Skip to main content

'Joker One': A Marine's Memoir Of The War In Iraq

Former marine Donovan Campbell led a platoon against insurgents in Iraq. His memoir of his experiences is Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood.

51:26

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20090305
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
'Joker One': A Marine's Memoir Of The War In Iraq

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Save lives, take lives. That’s how
Donovan Campbell thought of his job description when he was a platoon
leader in Iraq, a job in which he says it was sometimes easy to think
rapidly and incoherently in combat, and to risk leading your men to

their deaths while believing you’re leading them to safety.

Campbell’s new memoir is about leading his infantry platoon of 40
Marines in street-by-street, house-by-house combat, outnumbered and
outgunned in nearly every battle by insurgents.

This was from March to September, 2004 in Ramadi, which was then one of
Iraq’s most dangerous cities. Roughly half of the men in his company
came home wounded. One man in his platoon never made it home.

Campbell served two tours in Iraq, then one in Afghanistan. He’s a
graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School and
finished first in his class at the Marines Basic Officer Course.

He was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and Bronze Star with Valor for
his time in Iraq. His memoir is called “Joker One,” which is what his
platoon was called.

Donovan Campbell, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by asking you to
read a paragraph from page five, because it says a lot about your vision
of leadership during combat. And I also think it shows what a good
writer you are. So would you read it for us?

Mr. DONOVAN CAMPBELL (Author, “Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of
Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood”): Certainly, Terry.

(Reading) To be a good combat leader, you must have absolutely no
concern for your own safety. You can’t think of home. You can’t miss
your wife, and you can’t wonder how it would feel to take a round
through the neck.

You can only pretend that you’re already dead and thus free yourself up
to focus on three things: finding and killing the enemy, communicating
the situation and resulting actions to adjacent units and higher
headquarters and triaging and treating your wounded.

If you love your men, you naturally think about number three first. But
if you do, you’re wrong. The grim logic of combat dictates that numbers
one and two take precedence.

GROSS: That’s Donovan Campbell, reading from his new memoir “Joker One:
A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood.” Would
you describe what your mission was in Iraq?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Our mission in Ramadi shifted over time. But when we went
in, we were what was called an economy-of-force effort, and that stayed
consistent. And that mission essentially meant that we were there simply
to free up other forces to do another probably more important mission,
which was actually take the city of Fallujah.

Fallujah at that time, it was early 2004. It was known as an insurgent
hotbed. I think the Marines anticipated they would have to go in and
clean out this – you know, fight block by block inside the city. And
that’s why Ramadi was an economy-of-force mission.

Now underneath that mission, we had another mission, which was to
stabilize or bring security and stability to the city. Once I think that
proved difficult, if not impossible to do with the number of men we had
in the city, our mission then became keep the main lines of
communication, the main roads, open.

GROSS: Your division’s motto was first, do no harm. No better friend, no
worse enemy.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Absolutely.

GROSS: And as you point out in the book, it’s kind of odd to have a line
from the Hippocratic Oath in a military motto. So why did your division
use first, do no harm?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I think they were ahead of the curve a little bit. They
understood that if you look at your mission from a long-term
perspective, what you’re really trying to do is gain legitimacy among
the people of Iraq.

And oftentimes, that long-term mission conflicts with the short-term
mission of kill your enemies and capture their leaders, because
sometimes when you do raids or when you’re in a firefight and you are
doing your best to kill your enemies, you can create more enemies in the
long term than you end up removing at that point in time. Or you create
resentment among the people.

That may kill your longer-term mission, even if it allows your shorter-
term mission of defeat the enemy in combat to succeed.

So I think they were trying to instill in us a sense that, hey, you’ve
got a broader purpose here than just to kill the bad guys. And I think
they were absolutely right.

GROSS: Part of your mission in Iraq was to help Iraqis, to kind of win
them over. But you started to get very cynical.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes.

GROSS: For instance, you’d give kids gifts, little things, candy, stuff
like that. And then sometimes they would turn around and stone your men.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes.

GROSS: What kind of dilemma did that present for you as a platoon leader
when your men were getting stoned by children?

Mr. CAMPBELL: It presented all kinds of dilemmas, ranging from how do I
take care of my men but at the same time achieve the longer-term
mission, or do I sacrifice the well-being of my men or even the lives of
my men if it means the success of the longer-term mission? How do I even
know that the longer-term mission is succeeding? How do I know that the
decision I make right now is directly impacting the long-term mission?

