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Original Essays

The Making of a Marine Officer

by Nathaniel Fick
  1. One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer
    $9.95 Used Hardcover add to wishlist
    "Fick's memoir provides an incomparable analysis of the training an officer must undergo and the standards that must be met....Fick's narrative eschews tough, vulgar language and instead deploys an intelligent, sensitive descriptive prose." Library Journal
"The Marines will teach you everything I love you too much to teach you." That was my father's first reaction when I told him I planned to join the Marine Corps after graduating from Dartmouth in 1999. The tech boom was at its height, and my classmates were marching off to places like Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Sitting behind a desk at age twenty-two held no appeal for me, and so I found myself in swampy Quantico, Virginia, learning to shoot a rifle and imbibing the legends of Iwo Jima and Khe Sanh.

On August 13, 2001, my forty-four-man infantry platoon sailed from San Diego on what was supposed to be a routine deployment to Asia and the Middle East. The world was mostly at peace, and a big mission for us would have been delivering food in East Timor or maybe evacuating a U.S. embassy somewhere. A month later, at 8:45 a.m. on the East Coast, it was 10:45 p.m. in Darwin, on Australia's north coast, where I sat at a bar with three of my buddies. We watched smoke billowing over New York and Washington, and left before sunrise for the North Arabian Sea.

Over the next two years, I fought the Taliban and tracked Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, joined Marine Recon (the Corps' special operations force), and spearheaded the 2003 invasion of Iraq. My platoon fought in some of the U.S. military's fiercest engagements since Vietnam. We lost friends, forged an iron bond with one another, and watched experience begin to mock our ideals. By the time we came home, I had indeed learned things no father should have to teach his son.

One Bullet Away started as a personal collection of stories. I wanted to write them down before they faded, and thought I'd slide the stack of papers into a desk drawer to show my kids someday. Gradually, though, I realized that something more than an archival instinct inspired me to wake up every morning and write. I began to see the book in terms of what it could mean for four concentric rings of people.

Perhaps self-indulgently, I put myself at the center, at least in the beginning. Writing was cathartic. There were days when I could barely see the computer screen through my tears. In time, I was able to look at the story more objectively, but I hope the emotional immediacy of those early days remains.

Next, I felt that my family and friends had to know about the things I'd done, how I'd changed. Otherwise, there would forever be a gulf between us. Many of the stories in the book don't lend themselves to dinner-table conversation, so writing became my way of telling the tale.

I was also thinking about the hundreds of thousands of soldiers and Marines who were in Afghanistan and Iraq with me, or will be there in the future. I hoped to write a book that any one of them could hand to a friend and say, "If you want to understand what it's like, read this." There are older combat stories I feel that way about, books like With the Old Breed and The Naked and the Dead. You read them and feel that you've glimpsed something that transcends a particular time and place. Their human stories are identical to the human stories in Afghanistan and Iraq, and probably to the human stories at Thermopylae and Cannae, too.

The last and largest group on my mind was the huge body of American citizens who care about what's happening in the Middle East but are dissatisfied with the perspectives available to us. As a junior officer, I had just enough rank to see a bit of the big picture and to feel the weight of responsibility. But I was far enough down the food chain that One Bullet Away is still very much written from a grunt's point of view, where life is invariably hot and cold, dirty and dangerous. I think many of the tactical problems we faced — separating combatants from civilians, learning that our mission to find bin Laden at Tora Bora was canceled, having to stand by and watch Baghdad being stripped by looters — continue to resonate at the strategic and political levels.

In fact, I've already found the book to be a catalyst for discussion about topics like these. It's a jumping-off point, and people are eager to talk about what's happening in Iraq. I'm usually asked three questions: Are we winning or losing? Is victory possible? If so, what do we have to do to win?

My blunt answer to the first question is that the U.S. is losing in Iraq. Almost three years after the invasion, each week costs us about a dozen American lives and a billion dollars. The return on our investment is rampant insecurity across large swaths of the country, incessant disagreement among the Iraqi factions we expect "to stand up as we sit down," and the constant threat of civil war and a broader regional conflagration. We can't see light at the end of the tunnel, we haven't turned the corner, and the insurgency is most certainly not in its last throes.

But my outlook isn't totally hopeless. The justifications, real and imagined, for the invasion of Iraq are moot. Even if Iraq wasn't part of the war on terror in 2003, it is now. The country has turned into a battleground between two ideologies. At the risk of sounding like a rabid neoconservative, I believe there's something intrinsically good about people having a say in their own future, regardless of gender, religion, or ethnicity. The democratic idea is so fundamentally appealing that I hope and believe the U.S. may yet salvage victory in Iraq.

Hope, however, isn't a strategy. Public debate about Iraq right now is based on a false choice between "staying the course" or precipitous withdrawal, followed by the collapse of the country into anarchy. The latter is unacceptable — imagine a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, bordering Syria and Iran, with almost limitless oil revenue. It's a nightmare scenario far beyond Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and morally bankrupt besides. But staying the current course in Iraq makes about as much sense as a sailor, having been blown off course in a storm, continuing to blunder aimlessly across the ocean.

Nietzsche said the commonest form of human stupidity is forgetting what it is that we're trying to do. The real goal in Iraq isn't to kill insurgents but rather to create a stable country where a powerful insurgency cannot exist. A policy based on killing insurgents assumes that their numbers are finite. It assumes that we can properly identify them, and that their families and tribes will overlook emotional ties to see the justice of our policy. That's a farce. If you kill my brother, I'm now your sworn enemy for life. At this point, widespread violence in Iraq will only beget further violence.

This isn't a soft argument; it's a smart one. The U.S. military's role was toppling the Saddam Hussein regime, which it did brilliantly. But winning the war of ideas is a political task. My experience was that average Iraqi families want the same things average American families want: safe neighborhoods, reliable medical care, good schools, and opportunities for their children. Like most of us, they're pragmatists and will put their money on what they perceive to be the winning horse. The U.S. has to show with tangible results — not airy talk about democracy or trumpeting a constitution worth less than the paper it's written on — that ours is the winner.

Hard analysis and major change, as opposed to tweaks on the margins, require an informed American populace. What frightens me is the fact that there are 160,000 Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan and I can go for days without even thinking about them. And I was affected so personally. For many people, the war must not even be on their radar screens.

My greatest hope for One Bullet Away is that it will, in some small way, put these issues back on the agenda. Maybe it can spark conversations about leadership, public service, citizenship, and sacrifice. Maybe it can even impart a few of the lessons we don't want our loved ones to learn from experience. spacer

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