three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
41-July-Aug-2009
user_rating: 
0

A-Joker OneA Princeton graduate turned Marine lieutenant describes his harrowing seven-month stint as leader of the platoon Joker One in Ramadi, Iraq.

The Topic: In 2001, when Princeton senior Donovan Campbell contemplated his career options, he found the thought of working for corporate America unsatisfying and decided to join the Marines. This first-person memoir relates his second tour of duty, beginning in March 2004, when the platoon he commanded, Joker One, was assigned to the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq. Campbell and his 40 men were charged with rooting out insurgents and winning over the hostile Ramadi citizens, yet the platoon was ill-prepared for both tasks, lacking equipment and training. Campbell focuses on the platoon’s daily patrols and its fraught interactions with the Ramadi people, including its house-to-house battle against an elusive enemy.
Random House. 313 pages. $26. ISBN: 1400067731

Cleveland Plain-Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Campbell’s disciplined storytelling focuses on what it felt like to shoulder the responsibility for his men. We see him struggle toward real leadership." Karen Sandstrom

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"The story of Joker One is war at its most intimate level. This unblinking, almost claustrophobic account follows one unit of men caught up in something incomprehensibly larger." Michael E. Young

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"By the time the platoon finally returns home, exhausted, scarred, and with fewer men than they set out with, Campbell›s admiration for his men has become contagious. It’s only then that you realize that Joker One isn’t as much a story of war as it is a story of love." Chris Nashawaty

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Beyond the colorfully described chaotic battle scenes, beyond the noble warriors who populate the book, what sets Joker One apart is its unsparing honesty." Curt Schleier

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"[The book] should be read by all those who have ever wondered what conclusions they would have drawn about the Iraq war if they had been dropped into the middle of the conflict. … A central virtue of Joker One is that the narrative is honest—and remarkably detailed, relying on Campbell’s logbooks and diary, as well as his formidable memory—even when the story makes him or the Marines look bad." James Glanz

Washington Post  2.5 of 5 Stars
"The peculiar realities of military institutions are noted and set aside with little reflection. Instead, readers get personal odysseys, professional development and quests for the self—one part Esalen Institute, one part Wharton School." Chris Bray

Denver Post 2 of 5 Stars
"[Campbell] often comes across as ethnocentric and peculiarly incurious about the lives of the Iraqis. He shows little interest in their culture or religion or their holidays and never ponders the genesis of their animus toward America." Elaine Margolin

Critical Summary

Critics praised Campbell as a gifted and deft writer who retells his Iraq tour in "powerful, exacting detail" (Dallas Morning News). While Campbell avoids much analysis of the war overall, or even his platoon’s specific mission, most critics found this to be a virtue. As the New York Times noted, Campbell "never quite puts his finger on the meaning, if any, of the extraordinary violence," but he does "[lay] it all out for anyone else who wants to have a try." Only the Denver Post found Campbell’s unreflective style trying, citing that the author "seems awkwardly obtuse when it comes to ascertaining the needs of other people." Most reviewers, however, admired the book’s honest day-to-day look at attempting to quell the Iraqi insurgency.