TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Save lives, take lives. That's how Donovan Campbell thought of his job description when he was a platoon leader in Iraq, a job in which he says it was sometimes easy to think rapidly and incoherently in combat, and to risk leading your men to their deaths while believing you're leading them to safety.
Campbell's new memoir is about leading his infantry platoon of 40 Marines in street-by-street, house-by-house combat, outnumbered and outgunned in nearly every battle by insurgents.
This was from March to September, 2004 in Ramadi, which was then one of Iraq's most dangerous cities. Roughly half of the men in his company came home wounded. One man in his platoon never made it home.
Campbell served two tours in Iraq, then one in Afghanistan. He's a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Business School and finished first in his class at the Marines Basic Officer Course.
He was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and Bronze Star with Valor for his time in Iraq. His memoir is called "Joker One," which is what his platoon was called.
Donovan Campbell, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by asking you to read a paragraph from page five, because it says a lot about your vision of leadership during combat. And I also think it shows what a good writer you are. So would you read it for us?
Mr. DONOVAN CAMPBELL (Author, "Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood"): Certainly, Terry.
(Reading) To be a good combat leader, you must have absolutely no concern for your own safety. You can't think of home. You can't miss your wife, and you can't wonder how it would feel to take a round through the neck.
You can only pretend that you're already dead and thus free yourself up to focus on three things: finding and killing the enemy, communicating the situation and resulting actions to adjacent units and higher headquarters and triaging and treating your wounded.
If you love your men, you naturally think about number three first. But if you do, you're wrong. The grim logic of combat dictates that numbers one and two take precedence.
GROSS: That's Donovan Campbell, reading from his new memoir "Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood." Would you describe what your mission was in Iraq?
Mr. CAMPBELL: Our mission in Ramadi shifted over time. But when we went in, we were what was called an economy-of-force effort, and that stayed consistent. And that mission essentially meant that we were there simply to free up other forces to do another probably more important mission, which was actually take the city of Fallujah.
Fallujah at that time, it was early 2004. It was known as an insurgent hotbed. I think the Marines anticipated they would have to go in and clean out this - you know, fight block by block inside the city. And that's why Ramadi was an economy-of-force mission.
Now underneath that mission, we had another mission, which was to stabilize or bring security and stability to the city. Once I think that proved difficult, if not impossible to do with the number of men we had in the city, our mission then became keep the main lines of communication, the main roads, open.
GROSS: Your division's motto was first, do no harm. No better friend, no worse enemy.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Absolutely.
GROSS: And as you point out in the book, it's kind of odd to have a line from the Hippocratic Oath in a military motto. So why did your division use first, do no harm?
Mr. CAMPBELL: I think they were ahead of the curve a little bit. They understood that if you look at your mission from a long-term perspective, what you're really trying to do is gain legitimacy among the people of Iraq.
And oftentimes, that long-term mission conflicts with the short-term mission of kill your enemies and capture their leaders, because sometimes when you do raids or when you're in a firefight and you are doing your best to kill your enemies, you can create more enemies in the long term than you end up removing at that point in time. Or you create resentment among the people.
That may kill your longer-term mission, even if it allows your shorter-term mission of defeat the enemy in combat to succeed.
So I think they were trying to instill in us a sense that, hey, you've got a broader purpose here than just to kill the bad guys. And I think they were absolutely right.
GROSS: Part of your mission in Iraq was to help Iraqis, to kind of win them over. But you started to get very cynical.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes.
GROSS: For instance, you'd give kids gifts, little things, candy, stuff like that. And then sometimes they would turn around and stone your men.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes.
GROSS: What kind of dilemma did that present for you as a platoon leader when your men were getting stoned by children?
Mr. CAMPBELL: It presented all kinds of dilemmas, ranging from how do I take care of my men but at the same time achieve the longer-term mission, or do I sacrifice the well-being of my men or even the lives of my men if it means the success of the longer-term mission? How do I even know that the longer-term mission is succeeding? How do I know that the decision I make right now is directly impacting the long-term mission?
And these are decisions you have to make or dilemmas that you're put in that you have to respond to within a matter of seconds sometimes, and that's tough. That's just tough to do well and consistently. And over time, when you're doing your best and you can't see the perception of the Iraqis because you can't speak their language and you have very few translators, you become cynical because all you know is what you're trying to do, how often you jeopardize your own safety or how often you risk the lives of your men to make them better or to avoid doing something that would hurt a civilian.
