In March 2004 Donovan Campbell, then 25, a Princeton grad who decided he'd rather learn leadership skills in the military than in the corporate world, arrived in Iraq with a 40-man infantry platoon called Joker One: late teens and twentysomethings including a Hispanic who read Che Guevara, a tightly wound Filipino, one narcoleptic, and no one who'd seen live combat. They took up their post in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, not knowing it was an explosion waiting to happen-until an April morning when they awoke to loudspeakers blaring "jihad, jihad, jihad!" from the tops of the city's minarets. Campbell had served another tour of duty in Iraq and would go on to serve one in Afghanistan, but Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood (Random House, 2009) is his gripping combat story.
Q: Of your three tours of war duty, was Ramadi in 2004 the most significant?
The deployment to Ramadi was by far the most significant. I never intended to write a book, but I began because, quite simply, I failed my men. It took me about a year after returning from Iraq to realize the magnitude of what we were asked to do and the magnitude of what we accomplished overseas. For a long time, I thought that what we had done in Ramadi was normal, that we had just done what everyone else over there had. But it wasn't. For the entirety of our deployment, we had 160 men to stabilize a city of approximately 350,000-one of us for every 2,200 Iraqis. As the summer of 2004 wound on, we averaged three enemy contacts a day, making us the most engaged unit in Iraq for a good portion of that summer. By the time we returned, we had taken about half wounded-one out of every two men who went over came back hurt. We were told at the time that we had taken more casualties than any battalion, Marine or Army, since Vietnam.
The intensity of the deployment and the unrelenting nature of the fight was unique to us; it wasn't replicated across Iraq. But I didn't realize that at the time, and I therefore failed to write my men enough awards for their heroism. When I realized this fact, and when I realized that my men weren't telling their families about what they had achieved, I determined that I would write down their story for them and email it to them. That the story is now a book is almost an afterthought.
Q: Did urban warfare training at Camp Pendleton prepare you for Ramadi's challenges?
Urban warfare training prepared us for the basics of combat inside a densely populated area, but it didn't prepare us for the specifics. There was nothing in Camp Pendleton that even remotely resembled an Iraqi city with its long, unbroken wall, its densely packed buildings, and the masses of humanity that thronged everywhere. Even little things had to be relearned: Iraq has no building codes, so every stair step height is just a little bit different. You can always tell the new American arrivals because they trip at least 2-3 times on every staircase. And interacting daily with a local population that doesn't speak your language is quite hard-to begin, we had only one translator for 160 men. After a few months we got two more, but one ended up collaborating with our enemies (cell phone records revealed that he called the insurgents every time a convoy left our base) and the other had his head cut off for being loyal to us.
Q: Your platoon was charged with protecting a city full of insurgent enemies. Did your inability to trust Iraqis change over time?
Definitely. What we didn't realize was that the culture gap was so wide, and our forces so thin, that the Iraqi people wouldn't be afforded a realistic chance to understand us before the heavy fighting started. Once it started, they backed the people who they thought were there to stay: the insurgents. It took about three years in Ramadi, and three times the number of forces there, to convince them we would win.
I think that it was inevitable that the United States and the residents of Ramadi would have had this kind of relationship. However, the length of time it took to change it-three years-was not. Had we sent over a much larger occupation force, say, roughly three times what we actually did send, we might have had the manpower to establish the basic rule of law in most major cities, including Ramadi.
Q: You describe U.S. civilian leaders as having "fantasyland plans of stock market exchanges before bothering to turn on the lights." What allowed you (and others) to see U.S. weaknesses in 2004 that the Bush administration didn't address until 2006-07 and that in many ways continue?
We saw the garbage that didn't get picked up, the lights that didn't turn on, the water that didn't run, and the police who didn't show up to work. We saw life as it was actually experienced by Ramadi's citizens, not the mini-America that was the Green Zone [U.S. headquarters in Baghdad]. Quite simply, we lived among the people. We saw the truth from the ground. And we couldn't simply believe only what we wanted to believe, because the daily events wouldn't let us.
Q: Why did you institute platoon-wide prayer of Psalm 23 before each live mission? How did the men respond?
I believed that it worked, that God listened regardless of His response; and I thought that prayer would be our own private pre-battle ritual, one that helped establish our unit identity as Joker One.
My men loved the prayer. In fact, before one mission I was so busy that I forgot to lead the prayer, and I was rushing around in between trucks when I heard a soft murmuring coming from three separate vehicles. It was my three different squads, each praying the prayer softly to themselves. It was at that moment that I realized that my platoon had truly come together.
Q: How long had you been without serious injury or death when your second-in-command Todd Bolding was hit by an RPG? What did it do to Joker One?
We hadn't had a serious injury or death for roughly 3.5 months. Bolding's injury devastated us, but we were back out on patrol the very next day. After something as gruesome as traumatic amputation, you have to get back into the saddle nearly immediately, or you risk never being able to get back there again. . . . I went into what was probably a two-week depression. I didn't want to leave my bed; I didn't want to leave my room; and I certainly didn't want to go out on missions. But I went anyway, even if I wasn't all that useful, because my Marines were going out every single day.
Q: You say at one point "faith and hope had left me, and I despaired." How was that resolved?
The horrors of war did not diminish my view of God or the saving power of Jesus Christ. They simply illustrated more clearly the limits of my own human understanding. Before war, I had the illusion that nearly all of life's events-both the good and the tragic-could somehow be understood and explained. I even demanded it of God. After war, I began to realize just how limited my own ability and understanding truly were. I now have a much better understanding of why God answered Job the way that He did ("Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?"). I have chosen a world with God, which to me means a world of hope, ultimate meaning, and ultimate purpose, over a world without God in which our lives have no ultimate reason for being. If I have to accept that there are some horrors and tragedies that I will never fully understand on this earth, then so be it. That is an acceptable, and reasonable, tradeoff to make for a world that has a just and loving God. And I'm more willing to make it now that I've been humbled through warfare.
Q: Do you commemorate Memorial Day differently now that you've served in two wars? What will you do this Memorial Day?
Honestly, I treat every day differently now that I've served in two wars. I view each day as a gift, not an obligation, and I thank God for each one that I have. This Memorial Day I will pray for the fallen and their families, some of whom I know. I will take a step back from my life and thank God for all of the good things He has given me: my family, my health, my friends. I will take a few moments to reflect on the tremendous responsibility I have to live the one life I have well, for there are so many others who would love a life but who no longer have it.