Life inside the revered US Marine Corps has fascinated those on ‘Civvy Street’ for generations. Nathaniel Fick’s award-winning debut book, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, goes beyond the traditional tales of rigid discipline and arduous training, and delivers a frank account of the Iraq invasion in 2003.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Fick became a second lieutenant in the Marines and originally trained as an infantry officer. He served in Afghanistan and Pakistan only weeks after September 11 before joining the Corps' reconnaissance force. His book recounts the invasion with day-by-day, hour-upon-hour accounts that describe his feelings of sheer exhaustion, fear, confusion, disillusionment at some commanding officers, and guilt over civilian casualties.
He left the Marines as a captain in December 2003, not wishing to undertake four years in administrative roles, and recently won the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for a debut non-fiction book.
“I didn’t plan to write a book,” said Nathaniel from his home in Massachusetts. “My grandfather was my inspiration. He had served in the Navy in World War II and my family didn’t know a great deal about what he did. I thought I’d like to put my experiences down on paper so my family and my kids could read about it. Then the officer who replaced me in my platoon was killed in Iraq and I thought I should turn my work to a book.”
One Bullet Away has received considerable attention from both liberal and right-wing commentators and media.
“Being a Marine is not a political experience,” he said. “The soldiers in my platoon had a wide variety of opinions about the war from it was unwise and illegal to those who thought we should have done this 12 years before.
“Now as a private citizen, it is very hard for me to say that it was all worth it. Strategically, I think the United States is in danger of suffering a serious loss with consequences for years to come.
“The debate about Iraq is polarized. One half of the people always switch off their brains when they hear something about Iraq. People use parts of the book to bolster their own political opinions.
“I was on Al Franken’s Air America Radio show, which is fairly liberal, and he praised the book. Then the following week, I was on Laura Ingraham’s radio show and she’s more conservative, and she praised the book. I wanted to add real opinions to the debate.”
On returning to the US after his tour of duty in Iraq, Nathaniel described himself as feeling numb.
“I came back on a jet so within a few hours I was back with my family in San Diego and on the beach,” he explained. “People have to deal with it some how – my way was writing the book rather than taking alcohol or drugs.
“Americans can’t even begin to understand what’s going on over there. I know saying if someone doesn’t participate then they can’t understand is a cheap excuse but it does apply in some ways. For instance, several generations ago, 75 per cent of the media and politicians had military experience but that is no longer the case. The people who are making the decisions have no knowledge or experience about how the military works. I see too many knee-jerk reactions.
“I initially thought the book would be bought by people with connections to the military or by people that simply enjoyed war books. However, far more women have read the book than I expected. I have received 4,800 emails to my website from readers and many were female.”
At times, the book reveals Nathaniel’s conflicting feelings about helping Iraqi civilians and carrying out his orders. When his platoon comes across a badly wounded teenage Iraqi girl probably hurt by Allied bombing, he decides to help her even though it means he is unable to successfully complete his platoon’s mission to search for hidden weapons that could be used against American soldiers by insurgents.
“I hope there is a 17-year-old girl in Baghdad who remembers that she was saved by some American soldiers,” he said. “Perhaps she is dead. I don’t know. I catch myself thinking about it sometimes.”
The book also sheds light on the role of literature in Marine life.
“Almost every Marine carries a book in his equipment, and books and coffee are totally communal in the Marines,” said Nathaniel. “For instance, I had Seven Pillars of Wisdom by TE Lawrence and that was read by almost everyone in the platoon. Gates of Fire by Stephen Pressfield was also very popular. I have also read lots of books about military history. I am an avid reader.”
Today, Nathaniel studying for a master's degree in International Security Policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and an MBA at the Harvard Business School.
“I hope to get back into public service,” said Nathaniel, who admits he would like to write another book. “I feel civilian decision-makers really need people with military experience, so they can identify with what’s happening. Joining the Marines was the best decision I ever made and leaving the Marines was my second best decision.
“I think it would be incredibly difficult to serve there right now. I would find it hard to justify the death of a Marine to anyone now. I don’t think I could go to someone’s family and say their son had been killed. It would be hard to explain.”