And all the while, you have no idea what their perspective is because there just aren't enough of you to interact with them regularly, and you don't have the linguistic capabilities to do so.
GROSS: Could you give us an example of a time when the children turned on your men and stoned them and you had to make one of those split-second decisions about what to do?
Mr. CAMPBELL: I think it was during my very first patrol through one of the tougher areas of town, and we were patrolling on foot because one, we're light infantry, and that's what we tend to do anyway, but two, we had not enough Humvees at that point in time to actually put an entire 40-man platoon in them.
So we were walking through one of the tougher areas on foot, and we'd handed out the small amount of gifts that we had on us. And I was at the very front of the platoon, of a long column. So I was maybe 200 meters away from the end of the platoon, and I get a report from the back and over my headset radio that says hey, sir, the kids are throwing rocks at us.
And I thought, oh, no big deal. So I said hey guys, don't worry about it. Just keep moving. And then another report came in. It was from one of my strongest and toughest Marines, and he said hey, sir, these are big rocks and they really hurt. And when he said that, I knew that my men were actually being literally stoned, and I had no idea what to do.
Do you tell them to throw rocks back? Do you tell them to fire a warning shot? I wasn't going to do that, but that thought certainly crossed my mind. I honestly had no answer to that dilemma, and so I paused to consider it. And then one of my team leaders called back to say hey, sir, no worries. We fixed it. We found an older man. We pointed to the kids, and he shooed them away. And I can't say enough good things about my team leaders. A lot of times, they saved us, and they saved me.
GROSS: Now you write, you know, in trying to do the right thing with Iraqis and trying to help that you say our kindness was perceived as weakness by the insurgents and by most of Ramadi's citizens that you were nicknamed - I don't know how to pronounce this - Awat(ph)…
Mr. CAMPBELL: I think so.
GROSS: Which is an Iraqi Arabic term for a soft sugar cake that crumbles easily to the touch.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yup.
GROSS: Why were you perceived as crumbling easily to the touch?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CAMPBELL: I think, at least for my platoon's level, we didn't fire back very often. We had been shot at a few times, and we didn't fire back. I think we smiled and waved quite a bit. So we were doing some larger things like not shooting, and we were doing some smaller things like changing our demeanor to make us appear more friendly.
I think also that we sort of didn't understand the nature of the enemy we were fighting and how easily they were able to insert themselves into the citizens' daily lives, i.e., how easily they were able to, say, walk into someone's home and say, you know, we'll use this to attack Americans tomorrow. We're going to stage our weapons here. And if our weapons are gone and you're still here, we will simply kill you. And we couldn't be present in enough homes to convince the people that we would secure them.
So they had a very limited snapshot of us, if you will. They had, I think, a pretty good insight into what our opposition was like.
GROSS: When you realized that Iraqis were perceiving you as soft, did you change how you approached Iraqis and what side of yourself you showed?
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes. We changed how we approached Iraqis, but it wasn't when we realized that they perceived us as soft. It was when we had our first major battle. And after that, we definitely changed our approach a little bit because we didn't think that the one we had was working as well as we would have liked, but also we had to because we were fighting so often after that.
We just didn't have the time to win hearts and minds. We were too busy, you know, moving very quickly from one place to the next and getting shot at in the meantime and then getting shot at when we got to the place we were going and then getting shot at when we left that place.
And so there just wasn't a lot of time to stop and talk to the local shopkeepers and ask them how they were doing and talk to the local families and ask them if anyone unusual had been around. We just couldn't do that. We were too busy moving from open space to open space and getting shot at in the interim.
GROSS: My guest is Donovan Campbell. His new book "Joker One" is a memoir about leading a platoon in Iraq in 2004. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Donovan Campbell, and he's written a memoir about his time leading a platoon in Ramadi in Iraq, fighting urban combat. And his book is called "Joker One." Joker One was the name given his platoon.
There's a story you tell in your book. You're in a convoy. You're attacked by an RPG. It missed your Humvee. You don't know if any of your men are killed or wounded. You can't hear yet because you've been deafened by the blast. You don't really know what's happened, and you're not sure what to do. What did you do? What was your first instinct? What did you do?
