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Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away: A Review

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

I'll admit, I was amped to read Nathaniel Fick's One Bullet Away. Opinion shapers consider it one of the best post-9/11 war memoirs--Thomas Ricks just compared it to Kerouac's On the Road--and Fick is a leader of counter-insurgency movement as CEO for the Center for a New American Security. As the main characters of Evan Wright's popular war-memoir-turned-HBO-mini-series Generation Kill, Fick and his platoon are practically celebrities, at least in the military community.

One Bullet Away exceeded my expectations for the first 100 pages. Its opening is straight-forward and honest, refreshing after too many memoirs that got bogged down trying to be artistic or hyperbolic. Fick depicts his brutal training with little extra flash. Though over all I liked The War I Always Wanted better, the first 100 or so pages of One Bullet Away are the best 100 pages of memoir I've read so far. Which means...

The next 284 aren’t as good, especially since nothing much new seems to happen after they invade their first city. First, One Bullet Away has structural problems it never overcomes. The second problem is one of honesty. I think--out of love for his men and his corps--Fick omitted details that would have made the memoir more readable, and more real.

Structural Problems

Not enough happens to justify the book's 372 pages; the book is about 100 pages too long. Fick and his platoon invade city after city, again and again and it reads like Groundhog Day: each town identical to the one they just left.

The larger problem is that Fick never really builds to anything. The excitement of war gets in the way of anything really happening. It’s like that scene in Adaptation, where McKee tells Charlie Kaufman that screenplays and film are about change. Well, nothing changes in One Bullet Away. These are people, not characters, so they have no character arcs. Cities are razed to the ground, but this happens before or after the narrator reach them. Change happens to the people of Iraq--like the little boys the platoon shoots--but they are EVAC'ed away, out of the memoir.

In the end, Fick and his men leave Iraq as quickly as they entered it, merely an invasion force, not an occupying force. If war changed them, the change occurs after the memoir ends.

Many of these problems are inescapable. Characters--often really interesting ones--are introduced and then forgotten seven pages later. Like Sergeant Olds, his Drill Instructor who only appears at the beginning of the book, or the recruit Dunkin who is booted out for taking performance enhancing drugs. Part of this is natural, people in our lives enter and leave with no regard for the novelistic integrity of our life story. Then again, that’s why our lives are our lives, and novels are novels.

Some other stylistic problems: There is way too much dialogue, an awkward closing epilogue and a bad title. One Bullet Away also dives into some clear, easy to understand morals, like when Fick resolves to train harder after the DIs kick out Dunkin, that just don't feel real.

Honesty

The second, more serious problem is that the book is not honest. Fick doesn't lie, he omits. There is a mental dissonance going on through out One Bullet Away, that Fick loves being a Marine, loves his Marines and loves the Corps. But he hates Marine leadership and the danger they put his Marines in. Fick never says this openly; he has to dance around the criticism.

If I had to pinpoint the place where this book falls apart, it is on pg. 156, when Fick introduces his “genial” all-American football player Marine Captain. Fick hates this Captain, but you have to figure this out by reading between the lines. He introduces him in glowing terms, then bit by bit reveals he nearly killed Fick multiple times. This disconnect, between Fick’s feelings for his command and his voicing that disapproval is palpable. It weighs the book down.

Fick also refuses to criticize the Corps. Take Dunkin, the recruit booted for using performance enhancing drugs. If Fick were being honest, he would tell you that steroids are common in the military. But this would portray Marines negatively, so it never comes up again. (After reading Generation Kill, it is clear Fick's men were on all sorts of substances during the invasion, confirming my suspicions.)

On Pg. 48, Fick writes about how his training prepared him for counter-insurgency battles in the future, in a section that feels forced. If the Marines understood counter-insurgency, why do they fight later in the book so much differently than they train? Why did the Marine Corp need to retake Fallujah multiple times? (I want to make it clear, bad COIN is not specific to Marines, but the entire military.) On pg. 106 Fick writes that we went to war to get the people who attacked us, but the invasion in Iraq wasn’t really about that. And he doesn't explicitly explain his platoon's relationship to the eventual Iraq quagmire, though he hints at it.

In Closing

One Bullet Away provides a fascinating opportunity for my post-9/11 war memoir project. Since Evan Wright, a reporter, embedded with Fick and his platoon, we have an outsider's account to compare to Fick's memoir. Next week I'll explain why the Wright's reporting is superior to Fick's.

five comments

Again, this memoir suffers from the same problem as others in my opinion, it is no longer timely. It might have been timely right after the invasion, but now, and even when it was published, it is telling an old story. In my training we encountered this all the time, our instructors had experience from two years before, but it no longer applied.


Everything you write, Eric, sounds pretty logical. And the problems you mention, like lacking honesty, protecting the integrity of his men (well let’s just call it that to be nice), forcing some PR and positive lines in order not to get into trouble… well that’s the usual story isn’t it?!
He wants to get printed, wants to get a couple of things off his chest, but can’t afford to look too negative and to spoil the mood or to talk nasty about his employer.

Sometimes it feels like that to me, as if it’s everywhere like this and it seems, I will never be able to break through the cowardice of my fellow men!
But then again, I can understand – to some degree! – that people choose to keep their heads down, because you have to be willing to make quite some sacrifices if you intend to be completely honest and and that is not something most people are willing to do! The price is high, very high and that’s why usually everybody chickens out!

Michael:
very true but how do you wanna solve that problem?
I think one can only see memoirs as eye witness accounts from a particular timespan. It’s a history lesson.
an alternative would of course be manuals or a book about general experiences which could be applied to multiple tasks…

Have been reading more in “The war I always wanted”. You’re right it really does read like a novel! I’m amazed that he fuzzes with all these cute, irrelevant details, but they do make the book enjoyable/entertaining to read. Must be his upbringing. I mean he really comes from such a safe background! No wonder that his deployment is… well… such a contrast to him! But you know, I also think it’s not such a bad idea either. Most people do need a wake-up call and there’s no harm in getting a taste of the real world. – That is as long as they can handle it!


To be honest Sarah I don’t have a solution for this problem. The Army needs to increase the speed of its learning cycle, and that requires breaking down many Army institutional walls.


Fick is a man of contradictions. In his book he says that he had an epiphany at OCS, and that suddenly the little things like having his belt buckle perfectly in place was connected to keeping Marines alive in combat. Later, though, he chafes at enforcing the grooming standard in the field. That didn’t make much sense to me. If he believes that discipline keeps Marines alive, then why suddenly object to it as petty? The book gave me the impression that Fick was proud to have made it as a Marine officer, being a tough trial and all, but that he also didn’t like the Marine Corps as an institution. In that I found him a disappointment. Fick deserves respect for his service, but his subtle disparagement of his fellow Marine officers was pretty low.


Yeah Brent, those are the sort of sentiments I had. I think people just like to complain/think they know better than everyone else, and it comes across really awkwardly written down.