Friendly Fire

I first read Joke One (the code name for the platoon) then The Unforgiving Minute. Upon completing the second book, I wondered that perhaps I should go back and read Joker One again with the perspective gained. When studying war, perspective counts heavily toward empathy, and these two stories of troops and war are about America bleeding.

Two solders: one Marine the other Army; both lieutenants, platoon leaders; one made captain (Mullaney), one did not; one from Princeton University (Campbell) and the Marine Corps Office Candidate School a 10-weeks program during the summer program that “might look good on a resume,” the other a West Point graduate; one with six plus years of soldier’s education, the other a year and half of intense preparation; one tells of the war in Afghanistan, the other of Iraq; one driven by “unwavering patriotism and commitments,” in place of corporate “luster,” the other’s reasons (Mullaney) not exactly clear … duty, honor, job, childhood repressions.

One (Campbell) served three combat deployments – two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan – and tells of the seven and half months in Iraq’s “most dangerous place” (Ramadi); the other was in Afghanistan for 278 days in a battle zone and tells of two fights. Mullaney had a 5 year enlistment commitment from West Point, two of which were in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar during which he took an “around-the-world summer vacation between my first and second years at Oxford,” supposedly on a lieutenant’s salary.

Mullaney (Unforgiving) tells us of doing war in a desert, among hills and passes, where Apache helicopters and Jets could be call in to bomb the enemy. Enemies, being someone intent on seeing you died. The situation Campbell (Joker) tells is of walking the streets with arsenal firing at you from roof tops, while women and children peak for behind curtains on the ground floor of the very houses the shooting was coming from. Both men were personally responsible for combat. Both were expected to know what to do, where to spread their troops, who to shoot at, how to call up support, functioning, giving commands during the crisis, knowing how and where to destroy the enemy intent on killing you; yet bringing everybody home.

Being an enlisted man, I never had much respect for officers. I saw them as a pampered, privileged lot of not much use to the average soldier. More to be avoided then consulted. I also soon learned that a salute and “sir,” could be an insult, as in “don’t ‘sir’ me, I work for a living,” coming from the drill sergeant. However, having got through basic and into the medic corps, I never met someone I felt was “responsible” for someone else’s life, nor deserving a salute.

That’s what Joker One and The Unforgiving Minute does. They tell the story of two persons who were held accountable, both personally and militarily, daily that their soldiers carried out a mission and came back alive. They were responsible for the very survival of units even in a hostile ambush and attack by “friendly forces.”

Friendly fire is a term usually meaning an attack on you by your own troops. However, as Mullaney points out …”Well, there’s Murphy’s Law for combat, too. Rule number eleven: Friendly fire isn’t.” In these books the story tells of troops planted in places where they are supposed to be seen as friends, someone there to help you. In the situations told us in these books, friendly fire is about the local population trying to kill you. In Unforgiving, Mullaney includes a picture of children asking for food and water and reportedly setting the landmines that threatened our Humvees. Campbell (Joker One) gives an even more personal account of friendly fire.

Campbell’s “god and country” motives throughout the book are so oozing that the reader may have trouble believe them as authentic. That is, until chapter twenty-one, when you know his emotions are genuine: “Instead, despite our daily kindness, despite the relief projects, the money, the aid that we had already poured into the hospitals, despite the fact the we routinely altered our missions to make ourselves less safe in order to avoid offending them, the citizens of Ramadi had come out of the houses and actively tried to kill us. (188)”

“‘Hey, One-Two, what the hell are those stacked white things? Are they rice shipments for the mujahideen brethren in Fallujah or what?’

‘No, sir, those stacks, they’re body bag sir, they’re all body bags.’

I pulled out my bions to check closer. Sure enough, some of the white bags were mottled with huge, rust-colored stains. They must have been hundreds of dead bodies in front of the mosques, I realized.

As the rest of the patrol wound its way past al-Haq, I found myself smiling.” (192) The reader could not help but smile too.

Mullaney and Campbell each lost a member of their platoon during battle, an extremely personal toil for both. They dwell in detail on the torment and remorse they felted from losing a trooper for which they were responsible and had failed. Much is told in these stories of the mental anguish and ultimate lifting of the guilt associated with losing one of their own, especially the panic of trying to save their soldiers while under intense enemy fire.

The most unexplainable parts of the books was about the appalling lack of equipment, especially vehicles where the troops had to try and load trucks with sandbags and scavenged benches in attempts to gain some protection and sit where they might see the enemy. Having radios which could not reach the next city block, just cannot not be understood by the reader, were at home fisherman can be pinpointed in their boats with GPS, and listen on the TV to conversations from the space shuttle.

The home front? Support, commitment? Campbell describes America: “While we lost Carson and Leza and Niles and Aldrich and too many others all throughout August, America focused on something completely incomprehensible to us-the 2004 Summer Olympics, held in Greece (297).”

Upon returning home and after discharged from the service, Mullaney comments:

Apart from the less than 0.5 percent of Americans in uniform, most people continued with their daily commutes, picked up the dry cleaning, and mowed the lawn. What if instead, Americans had been asked to sacrifice? Would I have patrolled with unarmored pickup trucks? Some else fought the war ‘over there.’ When the war intruded on the nightly news, it was easy to change the channel.” (Mullaney 148).

Mullaney, Graid M.; Unforgiving Minute; The Penguin Press, NY; 2009

Campbell, Donovan; Joker One; Random House, NY; 2009

Lionel A. Varnadoe, Jr. is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and writes books, articles, and reviews on a variety of topics and can be reached through NewsBlaze.