Mr. CAMPBELL: My first instinct was always which of my guys are hurt, and what do I need to do about it? But then what you do is very different because you put that aside and you say what I do now is figure out what the enemy's situation is. Where is the fire coming from? How many of them are there, and how do I move my men against them? How do I communicate the situation to adjacent units or to higher units so that I can get reinforcements if need be, and only thereafter who's wounded, and what do I do with them?
So in that case, I actually think that I was in an observation post, i.e., inside of a hardened building. And I pick myself back up off the floor and my ears are ringing, and I literally ran from room to room, just asking my Marines what do you see out of the window? What do you see out of the window? Where are they coming from? What are you firing at - until I could build a complete picture of what was going on. And fortunately for me, my squad leader was doing the exact same thing.
And so we met up sort of in the middle of the building almost by chance. We said, okay, here's what we need to do. And then I said oh, by the way, how many of our guys are wounded? Because I just assumed I had had a least a few wounded and maybe one or two killed because it was such a big rocket. And he said none, sir.
I did a double-take and said are you - that can't be right. We certainly must have been wounded. He said no.
GROSS: So once you had a kind of semi-picture of what had happened around you, what action did you take?
Mr. CAMPBELL: It depended on the situation. In that situation, the enemy was melting away pretty quickly. So I called the headquarters to let them know where the attack had come from. I positioned my men to keep returning fire for as long as they could, but it was pretty obvious that they wouldn't shoot for very long.
And then I just thought if they could send, if higher headquarters could send someone out to sort of sweep the 300 meters to our north were the enemy was pulling back into a number of buildings, but I didn't move anyone, in this case, out of the hotel because we only had 12 people, and you're trying to move out of a place into a city of about 300,000.
It's very, very difficult to do so securely or do so in such a manner that you won't get your men shot or killed in the process and still effectively find and defeat the people who are shooting at you.
When someone walks a block away in a city as densely populated as that, for all intents and purposes, they're gone.
GROSS: That's one of the problems of urban combat.
Mr. CAMPBELL: It's one of the very big problems with urban combat. Urban combat negates a lot of our technological advantages simply because a lot of the things that we've set up and can employ are designed for wide, open spaces where we can find the one person amongst the trees or amongst the rocks. But when you're looking for one person in the midst of call it 1,000, it's like looking for a needle in a stack of needles, and it's just very hard to do with technology.
You need to have men, men on the street with human judgment, and that's very, very important.
GROSS: There was one time you got caught on concertina wire, that like barbed wire with razors as the barbs.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah.
GROSS: How did you get onto it, and how'd you get yourself off?
Mr. CAMPBELL: Well, I got onto it because I thought I was more athletic than I turned out actually to be. You know, the think as I mention in the book, my vertical leap is terrible. I don't even - you know, I don't think I ever made a basketball team in my life.
But I was running towards this wire, and I thought I would be able to leap it. And it's probably about - comes out to about mid-thigh, and it's in coils. So the top of the coil comes up to the middle of your thigh, and I tried to hurdle it.
I don't know what I was thinking. And instead of hurdling it, I just landed squarely in the middle of it with both feet, and at that point in time, I was being fired at. So my thought process about getting out wasn't, you know, how do I avoid ripping my legs up and how do I do this carefully and gingerly. It was, you know, let me rip my legs out of this as quickly as possible. So the answer to how did I get out of that I think was brute force and sheer terror.
GROSS: And what happened to your legs as a result of ripping yourself off of it?
Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, I got a bunch of, you know, nasty scrapes along my calves and the bottom of my thighs, but that was it. It certainly beat getting shot.
GROSS: Right. Did it get infected? Because I know that's been a problem for wounded soldiers in Iraq.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Those did not get infected, and I don't think very many of my men had major infections as a result of just small scrapes and cuts like that. We did have a few folks who were wounded by shrapnel who had some pretty nasty infections, and I think actually had their wounds worsen as a result. But we had phenomenal corpsmen.
I can't say enough good things about Navy corpsmen, because the Marines don't provide their own medical services. We get ours from the Navy. And our two docs, we call our corpsmen docs, were just awesome. And they actually lived in the exact same compound as my Marines.
And so at any given point in time, I could go in there, and my docs would have, you know, one Marine with his pants down and they'd be, you know, swabbing a cut on his leg, or they'd be looking at my men's feet and making sure they were in good shape, or they'd be telling them to push water - push water, i.e., they'd be telling them to drink water. And I think that they - for my men, they did a phenomenal job, and it was just a blessing to have them around.
