive way into the stream of our public discourse and policy-making. If I do have an opportunity to develop a relationship with Nate, I hope to be able to influence and encourage him in this direction.

I am confident that any thoughtful reader – regardless of political persuasion or views on the war in Iraq - will find this book to be a worthwhile investment of time and thought.


(FYI - I have posted a slightly different version of this review on Amazon.com)



Anonymous said...


This is great post. I missed Nathaniel's reading when he came to Dartmouth, but I'm sure to read his book based on your insightful observations.

Anonymous said...


Your review of this fine book is exactly the reaction I felt reading this book. Being a prior-enlisted Marine, I have recommended this book to everyone here at the Naval Academy. If you ever get a chance to talk to Mr. Fick please let him know that he is welcome to come to Annapolis and speak as I feel his experiences would be a valuable message to students here.
Scott Rosa