February 17, 2018

Social Sciences Q&A: Donovan Campbell

By Margaret Heilbrun, Library Journal

In Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership and Brotherhood, Donovan Campbell describes how, as a new Princeton graduate, he chose to join the U.S. Marines, deploying to Iraq, rather than opting for corporate America, because he wanted “to assume responsibility for something greater than” himself, something where, as he put it, daily excellence was demanded because lives hung in the balance. His book is a testament to his platoon’s combat experiences.

“For seven and a half months, from March to September 2004,” he explains, “my company of 120 marines battled day in and day out against thousands of enemy fighters in a city that eventually earned the title of Iraq’s most dangerous place, a city called Ar Ramadi.” After two combat deployments in Iraq, Campbell ended his military career and enrolled at Harvard Business School. He had almost completed the program when he was recalled to military duty and sent to Afghanistan. Ultimately, he attained his MBA and is now an executive at PepsiCo in Dallas, where he lives with his wife and daughter.

For more Iraq War memoirs, don’t miss Douglas Lord’s “Books for Dudes: Soldiers’ Memoirs of Iraq.”

When you joined the marines, had you read anything that prepared you for the realities of a “combat-blooded” platoon, fighting an urban counterinsurgency?

I had read some excellent books about the military and about combat—some of the classics, in fact—but nothing could prepare me for the reality of what battle held. Some things can only be fully understood once they have been experienced, and combat is just one of those things, I suppose.

However, when it came to less visceral subjects like infantry leadership principles or insight into the minds of fighting men and their leaders, I found that James Webb’s novel Fields of Fire [Webb is now U.S. senator from Virginia], Nick Warr’s memoir Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968, and Philip Caputo’s memoir A Rumor of War were tremendously helpful. All sprang from the authors’ experiences fighting in Vietnam. The Vietnam War was the last sustained infantry combat the United States had experienced, so hearing directly from those who had been small-unit leaders then was illuminating.

After returning from Iraq, I read all of those books again and nodded my head in grim agreement. Before the deployment I had read with amazement; now, I read with understanding.

I would probably also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Bible, trite as that might sound to some readers. I have learned the hard way that the weightiest decisions—such as when to grant and when to take life—don’t spring ex nihilo from a particular combination of person and circumstance. These decisions generally come as the sum total of a lifetime of decisions made under less pressing conditions. When making these decisions, it is often useful to use a moral framework. For me, that framework was provided by the Christian Bible. Even though I didn’t always make the right decisions overseas, as I hope the book illustrates, I generally tried to make the best ones I could, ones that placed supreme value on the worth and dignity of the individual.

As you wrote your book, did you imagine a particular kind of reader?

I originally intended the book to be nothing more than a recount of Joker One’s time in Iraq that I could give to my men; I at first imagined only my marines and their families reading the work. Most of the marines I kept up with told me that they hadn’t really shared many, if any, experiences of their time in Iraq. I thought that was a shame, since what they accomplished was, in my opinion, amazing.

Yes, your subtitle notably doesn’t tout Joker One as your story.

I thought about writing for other platoon commanders who had experienced combat overseas. Peers can be the harshest critics, so I determined that I’d do my best to paint an accurate picture of an infantry platoon at work. I had no desire to present us or war as either better or worse than we and it truly were.

Then I imagined a broader audience in America. The war has been talked about ad naseum by very many Americans, but it has been truly experienced by only a tiny fraction of them. I wanted to give an authentic experience of small-unit combat—where the rubber meets the road—to an America that was simultaneously saturated with and insulated from the Iraq War.

Increasing numbers of veterans, as you did, are moving from the battlefield to business school. Corporations clearly value a veteran’s experience both as leader and as team player. From a veteran’s perspective, what accounts for the move into the business world?

Every veteran has his or her own particular reasons, so I hesitate to speak for all of them. However, there are a few reasons I have heard given often enough that they might apply to a slim majority of veterans. One is the unrelenting deployment pace. Most experts estimate that a unit needs three times as long at home as it has abroad if the deployment pace is to be sustainable. When I left the service in 2008, that number ratio stood at just under one to one. In other words, units were spending longer deployed than they were at home. Many veterans cite the family pressure arising from such a deployment pace as a major factor in their decision to leave the service.

Second, there’s a favorable public climate for military service. Today’s public, unlike that during the Vietnam era, generally has a high degree of respect for the sacrifices endured by the military as it prosecutes two overseas wars.

Additionally, as you mention, corporations are noticing that young veterans often have the leadership experience, maturity, life perspective, and personal humility that is often lacking in their peers. Thus, veterans, especially junior officers, find themselves with employment opportunities that are very attractive.

Finally, dissatisfaction with senior military leadership comes up. Many junior officers I’ve spoken with repeat the mantra that their senior leaders (colonels and generals) often just don’t “get it.” It’s important to remember that the current crop of captains and lieutenants know nothing but a military at war, and they’ve all experienced war at the most intimate level, that of the small unit.

By contrast, the current crop of colonels and generals grew up in a military at peace. For them, war is the aberration, and peace is the norm. They were judged not on how they executed their missions in combat and how many of their men they brought home alive but on how many procurement programs they oversaw, how many training accidents they incurred, and how many of their men received citations for alcohol abuse.

At the front of your book, you have two biblical quotes, one being the famous lines from 1 Corinthians, “And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” and the other the lines from the book of Job when God reminds Job of his (God’s) tremendous, unequaled power. Were those lifelines for you during your deployments, and if so, how has their resonance evolved for you?

I wouldn’t say that they were lifelines for me during the deployment. My lifelines during that time were my men, my wife, and a more generalized sense of faith, not these two passages in particular. And, to be perfectly honest, before I deployed I didn’t fully understand the power of love as expressed in Corinthians or the difficulty of suffering as described in Job. So my understanding of both of these passages has definitely evolved over time. I now have a much better sense of why suffering and the injustice it often implies are such difficult obstacles to overcome when trying to put trust in a personal, loving, and ultimately just God. Having experienced tragedy firsthand, repeatedly, I see why many people simply refuse to believe in any sort of God who would allow such things to happen to his created beings on his created Earth.

After hitting a low point in my faith life in Iraq, I ultimately bounced back because I watched the beauty of love unfold in my men. Seeing something so profound in action—and action was generally how we defined love—convinced me that there could indeed be a personal God who loved his creations, who cared about them and their occasional suffering more than they could possibly understand. So the 1 Corinthians passage, and the definition of love that it lays out, helps me wake up each day with hope, helps me believe that there’s more to life than just me, and helps me to trust that there’s something, and someone, who’s ultimately worth serving.

What are you reading these days?

I recently finished Michael Watkins’s The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels, Bill Hybels’s Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs, William Lee Miller’s President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, and Jeff Somers’s The Electric Church, a very good sci-fi novel. And now I’m reading Charles W. Colson and Harold Frickett’s The Faith: What Christians Believe, Why They Believe It, and Why It Matters, Richard Morgan’s Thirteen, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.