GROSS: You say once the insurgency started and a lot of the people in Ramadi turned against you, that your attitude toward killing changed, and you started actually taking satisfaction every time someone in your platoon killed someone. Did that worry you, that sense of satisfaction in killing?
Mr. CAMPBELL: No, not at the time. And I can't speak for everyone else. I'm talking simply about my own perception at that point in time, and I was so tired of being shot at and not shooting back or being shot at and just watching the enemies melt away and maybe getting one or two shots off and then not being able to shoot anymore that every time we finally had a chance to shoot at one of the people who was attacking us day in and day out and actually know that we had some effect, I was happy. I don't know of any other way to say it.
It did not bother me because - and I will tell you - every time that I saw that we shot, we shot at someone who was first shooting at us. We almost never - in fact, I don't know that I can think of a single time that we shot at someone before they shot at us.
GROSS: There was one time you had to decide, very quickly, whether to order that one of your men shoot a man who was carrying an AK-47 that he was trying to conceal.
You didn't know who the man was. You didn't know if he meant you harm. How did you make the decision, and what decision did you make?
Mr. CAMPBELL: How did I make that decision? I made that decision with a lot of difficulty, but I sat there and I thought, and I did this in the space of about five seconds or so, and the first thing I thought of was sort of the overall context.
We'd been fighting for two straight days against an enemy force inside of Ramadi whose size estimates varied from, you know, 500 to 1,200 people, and there was about 120 of us. And I thought to myself, well, that's the context of the last few days. That's sort of what's been happening yesterday and the day before that. And today will probably be much like that.
I thought it was very unusual for someone to be standing on the street corner with an AK-47 concealed underneath their jacket. We just didn't see that that often when we were walking around.
So in addition to the broader context, I thought of the (unintelligible). Is this unusual? Do I see this a lot, or do I not see this a lot? Is this something that stands out?
Then I thought well, where are the rest of my - the other platoons in the city who are moving towards this man? Are they near? Are they close? Do I have a little bit of time? And it turns out that they were just a block or two away, and so I didn't have a lot of time to just sort of watch and see what he did.
So given that we didn't have a lot of time and given that what he was doing was fairly unusual and given that we'd been fighting for two days straight, I made the decision to order him to be shot. And I stayed awake, you know, for a few weeks after that, wondering if I had made the right one.
GROSS: So one of your men shot and killed him, and you later found out who the man was. Who was he?
Mr. CAMPBELL: We found out that what he was was a bodyguard for a sheikh who was also a crime lord. I guess a lot of times those two titles are somewhat hazy. And so we found out that he was that sheikh's bodyguard, that the sheikh was actually responsible for a number of criminal activities inside the city of Ramadi and that after his bodyguard had been shot, he left town.
And that didn't really make me feel any better or any worse. It was what it was. But finding that kind of thing out later on is very unusual. I was surprised that that happened.
GROSS: Donovan Campbell will be back in the second half of the show. His memoir about leading a platoon in Iraq is called "Joker One." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Donovan Campbell. His new memoir "Joker One" is about his experiences leading a platoon of 40 Marines in Iraq, fighting with insurgents street by street in city of Ramadi. The memoir is about the difficult split-second decisions you have to make in combat, the competing missions of wining Iraqi hearts and minds while fighting Iraqi insurgents, and the competing impulses of wanting to protect your men and wanting to fulfill your mission which will put your men in harm's way. Half of the men in his company returned home wounded.
There's a story I'd like you to tell, and this is - your men had arrested a lot of insurgents in a housing compound. And then all women from the compound were standing outside wailing in that ululation kind of high-pitched wail.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah.
GROSS: And I want you to describe the scene, and then tell us what happened.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Certainly. We had done our raid as part of a number of raids that our company had done. And the company in this case is four platoons, or about 160 men. So there had been, call it about eight houses that had been raided from about 1 a.m. to call it 7 a.m. in the morning. And what we had - they all tended to line up along one dirt road to the north of Ramadi, so it was this long line of houses. And what we have done was taken all of the people that we had detained from the houses and moved them down into one house sort of at the end of this row. Well, after we did that, a lot of the relatives of the detained men - their wives, their children - came out of the houses and sit along this dirt road and started walking down, or congregated near the one house where we had detained them.