And these are decisions you have to make or dilemmas that you’re put in
that you have to respond to within a matter of seconds sometimes, and
that’s tough. That’s just tough to do well and consistently. And over
time, when you’re doing your best and you can’t see the perception of
the Iraqis because you can’t speak their language and you have very few
translators, you become cynical because all you know is what you’re
trying to do, how often you jeopardize your own safety or how often you
risk the lives of your men to make them better or to avoid doing
something that would hurt a civilian.

And all the while, you have no idea what their perspective is because
there just aren’t enough of you to interact with them regularly, and you
don’t have the linguistic capabilities to do so.

GROSS: Could you give us an example of a time when the children turned
on your men and stoned them and you had to make one of those split-
second decisions about what to do?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I think it was during my very first patrol through one of
the tougher areas of town, and we were patrolling on foot because one,
we’re light infantry, and that’s what we tend to do anyway, but two, we
had not enough Humvees at that point in time to actually put an entire
40-man platoon in them.

So we were walking through one of the tougher areas on foot, and we’d
handed out the small amount of gifts that we had on us. And I was at the
very front of the platoon, of a long column. So I was maybe 200 meters
away from the end of the platoon, and I get a report from the back and
over my headset radio that says hey, sir, the kids are throwing rocks at
us.

And I thought, oh, no big deal. So I said hey guys, don’t worry about
it. Just keep moving. And then another report came in. It was from one
of my strongest and toughest Marines, and he said hey, sir, these are
big rocks and they really hurt. And when he said that, I knew that my
men were actually being literally stoned, and I had no idea what to do.

Do you tell them to throw rocks back? Do you tell them to fire a warning
shot? I wasn’t going to do that, but that thought certainly crossed my
mind. I honestly had no answer to that dilemma, and so I paused to
consider it. And then one of my team leaders called back to say hey,
sir, no worries. We fixed it. We found an older man. We pointed to the
kids, and he shooed them away. And I can’t say enough good things about
my team leaders. A lot of times, they saved us, and they saved me.

GROSS: Now you write, you know, in trying to do the right thing with
Iraqis and trying to help that you say our kindness was perceived as
weakness by the insurgents and by most of Ramadi’s citizens that you
were nicknamed – I don’t know how to pronounce this – Awat(ph)…

Mr. CAMPBELL: I think so.

GROSS: Which is an Iraqi Arabic term for a soft sugar cake that crumbles
easily to the touch.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yup.

GROSS: Why were you perceived as crumbling easily to the touch?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAMPBELL: I think, at least for my platoon’s level, we didn’t fire
back very often. We had been shot at a few times, and we didn’t fire
back. I think we smiled and waved quite a bit. So we were doing some
larger things like not shooting, and we were doing some smaller things
like changing our demeanor to make us appear more friendly.

I think also that we sort of didn’t understand the nature of the enemy
we were fighting and how easily they were able to insert themselves into
the citizens’ daily lives, i.e., how easily they were able to, say, walk
into someone’s home and say, you know, we’ll use this to attack
Americans tomorrow. We’re going to stage our weapons here. And if our
weapons are gone and you’re still here, we will simply kill you. And we
couldn’t be present in enough homes to convince the people that we would
secure them.

So they had a very limited snapshot of us, if you will. They had, I
think, a pretty good insight into what our opposition was like.

GROSS: When you realized that Iraqis were perceiving you as soft, did
you change how you approached Iraqis and what side of yourself you
showed?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes. We changed how we approached Iraqis, but it wasn’t
when we realized that they perceived us as soft. It was when we had our
first major battle. And after that, we definitely changed our approach a
little bit because we didn’t think that the one we had was working as
well as we would have liked, but also we had to because we were fighting
so often after that.

We just didn’t have the time to win hearts and minds. We were too busy,
you know, moving very quickly from one place to the next and getting
shot at in the meantime and then getting shot at when we got to the
place we were going and then getting shot at when we left that place.

And so there just wasn’t a lot of time to stop and talk to the local
shopkeepers and ask them how they were doing and talk to the local
families and ask them if anyone unusual had been around. We just
couldn’t do that. We were too busy moving from open space to open space
and getting shot at in the interim.

GROSS: My guest is Donovan Campbell. His new book “Joker One” is a
memoir about leading a platoon in Iraq in 2004. More after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Donovan Campbell, and he’s
written a memoir about his time leading a platoon in Ramadi in Iraq,
fighting urban combat. And his book is called “Joker One.” Joker One was
the name given his platoon.

There’s a story you tell in your book. You’re in a convoy. You’re
attacked by an RPG. It missed your Humvee. You don’t know if any of your
men are killed or wounded. You can’t hear yet because you’ve been
deafened by the blast. You don’t really know what’s happened, and you’re
not sure what to do. What did you do? What was your first instinct? What
did you do?

