Home > memoir > Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

Joker One: A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood

  • Author: Donovan Campbell
  • Publisher:  Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • Published: January, 2010
  • Pages: 336
  • Language: English
  • Format:  PDF+EPUB

After graduating from Princeton, Donovan Campbell, motivated by his unwavering patriotism and commitment, decided to join the service, realizing that becoming a Marine officer would allow him to give back to his country, engage in the world, and learn to lead. In this immediate, thrilling, and inspiring memoir, Campbell recounts a timeless and transcendent tale of brotherhood, courage, and sacrifice.

As commander of a forty-man infantry platoon called Joker One, Campbell had just months to train and transform a ragtag group of brand-new Marines into a first-rate cohesive fighting unit, men who would become his family: Sergeant Leza, the house intellectual who read Che Guevara; Sergeant Mariano Noriel, the “Filipino ball of fire” who would become Campbell’s closest confidant and friend; Lance Corporal William Feldmeir, a narcoleptic who fell asleep during battle; and a lieutenant known simply as “the Ox,” whose stubborn aggressiveness would be more curse than blessing.

Campbell and his men were assigned to Ramadi, that capital of the Sunni-dominated Anbar province that was an explosion just waiting to happen. And when it did happen–with the chilling cries of “Jihad, Jihad, Jihad!” echoing from minaret to minaret–Campbell and company were there to protect the innocent, battle the insurgents, and pick up the pieces. After seven months of day-to-day, house-to-house combat, nearly half of Campbell’s platoon had been wounded, a casualty rate that went beyond that of any Marine or Army unit since Vietnam. Yet unlike Fallujah, Ramadi never fell to the enemy.

Told by the man who led the unit of hard-pressed Marines, Joker One is a gripping tale of a leadership, loyalty, faith, and camaraderie throughout the best and worst of times.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Campbell decided as a junior at Princeton that attending Marine Corps Officer Candidate School would look good on his résumé. Three years later, in the spring of 2004, he was in Iraq commanding a platoon known by its radio call sign, Joker One. Campbell tells its story, and his, in an outstanding narrative of the Iraq War. Joker One counted around 40 dudes: country boys and smalltown jocks; a few Hispanics and a single black. Some were college men with futures; some had pasts they preferred to forget. The battalion was assigned to one of Iraq’s worst hot spots: the city of Ramadi, where faceless enemies found shelter among 350,000 Iraqi civilians. Joker One fought from street to street, house to house and ambush to ambush for seven straight months. By the end of the tour, even the Gunny’s hands had started ceaselessly shaking, Campbell writes. Faced with urgent life-and-death decisions, Campbell had learned that there are no great options… you live with the results and shut up about the whole thing. For all his constant self-questioning, Lt. Campbell brought Joker One home with only one KIA—a record as impressive as his account. (Mar. 17)  Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

Critics praised Campbell as a gifted and deft writer who retells his Iraq tour in “powerful, exacting detail” (Dallas Morning News). While Campbell avoids much analysis of the war overall, or even his platoon’s specific mission, most critics found this to be a virtue. As the New York Times noted, Campbell “never quite puts his finger on the meaning, if any, of the extraordinary violence,” but he does “[lay] it all out for anyone else who wants to have a try.” Only the Denver Post found Campbell’s unreflective style trying, citing that the author “seems awkwardly obtuse when it comes to ascertaining the needs of other people.” Most reviewers, however, admired the book’s honest day-to-day look at attempting to quell the Iraqi insurgency. Copyright 2009 Bookmarks Publishing LLC

From Booklist

Platoon command puts a good leader in particularly intimate relationships with the other members. Campbell’s literate narrative of commanding marine infantry in Iraq vividly illuminates such a relationship. He has a knack for portraying the variety of men in one platoon, which can include the likes of herculean Nick Carson, the fast-running Ramses Yerba, and the precocious squad leader Chris Bowen. The dynamics of how platoon members support one another (most of the time), with help from on high by the company executive officer and gunnery sergeant, make for absorbing reading even for newcomers to the practical workings of the modern military.

Most helpful reviews

Reads like a Hollywood Blockbuster

By Scott A. Larson

Describing Joker One by Donovan Campbell in one word is a difficult task but if forced to do so the word would be poignant. Joker One is the story of the individual Marines who comprised one of the platoon’s deployed to fight in Iraq. More than a story about a war, Campbell slaps the “Human Condition” on the face of the Iraqi War, and for good measure nail guns it in place. His story is one that needed to be told, not to sway your opinion of whether the United States occupation of Iraq is justified, but rather to put names and faces to the individuals who served their country. It doesn’t matter whether you are pro or anti war what matters is that you understand the struggles of the individuals involved. The men in this story didn’t wage the war but rather carried out their mission with courage, bravado, and outright selfless determination. If you are not touched by the words between the bindings of this book than I might suggest you send out a search party for your soul.

