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Donovan Campbell's Joker One: A Review

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

It took me five tries to finish Donovan Campbell’s Joker One. Before I finished it, I read, completed and researched four other books, one play and three movies. That’s all you really need to know about Joker One.

But I’ll go on. The narrator of The Things They Carried warns, “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.” Campbell attempts to salvage meaning from the larger waste land of war. Mainly, he wants the reader to “know my men as I do, and that knowing them...will come to love them.”

As you can tell from my “War Memoirs and the Media” post from last month, Campbell loves his men, absolutely and completely. But as I’ve also written before, while this is a great quality for a leader, it is a lethal one for a writer. Campbell wants to present his story “truthfully and completely,” but he is blinded to his men’s faults.

A perfect example opens the Joker One’s third chapter, when one of Campbell’s Marines is accused of underage drinking. Campbell writes, “[He] had stopped by another Marine’s room to say hello. He found a group of Marines passing around a case of beer, but he hadn’t actually drunk any of it...I believed that my man was guilty of nothing more than wandering into the wrong room.” I don’t. Like Judge Judy says, teenagers lie. And 19 year-old Marines (or Soldiers, or college students, or anyone) drink. They also lie about drinking. I did, he did, everyone did. To trust the Marine seems really naive, and if you can’t trust your narrator, how can you believe anything that follows?

The whole episode leads into something endemic to Joker One’s prose: a discussion on leadership. Campbell discusses/teaches the reader how to fairly mete out punishment. Unfortunately, this type of passage pervades the book. During his first firefight, Campbell describes intentionally slowing his breathing to sound assured. Before each mission, his platoon said a Christian prayer and Campbell explains why in bland leadership terms. At three different points, Campbell describes his platoon going out to “take back the initiative.” Campbell wrote Joker One as a project in business school, so the tone makes sense. But it also lends credence to a pet theory of mine: don’t write your memoirs at business school.

The thing that got me most about the aforementioned Marine drinking passage was Campbell’s larger description of the military’s drinking culture. Campbell writes that, “the peacetime, zero-defects leaders of the 1990s entirely eliminated the drinking culture that has been a proud part of the military heritage...” Wow. Anyone who has spent anytime around the military knows this is ridiculous. The military’s drinking culture is alive and well, and it didn’t go on hiatus in the 1990’s. Specifically, I live right next to Camp Pendleton’s drinking culture--where the incident took place--and Marines never stopped drinking.

But that’s just one of many ridiculous statements in Joker One. He also writes that contractors, specifically Triple Canopy, did a great job in Iraq, that the Army is free of nepotism, and that the Marines used population-centric tactics even though that word hadn’t been popularized yet. He mentions his platoon had atheists in it, but still makes them say the Lord's prayer before their missions. The most egregious statement--after that drinking culture comment--is that Campbell thinks “hajj” isn’t a derogatory term. He writes “‘Hajji’ by the way, was our generic term for the Iraqis...In most instances the term wasn’t meant to denigrate...it was easier than the three-syllable “Iraqi”” In Muslim cultures, it is an honorific; in Army terms, it’s meant as a slur. Campbell just loves his men too much to describe them using racist terms.

He doesn’t love everyone though. Campbell’s ire falls on three of his fellow Marines, Ox, his Executive Officer; his CO; and his staff sergeant (all three characters go unnamed). Campbell spends page after page--never explicitly, he seems incapable of being directly negative--insulting these characters.

I don’t understand this focus. Why complain about Ox, but not complain about the Military that sent in a company to control a city of 600,000? Now that seems like poor planning.

Joker One isn’t all bad. A General gives an anti-Army speech; it makes the Marine Corp. look bad but I appreciated  that Campbell included some embarrassing details. Some of the writing is amazing, including a passage on war wounds, or the description of a dead child Campbell passes in battle.

The end of the book is a dark version of hell, men alone in a foreign country, getting attacked daily by an invisible enemy, struggling to deal with heat, exhaustion and spilt blood. An RPG lands in a group of children. Campbell needs sedation. His tough, imperturbable Gunny’s hand starts shaking. This was a brutal tour, one of the worst since the invasion, but Campbell doesn’t make you feel that. Instead, to the very end, he tries to impress the reader with his evenhanded leadership and faith in Christ. Campbell describes one of the ugliest military tours since 9/11 in one of the most palatable ways possible. He closes Joker One with an essay on love.

Needless to say, he lacks the “uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” necessary for successful war literature.

I should probably clarify, Campbell’s over-riding literary fault, loving his men, is not a bad thing. I want Officers to unconditionally love their men. I just think it makes for bad literature.

One comment

I find it surprising the Campbell would say our military doesn’t have a drinking culture. Maybe the Marines Corp doesn’t but the Army’s is alive and well, especially after deployment.