Mr. CAMPBELL: My first instinct was always which of my guys are hurt,
and what do I need to do about it? But then what you do is very
different because you put that aside and you say what I do now is figure
out what the enemy’s situation is. Where is the fire coming from? How
many of them are there, and how do I move my men against them? How do I
communicate the situation to adjacent units or to higher units so that I
can get reinforcements if need be, and only thereafter who’s wounded,
and what do I do with them?

So in that case, I actually think that I was in an observation post,
i.e., inside of a hardened building. And I pick myself back up off the
floor and my ears are ringing, and I literally ran from room to room,
just asking my Marines what do you see out of the window? What do you
see out of the window? Where are they coming from? What are you firing
at - until I could build a complete picture of what was going on. And
fortunately for me, my squad leader was doing the exact same thing.

And so we met up sort of in the middle of the building almost by chance.
We said, okay, here’s what we need to do. And then I said oh, by the
way, how many of our guys are wounded? Because I just assumed I had had
a least a few wounded and maybe one or two killed because it was such a
big rocket. And he said none, sir.

I did a double-take and said are you - that can’t be right. We certainly
must have been wounded. He said no.

GROSS: So once you had a kind of semi-picture of what had happened
around you, what action did you take?

Mr. CAMPBELL: It depended on the situation. In that situation, the enemy
was melting away pretty quickly. So I called the headquarters to let
them know where the attack had come from. I positioned my men to keep
returning fire for as long as they could, but it was pretty obvious that
they wouldn’t shoot for very long.

And then I just thought if they could send, if higher headquarters could
send someone out to sort of sweep the 300 meters to our north were the
enemy was pulling back into a number of buildings, but I didn’t move
anyone, in this case, out of the hotel because we only had 12 people,
and you’re trying to move out of a place into a city of about 300,000.

It’s very, very difficult to do so securely or do so in such a manner
that you won’t get your men shot or killed in the process and still
effectively find and defeat the people who are shooting at you.

When someone walks a block away in a city as densely populated as that,
for all intents and purposes, they’re gone.

GROSS: That’s one of the problems of urban combat.

Mr. CAMPBELL: It’s one of the very big problems with urban combat. Urban
combat negates a lot of our technological advantages simply because a
lot of the things that we’ve set up and can employ are designed for
wide, open spaces where we can find the one person amongst the trees or
amongst the rocks. But when you’re looking for one person in the midst
of call it 1,000, it’s like looking for a needle in a stack of needles,
and it’s just very hard to do with technology.

You need to have men, men on the street with human judgment, and that’s
very, very important.

GROSS: There was one time you got caught on concertina wire, that like
barbed wire with razors as the barbs.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah.

GROSS: How did you get onto it, and how’d you get yourself off?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, I got onto it because I thought I was more athletic
than I turned out actually to be. You know, the think as I mention in
the book, my vertical leap is terrible. I don’t even - you know, I don’t
think I ever made a basketball team in my life.

But I was running towards this wire, and I thought I would be able to
leap it. And it’s probably about – comes out to about mid-thigh, and
it’s in coils. So the top of the coil comes up to the middle of your
thigh, and I tried to hurdle it.

I don’t know what I was thinking. And instead of hurdling it, I just
landed squarely in the middle of it with both feet, and at that point in
time, I was being fired at. So my thought process about getting out
wasn’t, you know, how do I avoid ripping my legs up and how do I do this
carefully and gingerly. It was, you know, let me rip my legs out of this
as quickly as possible. So the answer to how did I get out of that I
think was brute force and sheer terror.

GROSS: And what happened to your legs as a result of ripping yourself
off of it?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, I got a bunch of, you know, nasty scrapes along my
calves and the bottom of my thighs, but that was it. It certainly beat
getting shot.

GROSS: Right. Did it get infected? Because I know that’s been a problem
for wounded soldiers in Iraq.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Those did not get infected, and I don’t think very many of
my men had major infections as a result of just small scrapes and cuts
like that. We did have a few folks who were wounded by shrapnel who had
some pretty nasty infections, and I think actually had their wounds
worsen as a result. But we had phenomenal corpsmen.

I can’t say enough good things about Navy corpsmen, because the Marines
don’t provide their own medical services. We get ours from the Navy. And
our two docs, we call our corpsmen docs, were just awesome. And they
actually lived in the exact same compound as my Marines.

And so at any given point in time, I could go in there, and my docs
would have, you know, one Marine with his pants down and they’d be, you
know, swabbing a cut on his leg, or they’d be looking at my men’s feet
and making sure they were in good shape, or they’d be telling them to
push water – push water, i.e., they’d be telling them to drink water.
And I think that they – for my men, they did a phenomenal job, and it
was just a blessing to have them around.