So basically, you had this long line of houses with families coming out of them, all walking down this dirt road, and they were all grieving. And of course they were grieving. And it was heartbreaking, Terry. The little girls were crying. The women were crying. They were rubbing dirt on face. They were slapping themselves. And it was hard on me, and I could tell you it was very hard on my men. And I wanted to tell them, look, you know, your husbands and your brothers - they'll probably be coming back. We're not like Saddam. We don't take people away and you never see them again. You know, we don't torture them. They should be all right.
You know, we're not bad people. I promise. I don't want to rip your family apart. I promise you. I've got one of my own back home. I'm just a person. And it was hard. We couldn't tell them that because I couldn't speak Arabic. And…
GROSS: So that meant to make matters worse, the men that were detaining were in a truck with some of the Marines. The truck drove into a ditch and overturned.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah.
GROSS: And describe what happened after that.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, my goodness. It was very difficult. It was terrible. The women just redoubled their crying, and the screams of grief got even louder. And, you know, our medics just ran, sprinted to the scene. Everyone who was close by just sprinted to the scene and started helping. And some of our - I think one of our guys had a broken arm, and he never returned. I think another one of our drivers was severely wounded. And the detainees, the Iraqis were wounded even worse. And our medics ran over there, and they started working on them because it was pretty obvious that our - that the Marine casualties weren't as severe. And so they were working on them, and all that I could do was sort of -because I was quite a ways away - was watch the medics work and then look over at the families and watch them grieve.
And it felt terrible to be in the middle of those two processes and just feel powerless to help, either since I didn't have enough medical training to be able to run over there and do what the medics were doing. I didn't have the Arabic skills to be over there and talk to the families. And it was just terrible to be the middle of that. And…
GROSS: It must have felt like such a catastrophe, you know, because, like, first, you know, you're taking the insurgents away, the women and children are weeping and hitting themselves, and then the truck with the insurgents - or the alleged insurgents - overturns and people have like, you know…
Mr. CAMPBELL: Spilled out.
GROSS: Yeah. The people on truck have just kind of spilled out into the streets, like, bloodied and injured. So, yeah. And then you felt helpless not being a medic. So what happened to the men afterwards, the men who you had detained?
Mr. CAMPBELL: I don't know. I don't know. I know that some of them went to the hospital. I know that we evacuated the most seriously wounded. And I think they went to, actually medical - American Medical hospital on - at the Army base, because that was the best care in the city at the time over and above the Iraqi hospital. But as to what happened to the rest of them, I have no idea. And like you said, I don't know whether they are insurgents or not, Terry. They were men we detained. And I don't know…
GROSS: Were there a lot of days like that, where things that were really terrible ended up with some kind of question mark, and then you just like never know what happened? Like there's a catastrophe that you witness that your men are involved with, and then you just never know what the final consequences are.
Mr. CAMPBELL: You're absolutely right. And as tough as it is to say, a lot of that just life in a war zone. It's so chaotic. It's so uncertain. It's characterized by a breakdown of pretty much every social institution you can think of. Maybe the only one that remains intact is the family. And when nothing is working, it's almost impossible to get resolution on a lot of issues. It's just very hard. And that's, I think, one of the reasons you get very tired after long enough. It's just hard to deal with chaos everyday.
GROSS: My guest is Donovan Campbell. His new book "Joker One" is a memoir about leading a platoon in Iraq in 2004. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Donovan Campbell, and he was a platoon leader in Ramadi in Iraq, where he led his platoon in urban combat against insurgents. He's written a new memoir called "Joker One." "Joker One" is the name that was given his platoon. You know, worst fear was that you'd lose one or more of your men in combat, and you only lost one man. You had injured men, but only one guy in combat. And it was a day when you woke up with a terrible feeling, thinking something was going to go terribly wrong. You kind of had a premonition, and you didn't even want to leave. But, of course, you had to. You had an assignment. What was your assignment that day?