The Stateside news reports of the Iraqi War have been meaningless rhetoric up to this point. We have been feed the gruesome details of body counts and have seen the anti-American sentiments of the Iraqi people, but up until the story of Joker One these stories have been a benign representation of the actual happenings in Iraq. We haven’t been told the stories of the “so-called” US allies who when forced with the decision of standing up for their own free society or their own mortality immediately switch their alliances and begin to open fire on our troops. Nor have we seen firsthand, the cowardly Iraqi insurgent’s complete disregard of their own countrymen as they use them as human shields as a means to an end.

Some soldiers have returned to the States battered, beaten, and broken both physically and mentally. Others have returned Stateside in wooden boxes draped with the United States flag. Campbell has identified these soldiers by name. Soldiers like you and I who have families, dreams, and ambitions now which regardless of injury or death have become severely altered by their mere participation in the ugliest form of human interaction.

Lieutenant Campbell takes this opportunity to provide the reader a front row seat into the daily struggles of his platoon. It would have been easy for him to shed the spotlight directly upon himself in this story; in order to boost his own ego. But to the contrary, Campbell highlights the extraordinary camaraderie of the men under his charge. Instead of highlighting his successes, he focuses on the successes of his men and points out his errors in judgment. He continually second guesses the split-second decisions he was forced to make. If only I had done X rather than Y, things might have been different; is the common theme of his thought process.

Joker One reads like an action packed Major Motion Picture. I had to constantly remind myself that I was reading a true story and not a piece of fiction dreamed up by some overly imaginative author hammering away at the keys of his or her word processor.

Joker One is so vivid and alive with detail that it hits the reader in the solar plexus with unrelenting force. Thanks to Lieutenant Campbell, here is to the soldiers of Joker One, Semper Fi!

Honest, Eye Opening, Unbiased, Sincere and Incredibly Interesting

By Burgmicester

The raw emotion that Campbell has laid bare in this poignant telling bluntly demonstrates his own passions and concerns for his men of Joker One and their return commitment and love for him. Donovan Campbell has in simple terms defined what it is to be a Marine.

The story begins with a brief encounter during Campbell’s first stint in Iraq. From there he returns to the United States and begins to cover the short pre-combat training regimen for his next insertion into real combat action again in Iraq. This section of the book is extremely engaging, as Campbell describes his first days with his new platoon and battalion. Never having been in the Armed Services, it was overwhelming for me to begin to understand what a Marine believes and how he perceives his world. Campbell opens doors into the day to day training and the mindset of Marines that it is impossible to obtain without such a wonderfully written first hand account. From there this unit arrives in Iraq and begins the trials and tribulations of trying to keep a city from falling into the hands of insurgents.

Campbell has written a heartfelt, honest, incredibly readable and moving biography of his time with the U.S. Marines in Iraq. It is difficult to write about something that is so recent without emphasizing various experiences and then “over writing” these experiences. Campbell has such balance in this book that it is difficult to find any fault concerning the topics of his choosing. From beginning to end, I was totally engaged. By the end of the book, I couldn’t find the words that would fit the sacrifices made by these young men; their commitment to their unit and to their mission is simply incredible.

His explanations are crisp, clear and concise. His tales of the patrols, the descriptions of the Iraqi citizens, the psychology of his men and leaders is just riveting. The fears that any man or woman would have in these circumstances are clearly told. There is not a dribble of bias that I can see coming through. He states his opinions, but they are based on factual evidence and observation. No matter a person’s inclinations politically, this is a must read.

Deeply Moveing

By Christopher Pope

I have been an avid reader since the 6th grad, and during my life I have read hundreds, if not thousands, of books. I have ordered from Amazon since the beginning, but this is the first time I have decided to write a review.

I found this book to be a deeply moving experience. I have always been a sucker for war stories but this one is different. I really felt that this was the most honest presentation of one man’s experience of war that I have ever encountered.

If you are looking for a cold clinical discussion of battle with diagrams and notes on troop deployment this is not it. This book puts you at street level from the POV of one man commanding his troops. The depictions of battle in this book are gritty, bloody, and real.