GROSS: You say once the insurgency started and a lot of the people in
Ramadi turned against you, that your attitude toward killing changed,
and you started actually taking satisfaction every time someone in your
platoon killed someone. Did that worry you, that sense of satisfaction
in killing?

Mr. CAMPBELL: No, not at the time. And I can’t speak for everyone else.
I’m talking simply about my own perception at that point in time, and I
was so tired of being shot at and not shooting back or being shot at and
just watching the enemies melt away and maybe getting one or two shots
off and then not being able to shoot anymore that every time we finally
had a chance to shoot at one of the people who was attacking us day in
and day out and actually know that we had some effect, I was happy. I
don’t know of any other way to say it.

It did not bother me because - and I will tell you - every time that I
saw that we shot, we shot at someone who was first shooting at us. We
almost never – in fact, I don’t know that I can think of a single time
that we shot at someone before they shot at us.

GROSS: There was one time you had to decide, very quickly, whether to
order that one of your men shoot a man who was carrying an AK-47 that he
was trying to conceal.

You didn’t know who the man was. You didn’t know if he meant you harm.
How did you make the decision, and what decision did you make?

Mr. CAMPBELL: How did I make that decision? I made that decision with a
lot of difficulty, but I sat there and I thought, and I did this in the
space of about five seconds or so, and the first thing I thought of was
sort of the overall context.

We’d been fighting for two straight days against an enemy force inside
of Ramadi whose size estimates varied from, you know, 500 to 1,200
people, and there was about 120 of us. And I thought to myself, well,
that’s the context of the last few days. That’s sort of what’s been
happening yesterday and the day before that. And today will probably be
much like that.

I thought it was very unusual for someone to be standing on the street
corner with an AK-47 concealed underneath their jacket. We just didn’t
see that that often when we were walking around.

So in addition to the broader context, I thought of the
(unintelligible). Is this unusual? Do I see this a lot, or do I not see
this a lot? Is this something that stands out?

Then I thought well, where are the rest of my – the other platoons in
the city who are moving towards this man? Are they near? Are they close?
Do I have a little bit of time? And it turns out that they were just a
block or two away, and so I didn’t have a lot of time to just sort of
watch and see what he did.

So given that we didn’t have a lot of time and given that what he was
doing was fairly unusual and given that we’d been fighting for two days
straight, I made the decision to order him to be shot. And I stayed
awake, you know, for a few weeks after that, wondering if I had made the
right one.

GROSS: So one of your men shot and killed him, and you later found out
who the man was. Who was he?

Mr. CAMPBELL: We found out that what he was was a bodyguard for a sheikh
who was also a crime lord. I guess a lot of times those two titles are
somewhat hazy. And so we found out that he was that sheikh’s bodyguard,
that the sheikh was actually responsible for a number of criminal
activities inside the city of Ramadi and that after his bodyguard had
been shot, he left town.

And that didn’t really make me feel any better or any worse. It was what
it was. But finding that kind of thing out later on is very unusual. I
was surprised that that happened.

GROSS: Donovan Campbell will be back in the second half of the show. His
memoir about leading a platoon in Iraq is called “Joker One.” I’m Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Donovan Campbell.
His new memoir “Joker One” is about his experiences leading a platoon of
40 Marines in Iraq, fighting with insurgents street by street in city of
Ramadi. The memoir is about the difficult split-second decisions you
have to make in combat, the competing missions of wining Iraqi hearts
and minds while fighting Iraqi insurgents, and the competing impulses of
wanting to protect your men and wanting to fulfill your mission which
will put your men in harm’s way. Half of the men in his company returned
home wounded.

There’s a story I’d like you to tell, and this is - your men had
arrested a lot of insurgents in a housing compound. And then all women
from the compound were standing outside wailing in that ululation kind
of high-pitched wail.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah.

GROSS: And I want you to describe the scene, and then tell us what
happened.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Certainly. We had done our raid as part of a number of
raids that our company had done. And the company in this case is four
platoons, or about 160 men. So there had been, call it about eight
houses that had been raided from about 1 a.m. to call it 7 a.m. in the
morning. And what we had - they all tended to line up along one dirt
road to the north of Ramadi, so it was this long line of houses. And
what we have done was taken all of the people that we had detained from
the houses and moved them down into one house sort of at the end of this
row. Well, after we did that, a lot of the relatives of the detained men
- their wives, their children - came out of the houses and sit along
this dirt road and started walking down, or congregated near the one
house where we had detained them.

