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Lashings of manly love in a Humvee – review of ‘One Bullet Away’

‘One Bullet Away: the making of a Marine Officer’, Nathaniel Fick (Orion)

Reviewed by Mark Simpson

Why do we blokes – and it is almost always blokes – read war books, catch war movies and play twitchy first-person Second World War shooter games like Call of Duty? Why do we crave “war porn”?

Because we still believe, deep down, in this post-masculine era of digitised, virtual life and professional/quasi-mercenary armies that “take care of business” for the rest of us, that one day we will be called up. That one day we will be roused from our comfortable cosseted techno-textured vanilla-flavoured semi-slumber and tested. And we wonder whether we will be able to find the necessary selflessness, courage, virtue, toughness, and, well, murderousness.

Most of all, we worry that they’ll find out we’re sorry sacks of shit.

And, let’s face it, we’re all sorry sacks of shit compared to… blond, square-jawed, Nathaniel Fick, former elite USMC officer, Afghan and Iraq war vet, Classics scholar, talented writer (damn him) and all-round gent. Fick is one of that strange minority of men who isn’t interested in what it’s like to go to war. He’s one of those oddities: someone who actually goes to war. Voluntarily. So, during a particularly hellish, sleepless, hungry moment in Basic Training he spies from a helicopter commuters on the freeway headed to work, rested, showered, well-fed, calm and finds himself not wishing to change places with them for a minute. Moreover, unlike, say Anthony Swofford, the slightly neurotic author of Jarhead (about the first Gulf War) he’s no passive grunt. He’s a man who makes things happen, who takes decisions, who looks after his men and, even argues with superior officers. Not surprisingly, he comes across as inspiring but also rather peculiar.

His memoir ‘One Bullet Away’ provides the self-loathing civilian with almost everything he is looking for. We get the officer version of USMC boot camp, which turns out to be much the same as the grunt version, except even more gruelling, and starring the same homo-sado DI we know and love: ‘”What’s in here?” He grabbed my toiletry bag. “Drugs? Booze? Maybe a tube of K-Y jelly and a big cucumber?”‘

We get action, and rather more of it than Swofford was able to offer: with almost Hollywood-style scripting, Fick passes the terrifying training programme in time for 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan. A swift promotion follows a successful tour of duty, and he joins the elite Recon Battalion, the Marines of the Marines, and the vanguard of the Coalition forces invading Iraq; he describes the action and his own experience of it in economical, fluid, convincing and occasionally lethal prose. Though not always “unflinching”: for example, when the firing started, sitting in his unprotected Humvee, he would will his limbs to retract into his body armour (but, rest reassured: this was only because he didn’t like to be stuck in a vehicle during combat and preferred to feel the ground beneath his feet).

We also get the “money shot” of war porn: and not just gruesome descriptions of exploding heads (though we do get some of that), but lashings of manly love in the form of camaraderie: Fick was devoted to the Spartan Band that is the USMC, is unafraid to quote Classical Greek poetry and Rudyard Kipling, and takes an almost maternal interest in his men. Fick even confronts his superior officers when they appear to him to be taking reckless risks with his chaps. He is rightfully proud of the fact that he succeeded in returning from Iraq without having lost a single man from his platoon.

Fick, who is clearly a thoughtful and sensitive man – as well as a well-oiled killing machine – eventually leaves the Corps because he doesn’t feel capable of regarding the lives of his men as expendable. If this is “war porn”, it is definitely the better kind.

So what’s a civvie pussy to complain of? Well, Fick may question the policies of his superior officers, but not of his Commander in Chief – and blocks any discussion of whether it was a “just” war or not with a riposte that seems to have come from Platoon: “We fought for each other.”

Then again, Fick joined the Marines because he wanted to fight. Having been called upon to fight for his country, it’s not so surprising that he wasn’t keen to question the cause, especially in the dusty wake of 9/11. No, the main reservation I have – my armchair whinge – is that I don’t feel that either Afghanistan or Iraq tested Fick enough.

Although Fick sees much more action than Swafford, and is fired upon regularly, he and his men always have absurdly superior firepower to the enemy, who most of the time run away or surrender, or can’t aim their weapons. And when they don’t run away, Fick can usually call in the Cobra gunships or F-16s or an artillery barrage and wipe them out in seconds. Which he does, frequently. The disparity in firepower is greater than that between Mussolini’s troops and the Abyssinians – or the stormtroopers and the giant bugs in Starship Troopers. I don’t mean to diminish the training, skill, bravery or all-round awesomeness of Fick and his men, without which the technology would be worthless, nor do I wish any more of them dead or wounded, but Afghanistan and Iraq were not heroic wars. They may or may not have been necessary, and are tests that I would have failed miserably, but they would have sickened the Spartans.

I suspect Fick feels uneasy too, but in a way that he has yet to accept. After a battle, surveying the piles of lightly-armed enemy corpses shredded by American weaponry, one “stapled to a tree trunk by .50 caliber machine gun rounds”, another filled with “thousands of tiny metal slivers” from a Cobra’s flechette rocket, Fick reflects: “I found no joy in looking at the men we’d killed, no satisfaction… But I wasn’t disturbed either. I fell back on an almost clinical detachment. The men were adults who chose to be here. I was an adult who chose to be here. They shot at us and missed. We shot at them and didn’t miss. The fight was fair.”

Much as I admire Fick and his book, and much as I consider myself unworthy to polish his boots with my tea-towel, I find it difficult to believe any of these statements about his feelings – or the nature of the fight that provoked them.

(Originally published in the Independent on Sunday, 26 March 2006)

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