Donovan Campbell served his country well as a Marine and also by writing this book. By reading this book I came to a greater understanding of what our men have been through. I gained a profound respect for our combat forces and veterans. This book was so poignant at times that it reduced me to tears. It was a brutal read but the hours I spent reading this book where more than worth it. I have never been as moved in my life by a storey as I was by this account. It is well worth your time. Buy it! Read it! You will not regret it!

From Goodreads.com


I should disclose this was not only my first book on Iraq, but the first war memoir I have ever read. I’m not even exactly sure what made me pick it up or that I would make it through the first few chapters. As a housewife, I have as little in common with your typical marine as anyone. But this book is excellent. The consummately humble Campbell tells the story of his platoon, Joker One, from it’s inception through deployment to Iraqi city of Ramadi for a nine month peace keeping mission. The reader is presented with a straightforward and honest account of war from the men who fought it.

Campbell writes with grace and humor telling us of the platoon’s growing pains and mistakes as well as his short comings as a leader. He takes the time to walk the reader through military basics and the political setting of Ramadi making the story accessible without over politicizing or romanticizing his work. There is plenty of action, though nothing is gritty, and the book brims with poignant moments. I doubt it is possible to finish this book without renewed appreciation for the sacrifices our men make out of love for each other and our country. If you’ve ever wondered how service men keep their lives, faith and humanity—read this book.

Elisif Brandon

I really enjoyed this book. Written by a Marine lieutenant whose platoon fought in Ramadi in 2004. I think this is the first time I’ve read a military book by someone who had so many men under him (40). His company (2/4) commander was awarded the Leftwich award, stating he was the Marine Corps’ best combat company commander (and our company as its best combat company) for all of 2004, which included both Fallujah invasions. His battalion took more casualties than any battalion, Marine or Army, since Vietnam. The fighting in Ramadi was different from Fallujah in that most of the civilian population stayed in the city, so it was more urban counterinsurgency fighting than all-out battles.

I found the early chapters very interesting as he was trying to figure out how to be a good leader and how to best prepare his men. This was a theme throughout the book, in fact. What made me most upset in the book was not when men were horribly injured or killed, but when bad leadership by others in the company led to stupid orders, such as not allowing the marines to take food with them on missions, or not giving them time to fill their canteens in 135 degree heat after they just returned from a long mission and were sent out again. Thankfully these kinds of things were quickly discovered and corrected by the lieutenant, but not until some men nearly died because of it. One thing that really surprised me was the talks the lieutenant gave to his men about how they must be feeling when one of their buddies died, and how he talked them down from those feelings of hatred and revenge. He was a leader to his men in many different ways, including emotionally–he seemed to fill the role of social worker sometimes.

One of the best books I’ve read about Iraq and Afghanistan and the soldier’s experience on the ground.

Paul Arnold

I wanted to read this book because I was curious about infantry operations in Iraq from the standpoint of a soldier. Joker One was the name of a Marine infantry platoon, and the author was the lieutenant in charge. The book tells about his tour of duty in Ramadi, when things were especially hot there, as well as his stateside preparations.

The author joined the Corps right after graduation from Princeton. He writes well, but thankfully limits his subject to what he observes and what he feels, avoiding political commentary and strategic musings.

Before he wrote the book, his enlistment period had expired and he had been separated from the service. Actually, he was working on a graduate degree at the Harvard Business School when he wrote, so he was not constrained by how his comments in the book would affect his military career. He is very candid about the Corps and the officers he served under. He loves the USMC, but the book is not a sugared up version of his service time.

I found the book extremely informative and quite moving. That was damned tough duty that he and his men went through. He was close to his enlisted men, and was able to bring those young soldiers to life on his pages. As a former enlisted man, I have a soft spot in my heart for young soldiers, so I found all that aspect of the book particularly moving.

I especially recommend the book to anyone who has any interest in learning more about combat ground operations in the Iraq war.


Even though I am not done reading this book I feel I can give somewhat of an awesome review lol. Joker One by Donovan Campbell is a love story, a war story, a leadership guide, and a Marine recruitment narrative. It’s a military memoir, and a little bit of a faith memoir. Joker One is an amazing true story, brilliantly told. I have never before read any memoir like it, and I urge you to pick up a copy, read it, and pass it along.

Donovan Campbell completed the ten-week Marine Corp Officer Candidate School (“ten weeks of uninterrupted screaming“) as a college junior, after which he swore that he would “never, ever join the Marine Corp.” He graduated from Princeton and promptly joined the Corps, looking for “a pursuit that would force me to assume responsibility for something greater than myself, something that would force me to give back, to serve others.” This earnestness struck me as a little too heavily played–but not for long.

