One Bullet Away – Book Review
One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, Nathaniel Fick
Houghton Mifflin (October 3, 2005)
384 pp. $25.00 (hardcover)
When I first grabbed this title, I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. Described as the "making of a Marine officer" I had some doubts whether it would be a self-serving autobiography or something more. Thankfully, this book becomes much more as it follows the career of Nathaniel Fick from his first day of Officer Candidate School in 1998; to his leadership of a heavy weapons platoon and a recon platoon; to his decision to finally leave the Corps after liberating Iraq.
There are three components of his story; Officer Candidate School and other training courses; his deployment to Afghanistan; his deployment to Iraq. All three were equally interesting to digest. Fortunately, the section on training did not dwell on the suffering and needless abuses at the hands of over-zealous instructors a la Full Metal Jacket. He describes many aspects of the pain and confusing routines he had to endure, but he puts things into the perspective of a seasoned Marine officer looking back through time (Q. Why did we have to learn to put our belt buckles on at just the precise angle? A. The attention to detail will keep me from killing my Marines in combat!). Fick survives a host of advanced training programs, and can safely be described as one of the best of the best in the US fighting forces. While still not a combat veteran, Fick in no way resembles the hapless LT Gorman from the movie Aliens.
Now, imagine you are a fresh lieutenant, you’ve got your first command, you are just settling into routine aboard a Marine amphibious ship parked in an Australian port – when 9/11 rains down upon you. The sense of anticipation and stress of being on the very tip of the sword that would strike back is palpable in Fick’s writing. Some chaotic encounters with the Taliban ensue in the bleak desert near Khandahar, Afghanistan. Fick experiences the first sights of death and destruction which accompanies any war — and he sees the gruesome results of heavy laser-guided bombs. He begins to see just how lethal modern war really is. Fick and his men do their jobs but you can begin to see the scars war inflicts upon even the best soldiers.
The sections on the Iraqi deployment are especially timely given the current state of affairs over there and Fick gives us a glimpse at those first critical days after Iraqi liberation as the country spiraled into chaos, looting, and worse. In one snapshot immediately after major combat ended, Fick’s recon platoon is holed up in a palm grove for the night when they witness an amazing display of tracers dancing throughout their field of vision. Iraqis shooting Iraqis. Looters shooting homeowners. Homeowners shooting looters. None of it directed at the Americans. While the war seemed to be over, there was much killing waiting to be done.
Ultimately, we learn that the challenge of a Marine officer is doing his job while keeping his men alive; "Don’t get your Marines killed in combat!" However, as with every army throughout history, there are good leaders and there are bad leaders. As a good leader, Fick is often ordered into situations he knows to be wrong; driving doorless HUMVEES through hostile towns; leaving wounded children to chaos and without hope of rescue; watching as his superiors did insane things "to get in on the action" such as trying to call artillery strikes on his own men! Fick, ever concerned for the safety and well-being of his men, does his duty but often has issues with superiors who seem less than concerned about sending him on missions that were needlessly dangerous or just plain wrong. This leads to some introspection on whether he is cut out for a career in the Corps. His final decision and the reasoning behind it ties the whole book together and helps us assemble the final pieces — not just about the making of a Marine officer but also that of an honorable man.
Great writing and great storytelling. This book is well worth your time.