JOKER ONE: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood.
In 2004, First Lieutenant Donovan Campbell, call sign “Joker One,” commanded the hard-charging leathernecks of 1st Platoon, Company G, 2d Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment in the troubled Iraqi city of Ramadi. In this outstanding work, the infantry officer pays tribute to the leathernecks he successfully led, documenting his small unit’s Iraqi tour of duty.
Campbell is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School, but more notably, he finished first in his class at The Basic School on Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va. With that pedigree, Campbell pens one of the very best books about small-unit leadership in combat.
Ramadi sits squarely in the Sunni Triangle northwest of Baghdad. In 2004, the Sunni minority population considered itself the outsiders in the newly formed, American-backed Iraqi government. And, considering the city’s strong ties with Saddam Hussein and the Baath party, they might have had a good reason to worry.
In early 2004, the Marines of “Golf” Co took over the city’s pacification and protection duties from the U.S. Army. The leathernecks aggressively patrolled the city streets and crowded alleyways. In the ensuing months the company did well, improving the tense relationships with the city’s Sunni population. Campbell writes, “My job description was twofold: 1) save lives and 2) take lives.” In time, Ramadi earned the title of Iraq’s most dangerous place; however, the day-to-day struggle for the city soon was overshadowed by two headline-grabbing battles in another Sunni-dominated city: Fallujah.
Campbell’s book centers on leading his 40-man platoon in combat. His prose vividly highlights his thinking process and the actions of his Marines. The rigors of actively patrolling the city and the constant house-to-house fighting in the face of IEDs, RPGs and AK fire as well as the threat of ambush presented endless challenges. Campbell speaks in detail of the daily tactics to overcome the threats and also the efforts to pacify the populace, gaining the support of the citizenry.
To gain that confidence, his Marines became students of Iraqi culture and values. For instance, to Iraqis, flashing the sole of one’s shoe was held as a horrible insult; also, simply touching a person with the left hand was considered another unforgivable offense.
Early on, Marines were hampered by lack of effective translators and occasionally mistook religious or holy structures as sites to fortify. Time and experience were important elements in winning the respect and cooperation of the general population.
It should be noted that Ramadi never fell to the insurgents, and Golf Co’s commander, Captain Chris Bronzi, was named the best company commander in the Corps for 2004, receiving the coveted Leftwich Trophy. Not simply for the enemy killed, but for the overall pacification job he and his men achieved while under the enormous pressures of urban centered warfare.
Campbell’s discerning book is neither about the brass nor him. It stands as a glowing testimonial to the “grunts” who Campbell led and eulogizes in this volume. The book highlights the Homeric, even mystical, admiration shared among warriors.
In a closing chapter, Campbell writes: “Now I think that I understand a bit more about what it means to truly love, because for my men, love was something much more than emotion … . For them, love was about deeds, not words, and as I reflected that day on the love of my men, a thousand small acts came to mind. Love was why Waters gave Mahardy his last cigarette. It was why Mahardy said, ‘F--- you, I’m not taking your last one,’ and gave it back … . Love—laying down their lives for one another—nearly every single day.”
And when this platoon leader writes that he loved his Marines, as he oft does throughout the text, by golly, he means just that!