Campbell’s compelling story begins in the middle of a firefight, just after a rocket attack on an abandoned hotel that Campbell and his men were using as an observation position. Surrounded by rubble, choking dust, and pieces of exploded rockets, with a friendly machine gun firing full-bore a few feet away, Lieutenant Campbell calls in his position, burns his fingers on the still-searing-hot hockey puck of a warhead, and eventually discovered that the enemy had failed to kill or wound a single Marine.

Thats just a taste, pick up a copy or wait till I finish reading mine and I’ll pass it along if you ask nicely… 😉


I bought this book because I had been told by someone who is a rather big fan of Generation Kill, that “Joker One” was possibly even better than Nate Fick’s “One Bullet Away”. Since “One Bullet Away” was one of the best books I’ve read in the last years, there was no question that I desperately had to read “Joker One”.

Too make it short: it’s not better. But it’s also not worse. It’s simply very very different, in, well, mostly everything.

The only thing the two books have in common is that they are both written by (ex-)Marine officers (“There is no such thing as an ex-marine…”), and they both focus on the stories of their deployments to Iraq. And that’s about all the have in common. The comparison is still valid, though, in my opinion, because it is the differences that made this book (more) interesting to me. I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite as much if I hadn’t read and loved OBA before.

But let’s talk about “Joker One”. Unlike OBA, Joker One is a story almost entirely about the platoon commanded by the author, Donovan Campbell, during his deployment to Iraq in 2004. Campbell makes no secret out of this, he states quite clearly in the beginning of the book that he writes this book out of love for his men, and with love for his men. And that love is something that can be felt in every chapter, every word.

Despite this, or maybe because of this, “Joker One” never felt as real to me as the people in OBA did. Sure, Campbell tells us a few basic things about his marines (at least a few of them), but they never became “real” to me, they never developed their own personalities in my head. I kept wondering why that was while I read, and finally noticed that we see everything, the characters and the events, not only through Campbell’s eyes, but through his love-tinted glasses, which set on the story a bit like a fog that never really lets you focus. Fick looks sharply at the world, critically. Campbell just looks and describes. I’m okay with this, after all, Campbell emphasizes the love for his men so often that I can’t say I wasn’t warned that this book might be a bit one-sided. But it certainly makes the book feel very very different from OBA. Maybe it takes some objectivity to describe people in a way that enables others to see them clearly.

Generally, there’s an underlying naivité in Campbell’s writing that stems mostly from his simplistic writing style. Yes, I said simplistic and I know that some people will likely object to this. But really, there’s a lot of “I did”, “We went”, “and then we did…” that reminded me more of a school report than a book written by a soldier. I feel the need to point this out because it was so noticeable. Maybe I am spoiled by Fick’s excellent writing and the fact that from the very beginning I kept comparing the books, which I really shouldn’t have done. But I’m not complaining. If anything, Campbell’s writing-style underlines the horror of the events he describes, because they stand in such a stark contrast to his style.

While GK was set at the very beginning of OIF, and it describes these guys (see my review) speeding through Iraq in a couple of Humvees, not really certain what their mission is (and why it is them that are doing it). “Joker One” takes places a year later, when the war is almost “over”, and Campbell’s platoon is based in Ramadi, stationary, with the mission to provide security for the city and to fight insurgents. That in itself, the stationary against the moving, is one of the biggest differences that also set a very different mood for the whole book. Because once you stay in one point, you begin to feel at home. And maybe that’s why it had such a different impact on me to read about how the situation in Ramadi got worse with every day for Campbell and his men. Unlike in Generation Kill, there would be no moving forward the next day, no moving somewhere else where it might be less dangerous.

And worse it got for Campbell. What starts out as a what feels like a fairly quiet mission with the intent/orders to make nice with the locals, turns into a violent, every-day battle against insurgents which leaves one-third of the men wounded and many dead. Campbell describes convincingly how at some point he is certain that he won’t come back alive, and that he won’t come back from the next day without yet another injured soldier. All this is told in the same language, the same steady “and then this happened”, and “then that person got shot” that makes it slightly surreal, though.

And so it is the knowledge that Campbell, unlike Fick, does not bring all his men home alive, more than the feelings that Campbell evokes with his actual writing, that made me feel for him, and I shudder to think what this book would have done to me if it had been written by a writer like Fick. It would probably have ruined me.

P.S.: For those of you who know who you are: there’s a lot of crying in this book. And hugging. Way more hugging than one would expect. Just saying.

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Categories: memoir Tags: ,
  1. abhi
    July 29, 2012 at 2:12 am

    link not working

    • July 27, 2014 at 9:00 pm

      “..Yes, the link isn’t working anymore…”

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