June 1, 2010

REVIEW: One Bullet Away

Nate Fick (D'99) divides his life into three sections: "peace", "war", and "afterward". By page count, "war" is by far the longest.

After completing Officer Candidate School and his A.B. in Classics from Dartmouth, Fick was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Marines and commanded the auxiliary platoon of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines in the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit during the first stages of the War in Afghanistan. As the kind of guy who gets perfect scores on the Marine physical exam, Fick thought he wasn't challenged enough with that assignment and passed rigorous training to be a platoon commander of the Marine's elite 1st Reconnaissance Battalion on the front-most lines in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Thanks to embedded Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright, Fick's story was published as an article series in that magazine and later turned into a book, movie, and TV show all entitled Generation Kill. The publicity made Fick a Marine celebrity, rocketing his career as a Washington expert on the war and eventually as CEO of the Center for a New American Security.

Fick's Book One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer offers the reader a first-hand account of Fick's hardship and personal development, from an upstart student at Dartmouth, to a trainee in various boot-camps, to the mountains of Afghanistan, and the bloody sands of Iraq. The book is told play by play, as a series of reports on what happened that day, that mission, that moment. The title, as Fick explains, comes from the idea that all Marines in a company are only one bullet away from becoming the commander. It's fitting given that the lessons contained therein are now required reading for many aspiring Marine officers.

The chief asset that Fick offers is a front-seat view of the war. We see the Marines train. We see the sweat run down their necks as they patrol during the day, and the fear in their eyes as they stalk at night. We see the weariness in their faces from hours without sleep and days with minimal food. We see them hand out food to liberated civilians, and their frustration that they can't do more for them. Most vividly, we see Fick and his men in the midst of bomb blasts and firefights. We see the carnage left by U.S. Air superiority and precision bombs. And at every turn, Fick points out the disciple of his men and the incompetence of his superiors.

As a series of snapshots of the war, or training guide for Marine officers wondering what to expect in modern warfare, this book is invaluable. As a book designed for a popular audience, it has its flaws. For one, though Fick's tactical intelligence as a writer clearly shines through, his strategic skill at storytelling proves more limited. As we follow him and his men, we live in the moment with little idea of where we are going or what any of it means. There are few themes or motifs, and besides what his men were called to do that day, there are no objectives. Instead Fick has us just observe and hope that the thrilling nature of the facts will keep us entertained. In short, it's mostly a book of fight scenes, and perhaps that is the point.

Second, Fick looks like a man with an ax to grind. Many chapters are mini-hatchet jobs calling out specific commanders Fick quarreled with for their ineptitude, lack of conviction, and pettiness. Perhaps it is justified. But the contrast between Fick, the constant calm, intelligent commander, and the idiocy of his seniors makes one wonder.

Every aspiring Marine I've met has told me that One Bullet Away convinced them to join. I agree that Mr. Fick is a persuasive gentleman; after personally meeting with this writer, he convinced me to join the military (Navy). But aside from gung-ho college readers, popular consumers will find that with a bit more powerful storytelling, One Bullet Away could have been so much more than one kid's diary of war. It could have been the definitive American war story of our time.

Read it
Skim it
Toss it

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