So basically, you had this long line of houses with families coming out
of them, all walking down this dirt road, and they were all grieving.
And of course they were grieving. And it was heartbreaking, Terry. The
little girls were crying. The women were crying. They were rubbing dirt
on face. They were slapping themselves. And it was hard on me, and I
could tell you it was very hard on my men. And I wanted to tell them,
look, you know, your husbands and your brothers - they’ll probably be
coming back. We’re not like Saddam. We don’t take people away and you
never see them again. You know, we don’t torture them. They should be
all right.

You know, we’re not bad people. I promise. I don’t want to rip your
family apart. I promise you. I’ve got one of my own back home. I’m just
a person. And it was hard. We couldn’t tell them that because I couldn’t
speak Arabic. And…

GROSS: So that meant to make matters worse, the men that were detaining
were in a truck with some of the Marines. The truck drove into a ditch
and overturned.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah.

GROSS: And describe what happened after that.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, my goodness. It was very difficult. It was terrible.
The women just redoubled their crying, and the screams of grief got even
louder. And, you know, our medics just ran, sprinted to the scene.
Everyone who was close by just sprinted to the scene and started
helping. And some of our - I think one of our guys had a broken arm, and
he never returned. I think another one of our drivers was severely
wounded. And the detainees, the Iraqis were wounded even worse. And our
medics ran over there, and they started working on them because it was
pretty obvious that our - that the Marine casualties weren’t as severe.
And so they were working on them, and all that I could do was sort of -
because I was quite a ways away - was watch the medics work and then
look over at the families and watch them grieve.

And it felt terrible to be in the middle of those two processes and just
feel powerless to help, either since I didn’t have enough medical
training to be able to run over there and do what the medics were doing.
I didn’t have the Arabic skills to be over there and talk to the
families. And it was just terrible to be the middle of that. And…

GROSS: It must have felt like such a catastrophe, you know, because,
like, first, you know, you’re taking the insurgents away, the women and
children are weeping and hitting themselves, and then the truck with the
insurgents - or the alleged insurgents - overturns and people have like,
you know…

Mr. CAMPBELL: Spilled out.

GROSS: Yeah. The people on truck have just kind of spilled out into the
streets, like, bloodied and injured. So, yeah. And then you felt
helpless not being a medic. So what happened to the men afterwards, the
men who you had detained?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I don’t know. I don’t know. I know that some of them went
to the hospital. I know that we evacuated the most seriously wounded.
And I think they went to, actually medical - American Medical hospital
on - at the Army base, because that was the best care in the city at the
time over and above the Iraqi hospital. But as to what happened to the
rest of them, I have no idea. And like you said, I don’t know whether
they are insurgents or not, Terry. They were men we detained. And I
don’t know…

GROSS: Were there a lot of days like that, where things that were really
terrible ended up with some kind of question mark, and then you just
like never know what happened? Like there’s a catastrophe that you
witness that your men are involved with, and then you just never know
what the final consequences are.

Mr. CAMPBELL: You’re absolutely right. And as tough as it is to say, a
lot of that just life in a war zone. It’s so chaotic. It’s so uncertain.
It’s characterized by a breakdown of pretty much every social
institution you can think of. Maybe the only one that remains intact is
the family. And when nothing is working, it’s almost impossible to get
resolution on a lot of issues. It’s just very hard. And that’s, I think,
one of the reasons you get very tired after long enough. It’s just hard
to deal with chaos everyday.

GROSS: My guest is Donovan Campbell. His new book “Joker One” is a
memoir about leading a platoon in Iraq in 2004. We’ll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Donovan Campbell, and he
was a platoon leader in Ramadi in Iraq, where he led his platoon in
urban combat against insurgents. He’s written a new memoir called “Joker
One.” “Joker One” is the name that was given his platoon. You know,
worst fear was that you’d lose one or more of your men in combat, and
you only lost one man. You had injured men, but only one guy in combat.
And it was a day when you woke up with a terrible feeling, thinking
something was going to go terribly wrong. You kind of had a premonition,
and you didn’t even want to leave. But, of course, you had to. You had
an assignment. What was your assignment that day?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I’ll tell you my assignment, but before I answer that, let
me make something clear. I had two worst fears. One of them was that my
- one of my men would be injured or killed under my command. The other
one was that we would injure or kill someone we didn’t need to.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Because you can bring all of your men home and do it
dishonorably, and do it in a way that jeopardizes your long-term
mission. You can not bring all of your men home, but have acted
honorably, have acted humanely and done your best to achieve the long-
term mission of protecting the people of Iraq. And as a young leader, if
you got to choose between the two, you got to choose the second. You
have got to choose to sacrifice some of your - or hopefully yourself, if
it means, you know, keeping your honor clean and making the right
ethical decisions day in and day out. Then that’s - you just have to
chose that second path. There’s no other way around it. And it’s very
hard. And it’s very hard to accept as a 24-year-old leader that you have
to make those kind of decisions sometimes.