Mr. CAMPBELL: I'll tell you my assignment, but before I answer that, let me make something clear. I had two worst fears. One of them was that my - one of my men would be injured or killed under my command. The other one was that we would injure or kill someone we didn't need to.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Because you can bring all of your men home and do it dishonorably, and do it in a way that jeopardizes your long-term mission. You can not bring all of your men home, but have acted honorably, have acted humanely and done your best to achieve the long-term mission of protecting the people of Iraq. And as a young leader, if you got to choose between the two, you got to choose the second. You have got to choose to sacrifice some of your - or hopefully yourself, if it means, you know, keeping your honor clean and making the right ethical decisions day in and day out. Then that's - you just have to chose that second path. There's no other way around it. And it's very hard. And it's very hard to accept as a 24-year-old leader that you have to make those kind of decisions sometimes.
But our mission on the day that I woke up with a really bad feeling was to drive to the government center in Ramadi, which was a large complex of buildings surrounded by about 12-foot high concrete wall that housed all of the administrative functions - not only the city of Ramadi operating, but also the entire Anbar province operating. So the police chief of the province was there. The mayor of the city was there. The governor of the province was there, and there were a whole host of other government officials there. And our division commander was having a meeting with them, and I believe also with some influential local sheikhs.
And our mission at that facility was two-fold. It was to protect it while we were inside and to patrol in the vicinity to prevent people from launching mortars inside of it, because they were very effective at doing that and often could drop a mortar inside of about a 500-square-meter target with regularity. Now the fact that that the target was in the middle of a residential area really didn't regularly bother the insurgents. If they missed us and hit the housing compounds around, I think so be it was their mentality.
GROSS: So how did you do lose your man?
CAMPBELL: Well, we were doing one of our counter-mortar patrols, and we had stopped at a local school because one of the things that we did do was try to pay local contractors to rebuild some of the infrastructure that had been destroyed either under Saddam or as a result the 03 and 04 fighting. So we stopped at this school to check on the construction, the pace of construction and to ensure that it was going as he said it was -the work was actually being done and someone hadn't just taken the money and left, which had happened to us before. And it was being done, and one of our - one of my colleagues had gone in with a translator to look at the inside of the school. And we stayed there for a little bit. And when he came back out, a crowd of so many came with him and we started handing things out to them.
And as we got back in our vehicles to leave the school, we were attacked from our south, and we were attacked with rocket fire, RPG fire and machine gun fire. And the rocket, you know, passed quite close to me. My staff sergeant, my platoon sergeant dove out of the way of it because they move slowly enough that sometimes you can actually react that way. And the rocket actually impacted in the crowd of children that were next to us on the sidewalk. So I just said right then and there, all right, the first half of us - because we'd sort of planned for situations where you have to detach part of your - one part of your platoon from the other. So I said, hey, the part of platoon that, you know, we normally plan to detach go with me. We're going to go south. We're going to chase these people. The other part stay here, tend to the wounded children. You know, we'll be back. So I did that.
After moving about 200 meters south, we came into, you know, a very heavily populated area. It was like driving into a rock concert because everyone was walking. And there is absolutely no way that we could find our attackers. So we drove back to where the rest of my platoon was, and they had taken as many wounded children as they could and they moved them inside of a school - of the school, and began tending them.
And every one of my Marines that didn't have to be posting security was moving children or taking out their first aid kits and staunching bleeding and doing whatever it was they could. And my corpsmen were working feverishly. My two corpsmen were with us, thank God. And I decided that we would stay there instead of moving because I didn't -even though I knew that if we stayed there for another 10 minutes or so we would get attacked again. That's just the way it worked at that point in time. If you're in the middle of a city and you stayed in the same place for more than 10 minutes, you would get attacked. It was that simple.
So I decided we would stay there, and I decided that we would, you know, post security on the edges of the school and we'd sort of set up a perimeter and we'd keep searching for more wounded children and make sure that we tended them and that we would call an ambulance for - an Iraqi ambulance so that they could be taken to the local hospital. Because there were just so many wounded of them, I don't know that we could have even put them all in our Humvees. And even if we did, we might have overwhelmed the care facilities that the Americans had in a nearby base, which are generally reserved for the steady American flow of casualties. I didn't know whether they would have the capacity to treat all, I don't know, 20 or so wounded children. So we stayed there and we got attacked again. And in the process, one of my men was grievously wounded. And he was evacuated, and he made it to Germany. And then he - sorry, go ahead.
GROSS: Oh, I'll just say - because I know it might be too hard for you to say - both of his legs were amputated by, I think, shrapnel from a missile, or an RPG.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah. Yeah. I'd rather not talk about that.
