2005. 369 pages (hardcover)
From: The public library
For the challenge: Memorable Memoir
In a nutshell:
Nathaniel Fick describes his career in the Marines, from when he started training in 1998 to when he left at the rank of captain in 2003. He served in Afghanistan as an infantry officer and then in Iraq as a lieutenant in the Recon Marines.
Why I decided to read this book:
How I decided to read this book is roundabout. This past fall, Netflix skipped over Little Dorrit in my queue and gave me the first disc of Generation Kill instead, which I had been waffling about watching. Generation Kill is a miniseries based on Evan Wright’s non-fiction book of the same name, and it covers his observations as an embedded reporter with the Bravo Company in the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion. When watching the miniseries, I was impressed by the competent leadership of Lt. Nate Fick, as he was portrayed in the miniseries.
Last month I stopped at the library because I thought one of my interlibrary loan books had come in, but it hadn’t. Not wanting my trip to be a waste, I browsed around and came across One Bullet Away. I love it when books come into my hands by such serendipitous routes.
Nathaniel Fick received a degree in classics from Dartmouth before joining the Marines, and that blend of scholar and soldier proves to be a good mix in writing this book. Though Fick goes into detail about his training and war experience, I rarely felt lost, as can happen with me when military slang and terminology is tossed around, as it was in film version of Generation Kill. Occasionally I forgot the meaning of an acronym while reading and wished for a glossary, but it didn’t impede my comprehension overall.
I liked reading about the Iraq conflict from Fick’s perspective. He was an officer, so the book includes explanations of how he made hard decisions on the fly. It definitely is an excellent book for examining how it is to lead under pressure. And yet his rank meant that he was close to the action as well.
The level of detail is astonishing and vivid. Fick does a good job of placing the reader in the thick of it. Here’s an excerpt from when the platoon is approaching the Iraqi town of Muwaffiqiya:
“There’s an obstacle on the bridge.” Colbert’s voice was measured but taut, the way an airline pilot would tell his passengers about an engine fire. Then I saw it, too – what looked like a Dumpster full of scrap metal pulled out into the road. Large-diameter pipes lay scattered on both sides of it. There was only one explanation.
“Back up, back up, back the f— up.” The fear was palpable. You could hear it and feel and even taste it, like a penny under your tongue. But the Marines stayed calm. We were jammed together with trees to our left, buildings to our right, an obstacle in front of us, and the rest of the battalion pressing in from behind. (p. 267)
One Bullet Away encompasses a range of emotions, from humor to heartbreak. And there is a definite arc to the story; one feels the passage of time. By the time the book has reached April 2003, Fick’s training in Officer Candidates School feels far away. You sense how much things have changed, both for and in him and in the world.
The phrase “support our troops” seems so reflexive and emptied of meaning to my ears. I sometimes feel that the speaker of the phrase is trying more to signify something about themselves than actually using it as an exhortation. For instance, it may be used partly as an utterance of protection against accusations of unpatriotism. I know that I used it that way, or a phrase like it, in college discussions about the war back in 2003.
So when I say that this book made me truly appreciate the people in the armed forces, I am trying my hardest to not make that seem like an empty platitude. I can’t imagine facing the decisions and danger that the author and his fellow Marines faced. The civilian life is not inferior but it is very different.
Fick does illuminate problems he saw while in Iraq, including certain decisions made by higher command. The Marines see the initial welcome of the Iraqi people begin to sour and there is a sense of squandered opportunity.
At the close of the book, I felt satisfied in the reading experience but also sobered. I believe I will be thinking about this book for a while yet.