But our mission on the day that I woke up with a really bad feeling was
to drive to the government center in Ramadi, which was a large complex
of buildings surrounded by about 12-foot high concrete wall that housed
all of the administrative functions - not only the city of Ramadi
operating, but also the entire Anbar province operating. So the police
chief of the province was there. The mayor of the city was there. The
governor of the province was there, and there were a whole host of other
government officials there. And our division commander was having a
meeting with them, and I believe also with some influential local
sheikhs.

And our mission at that facility was two-fold. It was to protect it
while we were inside and to patrol in the vicinity to prevent people
from launching mortars inside of it, because they were very effective at
doing that and often could drop a mortar inside of about a 500-square-
meter target with regularity. Now the fact that that the target was in
the middle of a residential area really didn’t regularly bother the
insurgents. If they missed us and hit the housing compounds around, I
think so be it was their mentality.

GROSS: So how did you do lose your man?

CAMPBELL: Well, we were doing one of our counter-mortar patrols, and we
had stopped at a local school because one of the things that we did do
was try to pay local contractors to rebuild some of the infrastructure
that had been destroyed either under Saddam or as a result the 03 and 04
fighting. So we stopped at this school to check on the construction, the
pace of construction and to ensure that it was going as he said it was -
the work was actually being done and someone hadn’t just taken the money
and left, which had happened to us before. And it was being done, and
one of our – one of my colleagues had gone in with a translator to look
at the inside of the school. And we stayed there for a little bit. And
when he came back out, a crowd of so many came with him and we started
handing things out to them.

And as we got back in our vehicles to leave the school, we were attacked
from our south, and we were attacked with rocket fire, RPG fire and
machine gun fire. And the rocket, you know, passed quite close to me. My
staff sergeant, my platoon sergeant dove out of the way of it because
they move slowly enough that sometimes you can actually react that way.
And the rocket actually impacted in the crowd of children that were next
to us on the sidewalk. So I just said right then and there, all right,
the first half of us - because we’d sort of planned for situations where
you have to detach part of your - one part of your platoon from the
other. So I said, hey, the part of platoon that, you know, we normally
plan to detach go with me. We’re going to go south. We’re going to chase
these people. The other part stay here, tend to the wounded children.
You know, we’ll be back. So I did that.

After moving about 200 meters south, we came into, you know, a very
heavily populated area. It was like driving into a rock concert because
everyone was walking. And there is absolutely no way that we could find
our attackers. So we drove back to where the rest of my platoon was, and
they had taken as many wounded children as they could and they moved
them inside of a school – of the school, and began tending them.

And every one of my Marines that didn’t have to be posting security was
moving children or taking out their first aid kits and staunching
bleeding and doing whatever it was they could. And my corpsmen were
working feverishly. My two corpsmen were with us, thank God. And I
decided that we would stay there instead of moving because I didn’t -
even though I knew that if we stayed there for another 10 minutes or so
we would get attacked again. That’s just the way it worked at that point
in time. If you’re in the middle of a city and you stayed in the same
place for more than 10 minutes, you would get attacked. It was that
simple.

So I decided we would stay there, and I decided that we would, you know,
post security on the edges of the school and we’d sort of set up a
perimeter and we’d keep searching for more wounded children and make
sure that we tended them and that we would call an ambulance for - an
Iraqi ambulance so that they could be taken to the local hospital.
Because there were just so many wounded of them, I don’t know that we
could have even put them all in our Humvees. And even if we did, we
might have overwhelmed the care facilities that the Americans had in a
nearby base, which are generally reserved for the steady American flow
of casualties. I didn’t know whether they would have the capacity to
treat all, I don’t know, 20 or so wounded children. So we stayed there
and we got attacked again. And in the process, one of my men was
grievously wounded. And he was evacuated, and he made it to Germany. And
then he – sorry, go ahead.

GROSS: Oh, I’ll just say - because I know it might be too hard for you
to say - both of his legs were amputated by, I think, shrapnel from a
missile, or an RPG.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah. Yeah. I’d rather not talk about that.

GROSS: Yeah. One of the men, one of the Marines said to you that you
shouldn’t see what happened to this man because…

Mr. CAMPBELL: That’s right.