GROSS: Yeah. One of the men, one of the Marines said to you that you shouldn't see what happened to this man because…
Mr. CAMPBELL: That's right.
GROSS: …it would too upsetting, that you just need to fight and lead with a clear head. And you took his advice. Was that the right thing to do?
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yeah. Yeah. I'm eternally grateful for him for doing that, because I could see sort of over shoulder what was happening, and what I did see was pretty traumatic. And he was absolutely right. It wasn't my job at that point in time to focus just on the one wounded that I had. It was my job to look outward, to look at where we were being attacked from and to move my men in such a manner that one, we wouldn't get attacked again - and two, we could keep securing the school and keep securing the children. If all I could do is focus on my one wounded man, then I couldn't do my bigger job and no one else could do that bigger job. And that's, you know, that's the responsibility of a lieutenant. So he was dead on. He was dead on. And I honestly can't thank him enough for doing that.
GROSS: You know, and that gets to some - like, one of the sentences in the reading that I asked you to do at the beginning of our interview in which you say if you love your men, you naturally think first about treating your wounded, but it's your job to keep moving forward with the mission.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Of course.
GROSS: And that's the position you were in. Can I just say one thing before I ask you the next question? And that is I just really respect the fact that you're able to speak with obvious emotion about what happened to you, what happened to your men, what you witnessed in Iraq -and I know it's the kind of thing that as you're going through it, you kind of can't allow yourself to feel that kind of emotion because you have to keep moving. You have to keep thinking. You have to keep fighting. You have to keep protecting your men. And I just appreciate that you're able to, you know, share some of that emotion now in retrospect, both in your book and in talking with us here. So I just want to say thank you…
Mr. CAMPBELL: Oh, thank you for saying that, Terry.
GROSS: …for that. You know, so did - you make it seem like after this particular attack, which was so horrible, all these, like, children are wounded and you lose one of your men - did the men in your platoon want revenge after that? Did everybody's kind of whole attitude change after this attack?
Mr. CAMPBELL: I think for some of them, it changed for a short period of time. When everything had finished and we had evacuated the children, we'd evacuated our wounded man, we had a time we were back at the government center and we were all together, and some of the men were stunned. And I don't think their attitude had changed one way or the other. They were just so stunned that they were just trying to process it.
I think some of the men definitely wanted to get someone because, you know, they got one of our guys. But over the long run, their attitude towards the mission and towards what they were trying to do and towards acting, you know, honorably and responsibly didn't change. And I'd like to think that, you know, my squad leaders and my team leaders did a really good job of taking the younger Marines - because most of them are only 18, 19, you know, and 20 - and saying, listen, this was horrible. This was tragic. But listen, you are a Marine. You don't act out of vengeance. You don't act out of anger. You do what you do because it's right and because you have a mission to accomplish.
We cannot afford to do the wrong thing to, you know, quote "get revenge or to get back." We can't do it. Its just wrong, a, and b, it will do nothing for us to try and win the population over. And you've got to go home, guys. You've got to go home, and you will go home. And then you'll be a - you'll - maybe you'll be a civilian again someday. But you will be looking your parents in the face. You'll be looking your friends in the face. You'll be looking your wives in the face, and you want to be able to tell them, you know, what I did overseas, I did honorably.
GROSS: My guest is Donovan Campbell. His new book "Joker One" is a memoir about leading a platoon in Iraq in 2004. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Donovan Campbell, and he led a platoon in Iraq in Ramadi during the insurgency. So he led a platoon in urban combat. Now he's written a memoir about it, which is called "Joker One." That was the name given to his platoon. You write in your memoir that at about this time, you started to get really depressed. It was hard to get out of bed. You didn't want to leave. You didn't want to expose your men to more risk. You didn't want to think of more, more dead or more wounded. And I'm wondering if this is the part of your life that gets to a sentence that you read at the beginning of the interview about how - to be a good leader in combat, you have to pretend that you're already dead, and thus free yourself to focus on your mission and on protecting your men. Did you start to feel at this point as if you were already dead?
Mr. CAMPBELL: It was later that I started to feel that. At that point in time, I was depressed because I felt like such a failure because, you know, I got one of my men terribly wounded. And then later, I found out he didn't make it. And so, of course, there was, you know, one family who I would have to tell, look, I, you know, I couldn't do what I hoped I would do. And, you know, your son won't be coming home as a result.
GROSS: You didn't get him - you didn't get him killed. I mean, it wasn't something that you did. I just feel like I need to say that. I mean, from what I read in your book - yeah.
Mr. CAMPBELL: No, no, no. But as - I think as an officer, as a good officer, as a good leader, you need to err on the side of accepting more rather than less responsibility. You need to err on the side of, you know, I will take it a little bit too hard rather than taking a little bit too easy.
Mr. CAMPBELL: I'll view more things as my fault, if you will, rather than fewer of them. Because the danger of erring on the other side is so great that you just - in my opinion, you don't want to err on that side. But it was only later that I thought, you know what? I'm just going to assume I'm not going to make it back from this deployment. I'm just going to assume that at some point in time, something will happen and I just won't make it back. And that way, I don't need to, you know, I don't need to be afraid at night, or I don't need to be afraid for myself, I should say, at night or before the missions.
All I need to do is worry about what I got to do tomorrow or what I got to do this morning and how my men are doing right now. If I just assume that I'm not going to make it home, it's a lot easier. And that's sort of what I did.
GROSS: So was that liberating, or just deadening?
Mr. CAMPBELL: Liberating.
Mr. CAMPBELL: It's a - there's a - way you're doing day in and day out is too intense for it to be deadening. And taking care of your men is so emotionally involved that you just can't be deadened. You have to be emotionally tuned, and you have to be with it and you have to be carefully observing them if you want to do your job well. So, no, it wasn't deadening. But it was liberating.
GROSS: Okay. So then your tour's over and you go home.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes.
GROSS: You'd started to think of yourself as if you were already dead because that was liberating in combat. It enabled you to do your job instead of just being, like, depressed and worrying about your men. So you return home. Instead of a platoon, you have a wife. It's time to live again. But can you start living as if you're alive again? How long does it take before you stop feeling like you're already dead?
Mr. CAMPBELL: I don't know how long it takes. I know that it happens. And I think in long term, in the long run, that experience actually made me much more optimistic and - I don't know if you want to call it happy, but, yeah, that might be right word, a happy person. And the only reason I say that is because every time I have a tough day or a longer day or I get upset about something, I just ask myself - I calm down, I ask myself: Am I being shot at? Is anyone going to be wounded as a result of what has gone wrong today? Is this life or death, or is it something that will, that will wade in time?
And if it's not life and death and if my family has their health and if my wife and daughter are doing well, if my friends are in good shape, then it - I don't have very much to complain about. So I think in the long run, for me personally, it was actually a very good thing. But I don't know when the shift occurred from just thinking that I wasn't going to make it home to feeling alive again. I don't know that I ever felt dead, so to speak. I think it was more of an assumption that I just wouldn't come home. And then when I came home, I think I was just so happy to be in America. And I still feel that I'm just so happy to be able to drive down a road and not worry about a bomb blowing up that everything on top of that is just terrific.
GROSS: Just one more question. You're working on the business world now.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Yes.
GROSS: And I'm wondering after what you've been through in war, after, like, having to search so deep for your sense of faith, for meaning in life, for, you know, how to go on after loosing one of your men, does being in the business world give you the kind of larger meaning that sent you into the Marines?
Mr. CAMPBELL: It does, but not because I'm pursuing profits. I think if that's all you view your job as day in and day out, then you'll never find that kind of larger meaning that you're searching for. I'm very fortunate in that I'm in a job where I have about 150 people that I lead. And so my perspective is that every day, I have 150 opportunities to sort of serve them well and show them a model of servant leaderhood -leadership that they may not see otherwise.
And I have, you know, 140 livelihoods that I'm responsible for and that I need to make good decisions to make sure that they're well taken care of and that their families are well taken of. And my perspective is, is if I can do those things, than the business will take care of itself. Of course I can't make silly business decisions and spend money like water. But if I can take care of my folks, if can put their welfare first, if I can model servant leadership to them, then I think that the business will take care of itself.
GROSS: Well, Donovan Campbell, thank you so much for talking with us. I hope you keep writing, because your book's really well written. Thank you very much.
Mr. CAMPBELL: Thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Donovan Campbell's new memoir is called "Joker One." He was awarded the Combat Action Ribbon and a Bronze Star with Valor for his time in Iraq. He's currently working for PepsiCo.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.