Thursday, March 05, 2009

Review of “Joker One” by Donovan Campbell – Cutting through the Fog of War with the Lamp of Love

Next Tuesday, March 10, “Joker One” will hit the shelves of the bookstores nearest you. It has already hit me hard. I was privileged to be given a pre-publication copy of the book to read. Before I tell you something of the substance of the book, let me comment briefly about the substance of the author, Donovan Campbell.

I first met Donovan – “Dono” to most of his friends – when he was at Harvard Business School pursuing an MBA degree. I was an invited guest at the annual Marine Corps Birthday bash held at HBS. The last toast of the evening was given by a young Marine I had never seen before. It was an eloquent and moving toast to those who had fallen in combat. I turned to someone beside me and asked:

“Who is that young man? I need to meet him”

“That is Donovan Campbell.”

The next day I was speaking at a Career Fair sponsored by the HBS Armed Forces Alumni Association. After I had given my talk as part of a panel discussion, several students waited to have one-on-time with me. At the end of the line, I recognized Mr. Campbell. When he finally made his way to where I was sitting, he said:

“Sir, several of the things you said today really resonated with me. I would like to discuss them with you. As I begin my time here at Harvard, I want to be sure that I do not miss any of the lessons that God has in store for me to learn here.”

And learn them he did! Donovan graduated with distinction as a Baker Scholar. He used his time at HBS to reflect on his experiences of leading Marines in combat. “Joker One” is the product of those years of distillation and reflection. This book takes its place beside the growing oeuvre of insightful memoirs that are emerging from the experiences that JMO’s (Junior Military Officers) from all of our military branches are sharing as they return from their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Dono sets the scene well in describing why he felt compelled to tell the story of his USMA unit, dubbed “Joker One”:

“Now, nearly three years after that August day [in Ramadi], those Marines and I have long since parted ways. Our time together in Iraq seems like someone else’s story, for there’s nothing in America even remotely similar to what we experienced overseas, nothing that reminds us of what we suffered and achieved together. And none of us have really been able to tell that story, not fully, not even to our families, because each small telling takes a personal toll. No one wants to suffer the pain of trying to explain the unexplainable to those who rarely have either the time or the desire to comprehend. So, many of us have simply packed our war away and tried hard to fit into normalcy by ignoring that time in our lives.

But our story is an important one, and I believe it’s worth telling truthfully and completely no matter what the cost.” (Page 7)

This past week, I had the privilege of hearing Medal of Honor recipient, Captain Paul Bucha, speak to a small gathering in Chicago. In talking about the price that our young soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen are paying as they fight the war on terror, he highlighted the relentless OP-Tempo (Operational Tempo) and intensity of combat. He compared the time in combat experienced today with that of previous wars. In his opinion, there is no comparison. Never before in history have U.S. troops been asked to keep up combat operations day after day, week after week, month after month with virtually no break. Campbell describes this phenomenon as it impacted his unit, Joker One:

“During our entire deployment, I prayed for something other than this standard day, for a respite from the unrelenting pace of combat, but a break never came. Instead, we fought and fought and fought until, on our return, one out of every two of us had been wounded – a casualty rate that, we were told, exceeded that of any other Marine or Army combat unit since Vietnam.” (Page 8)

Dono’s humility in describing his pilgrimage to becoming a leader fit to face the challenges that were thrown at Joker One makes this book a compelling and moving read. He paints an honest and sometimes ugly picture of his personal struggles and those of his marines and the officers who commanded them to learn both to take lives and to save lives – depending on the circumstances.

“So, that’s me: an ordinary young man who once made the choice to serve. I wish I could present someone greater to the reader, someone whose exploits and whose fame could automatically make people sit up and pay attention to the story of my men, but I can’t, because I’m not that someone. However, to this day I love my Marines with all that I’m capable of, and in spite of my shortcomings I want to do my utmost to help tell their tale. Though I can’t offer myself to the reader, I can offer my men, and I can tell a true story with love and heartfelt emotion from the inside. And I hope and I pray that whoever reads this story will know my men as do I, and that knowing them, they too might come to love them.” (Page 10)

I found Dono’s intimate tale of Joker One’s struggles with combat in Ramadi to be deeply moving. One of the unit’s Marines, a man by the name of Bolding, lost both of his legs from an RPG attack. Campbell shares the depth of the despair that he had to deal with in the wake of Bolding’s traumatic injuries. His account of those moments is among the most raw and honest and transfixing of any war memoir I have read. The context for this excerpt is that Campbell has just briefed his Marines on what has happened to Bolding and how they will respond by continuing to pursue their mission:

“Now, almost every one of my Marines was nodding. Some were still crying and some were still dry-eyed, but they were nodding along with the words. I looked at Teague. He was nodding, too, and I knew that I had gotten through.

As soon as I knew this, though, the mantle of leadership crumbled, and the full weight of what had happened finally overwhelmed the tactical numbness. The dull rage died, and in its place I felt only tremendous sadness and the crushing feeling of failure. Because of my decisions, one of my Marines had lost both of his legs. It may not have been my fault, but it was certainly my responsibility because everything that happened to my Marines was my responsibility. That’s one of the first things you learn as an officer, and if you’re a leader who’s any good at all, then as you go on you know that you always err on the side of taking too much responsibility until the weight crushes you, and then your men pick you up, and then you take still more responsibility until they need to pick you up again.