GROSS: …it would too upsetting, that you just need to fight and lead
with a clear head. And you took his advice. Was that the right thing to
do?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah. Yeah. I’m eternally grateful for him for doing that,
because I could see sort of over shoulder what was happening, and what I
did see was pretty traumatic. And he was absolutely right. It wasn’t my
job at that point in time to focus just on the one wounded that I had.
It was my job to look outward, to look at where we were being attacked
from and to move my men in such a manner that one, we wouldn’t get
attacked again - and two, we could keep securing the school and keep
securing the children. If all I could do is focus on my one wounded man,
then I couldn’t do my bigger job and no one else could do that bigger
job. And that’s, you know, that’s the responsibility of a lieutenant. So
he was dead on. He was dead on. And I honestly can’t thank him enough
for doing that.

GROSS: You know, and that gets to some - like, one of the sentences in
the reading that I asked you to do at the beginning of our interview in
which you say if you love your men, you naturally think first about
treating your wounded, but it’s your job to keep moving forward with the
mission.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Of course.

GROSS: And that’s the position you were in. Can I just say one thing
before I ask you the next question? And that is I just really respect
the fact that you’re able to speak with obvious emotion about what
happened to you, what happened to your men, what you witnessed in Iraq -
and I know it’s the kind of thing that as you’re going through it, you
kind of can’t allow yourself to feel that kind of emotion because you
have to keep moving. You have to keep thinking. You have to keep
fighting. You have to keep protecting your men. And I just appreciate
that you’re able to, you know, share some of that emotion now in
retrospect, both in your book and in talking with us here. So I just
want to say thank you…

Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, thank you for saying that, Terry.

GROSS: …for that. You know, so did - you make it seem like after this
particular attack, which was so horrible, all these, like, children are
wounded and you lose one of your men - did the men in your platoon want
revenge after that? Did everybody’s kind of whole attitude change after
this attack?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I think for some of them, it changed for a short period of
time. When everything had finished and we had evacuated the children,
we’d evacuated our wounded man, we had a time we were back at the
government center and we were all together, and some of the men were
stunned. And I don’t think their attitude had changed one way or the
other. They were just so stunned that they were just trying to process
it.

I think some of the men definitely wanted to get someone because, you
know, they got one of our guys. But over the long run, their attitude
towards the mission and towards what they were trying to do and towards
acting, you know, honorably and responsibly didn’t change. And I’d like
to think that, you know, my squad leaders and my team leaders did a
really good job of taking the younger Marines - because most of them are
only 18, 19, you know, and 20 - and saying, listen, this was horrible.
This was tragic. But listen, you are a Marine. You don’t act out of
vengeance. You don’t act out of anger. You do what you do because it’s
right and because you have a mission to accomplish.

We cannot afford to do the wrong thing to, you know, quote “get revenge
or to get back.” We can’t do it. Its just wrong, a, and b, it will do
nothing for us to try and win the population over. And you’ve got to go
home, guys. You’ve got to go home, and you will go home. And then you’ll
be a – you’ll - maybe you’ll be a civilian again someday. But you will
be looking your parents in the face. You’ll be looking your friends in
the face. You’ll be looking your wives in the face, and you want to be
able to tell them, you know, what I did overseas, I did honorably.

GROSS: My guest is Donovan Campbell. His new book “Joker One” is a
memoir about leading a platoon in Iraq in 2004. We’ll talk more after a
break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Donovan Campbell, and he led a platoon in Iraq in
Ramadi during the insurgency. So he led a platoon in urban combat. Now
he’s written a memoir about it, which is called “Joker One.” That was
the name given to his platoon. You write in your memoir that at about
this time, you started to get really depressed. It was hard to get out
of bed. You didn’t want to leave. You didn’t want to expose your men to
more risk. You didn’t want to think of more, more dead or more wounded.
And I’m wondering if this is the part of your life that gets to a
sentence that you read at the beginning of the interview about how - to
be a good leader in combat, you have to pretend that you’re already
dead, and thus free yourself to focus on your mission and on protecting
your men. Did you start to feel at this point as if you were already
dead?

Mr. CAMPBELL: It was later that I started to feel that. At that point in
time, I was depressed because I felt like such a failure because, you
know, I got one of my men terribly wounded. And then later, I found out
he didn’t make it. And so, of course, there was, you know, one family
who I would have to tell, look, I, you know, I couldn’t do what I hoped
I would do. And, you know, your son won’t be coming home as a result.

GROSS: You didn’t get him - you didn’t get him killed. I mean, it wasn’t
something that you did. I just feel like I need to say that. I mean,
from what I read in your book – yeah.

