February 17, 2018

Q&A: Joker One Author Donovan Campbell

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.