Staring at the Marines, I started getting crushed, and I started losing it. Tears welled up, and I choked them back and probably finished up the talk with a few inane, meaningless sentences. Then, I literally turned on my heels and fled the room, helmet in hand, for the filthy, excrement-encrusted, piss-stained Iraqi bathroom down the hall and to the right. I arrived there blind from tears and banged open the door with my shoulder. Then I sunk to the ground, curled up on myself, and cried and cried and cried.

I didn’t know it, but the Gunny had noticed my abrupt departure. Maybe ten seconds after I crashed through the door, he opened it very gently and looked in on me. I didn’t see him then, and in fact I didn’t notice the Gunny’s presence at all until he sat down next to me and wrapped his arms around me. Instinctively, I hugged him back, buried my face into the rough Kevlar of his shoulder, and sobbed. He told me that it was alright, and then he didn’t say anything at all.” (Page 231)

Despite the rigors of war, the breakneck pace of combat operations, and the devastation of losing brothers in arms to injury and death, Campbell and his men were able to maintain an overall positive outlook on life as they prepared to leave Iraq and return home. They were to return very different men, to be sure, than those who had landed in the war zone so many months before.

“Fortunately, the rest of Joker One picked up the slack [for a depressed Campbell] as we approached our final two weeks in Ramadi. In spite of their weariness, in spite of the ever-increasing strain, Bowen, Noriel, Teague, and all of my other team leaders made one last push to the finish. They inspected their men with care, planned their missions in detail, and gently corrected me when I made mistakes. They held themselves together, and watching them lead, I started a slow recovery, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Their men were even more amazing. The Mahardys and the Hendersons and the Guzons – the ones who’d deployed with barely two months of training and who’s kept me awake with worry on the plane flight over – had been transformed from wide-eyed recruits into slit-eyed combat veterans. They’d seen all the horrors of war firsthand, again and again, but somehow, someway, they retained their faith in each other and in their mission. They knew with unshakeable certainty that the Corps was strong and that Joker One was strong and that given enough time, we’d both prevail no matter what the circumstances.

They loved one another and their mission – the people of Ramadi – in a way that I didn’t fully appreciate until just a few days before we left the city, during the second week of September. I’d run into Mahardy, smoking outside the hangar bay as usual, and I’d asked him the standard throwaway question: Was he excited to go home? The response shocked me.

On the one hand, Mahardy said, he was excited to see his family, but on the other, he was sad to leave before the job in Ramadi was finished. . . Furthermore, going home meant that his new family, Joker One, wouldn’t be around all the time like they were now. Mahardy loved the guys, he said, and he wasn’t sure what he’d do without them there.” (Page 299-300)

At the end of the day, paradoxically, this war story is a story about love. This is a love story that comes out of the leather-tough Marines Corps. In that regard, Campbell’s book reminds me of Bill Murphy’s book about the West Point class of 2002, “In a Time of War.” That story, about Army soldiers, also turns out to be about love, as well. How ironic. How poignant.

Review of “In a Time of War”

My overall impression – after reading through this book for the second time – is that through his writing, Donovan Campbell shines a warmly loving fog light that offers a modicum of hazy illumination through the nimbus that is the fog of war. Dono joins Dante in limning a description of a ring of Hell that few of us could imagine

It is not a picture that is easy to apprehend or to comprehend. But for those who are willing to invest the time, energy and tears that it takes to journey through the pages of this memoir, the destination is one of greater understanding, empathy and appreciation of what Campbell, his Marines and their ilk have endured to be faithful to their call to be Semper Fi.

I challenge you to take “the time and the desire to comprehend.” You won’t be sorry.

As I write this review, I have paused to listen to the Podcast of today’s edition of NPR’s acclaimed program, “Fresh Air.” I encourage you to listen to Donovan Campbell’s interview with Terry Gross.

NPR Fresh Air Link

Here is a link to the official Website for the book, "Joker One." You can order the book through this site, through or pick it up at a bookstore.

Joker One Website



Anonymous said...

i listened to dono interview on fresh air i never heard so much emotion from one person i wish everyone could hear his story he is a role model not these jerky ball players making WAY too much money!

Rose City Reader said...

Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful review. I just finished Joker One and my very short review is posted here on Rose City Reader. I thought this was a tremendously good book and wish I had read it months ago.

I would like to link to your review on mine. If that is OK with you, please leave me a comment on my post so I can find it and I will add the link.

Rose City Reader said...

I added a link to your review on my post. Thanks for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the good review, I have to read Joker One for one of my literature classes and I think I have a better picture of what I will read now!

Anonymous said...


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hi I have to read Joker One for one of my literature classes and now I have a better picture of what I will be reading the following days, thanks for the good review

Scott said...

My favorite part was when Campbell forced his men, even the atheists, to pray before each mission.

I hate the constitution, and how it prevents people in authority of forcing religion onto others. I think we as Christians should force non-believers to pray, and stone them to death if they don't.