Mr. CAMPBELL: No, no, no. But as - I think as an officer, as a good
officer, as a good leader, you need to err on the side of accepting more
rather than less responsibility. You need to err on the side of, you
know, I will take it a little bit too hard rather than taking a little
bit too easy.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. CAMPBELL: I’ll view more things as my fault, if you will, rather
than fewer of them. Because the danger of erring on the other side is so
great that you just - in my opinion, you don’t want to err on that side.
But it was only later that I thought, you know what? I’m just going to
assume I’m not going to make it back from this deployment. I’m just
going to assume that at some point in time, something will happen and I
just won’t make it back. And that way, I don’t need to, you know, I
don’t need to be afraid at night, or I don’t need to be afraid for
myself, I should say, at night or before the missions.

All I need to do is worry about what I got to do tomorrow or what I got
to do this morning and how my men are doing right now. If I just assume
that I’m not going to make it home, it’s a lot easier. And that’s sort
of what I did.

GROSS: So was that liberating, or just deadening?

Mr. CAMPBELL: Liberating.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAMPBELL: It’s a – there’s a - way you’re doing day in and day out
is too intense for it to be deadening. And taking care of your men is so
emotionally involved that you just can’t be deadened. You have to be
emotionally tuned, and you have to be with it and you have to be
carefully observing them if you want to do your job well. So, no, it
wasn’t deadening. But it was liberating.

GROSS: Okay. So then your tour’s over and you go home.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes.

GROSS: You’d started to think of yourself as if you were already dead
because that was liberating in combat. It enabled you to do your job
instead of just being, like, depressed and worrying about your men. So
you return home. Instead of a platoon, you have a wife. It’s time to
live again. But can you start living as if you’re alive again? How long
does it take before you stop feeling like you’re already dead?

Mr. CAMPBELL: I don’t know how long it takes. I know that it happens.
And I think in long term, in the long run, that experience actually made
me much more optimistic and - I don’t know if you want to call it happy,
but, yeah, that might be right word, a happy person. And the only reason
I say that is because every time I have a tough day or a longer day or I
get upset about something, I just ask myself - I calm down, I ask
myself: Am I being shot at? Is anyone going to be wounded as a result of
what has gone wrong today? Is this life or death, or is it something
that will, that will wade in time?

And if it’s not life and death and if my family has their health and if
my wife and daughter are doing well, if my friends are in good shape,
then it - I don’t have very much to complain about. So I think in the
long run, for me personally, it was actually a very good thing. But I
don’t know when the shift occurred from just thinking that I wasn’t
going to make it home to feeling alive again. I don’t know that I ever
felt dead, so to speak. I think it was more of an assumption that I just
wouldn’t come home. And then when I came home, I think I was just so
happy to be in America. And I still feel that I’m just so happy to be
able to drive down a road and not worry about a bomb blowing up that
everything on top of that is just terrific.

GROSS: Just one more question. You’re working on the business world now.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes.

GROSS: And I’m wondering after what you’ve been through in war, after,
like, having to search so deep for your sense of faith, for meaning in
life, for, you know, how to go on after loosing one of your men, does
being in the business world give you the kind of larger meaning that
sent you into the Marines?

Mr. CAMPBELL: It does, but not because I’m pursuing profits. I think if
that’s all you view your job as day in and day out, then you’ll never
find that kind of larger meaning that you’re searching for. I’m very
fortunate in that I’m in a job where I have about 150 people that I
lead. And so my perspective is that every day, I have 150 opportunities
to sort of serve them well and show them a model of servant leaderhood -
leadership that they may not see otherwise.

And I have, you know, 140 livelihoods that I’m responsible for and that
I need to make good decisions to make sure that they’re well taken care
of and that their families are well taken of. And my perspective is, is
if I can do those things, than the business will take care of itself. Of
course I can’t make silly business decisions and spend money like water.
But if I can take care of my folks, if can put their welfare first, if I
can model servant leadership to them, then I think that the business
will take care of itself.

GROSS: Well, Donovan Campbell, thank you so much for talking with us. I
hope you keep writing, because your book’s really well written. Thank
you very much.

Mr. CAMPBELL: Thank you, Terry. It’s been a pleasure.

GROSS: Donovan Campbell’s new memoir is called “Joker One.” He was
awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and a Bronze Star with Valor for his
time in Iraq. He’s currently working for PepsiCo.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
101468628
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

36:13

No More Mr. Nice Guy: Hugh Grant Embraces The 'Blessed Relief' Of Darker Roles

Grant started out in romantic comedies. Now he's up for an Emmy for his role as a narcissistic doctor accused of murder in the HBO series The Undoing. Originally broadcast Dec. 1, 2020.

05:40

Albums By The Murlocs And King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard Explore New Sounds

The Murlocs are a side project of sorts to King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, where Ambrose Kenny-Smith and guitarist Cook Craig join other musicians to amalgamate all different styles of pop.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue