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Nathaniel Fick: “One Bullet Away”

Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan, discusses his experiences as an infantry officer and a captain and his memoir "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer."

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  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    At least since the time of Duciditi, soldiers have come home to write of their battle. That tradition continues through a number of memoirs now coming out about the country's newest wars. One is by Nathaniel Fick who enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating as a classics major at Dartmouth; he served as infantry officer in Afghanistan and led a reconnaissance platoon during the invasion of Iraq

    Fick left the Marine Corps as a captain in 2003. He's written of his experience in the book "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer." Daniel Fick joins me now. Welcome to you.

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    It's an honor, thanks.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    I got the impression that as a student you were very aware of this tradition of writing about war. Is that why you wrote your book?

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    It is not. It is why I joined the Marines. I felt this historical continuity with the citizen soldier. But the decision to write the book came more incrementally. I didn't intend to write a book. When I got back from Iraq, I wanted to write the stories down before they faded from my memory.

    And then as I continued writing, I began to think it was a way to explain my experience to my family and to the people I loved in my life. And then the motivation continued to shift. And I began to think it could be a contribution to the dialogue in the United States about the war in Iraq.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You wrote at one point in the book that combat is a form of a blur of a war, so something would happen to you and every one of your men would recall it differently.

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    I'd read enough war stories to know about the theme of hyper clarity, this idea that when the shooting starts, the colors are more intense than you have seen them before; you can see every blade of grass, that sort of idea.

    And in my first firefight, I didn't have that. I had gray fuzz, and it was like I couldn't tell what was going on. Gradually, I snapped out of it. But that impression stayed with me.

    After a firefight, I would talk to my Marines and five different people would have five different stories, all of them true.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There's a short passage that I want to ask you to read as sort of an awakening moment for you, a change in your life.

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    I would love to. "Throughout my life, I had always had some sense of what was coming next. People build continuity into their life: Places, friends and goals. We go to work on Monday with plans for Friday night, enroll as freshmen intending to be seniors and save money for retirement. We try to control what comes next and shape it to meet our will. This was too big for me to shape. I was absolved of the responsibility for my future. It was replaced with responsibility for 22 other futures. Nothing in my history seemed to matter beyond that line on the map. I didn't know what to expect; could not even imagine what might come next."

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Is this, you wrote at the beginning that you wanted a great adventure — you obviously had this tradition of studying the classics and the literature behind it. But this sense of not knowing what might come next, is that what war seemed to mean to you?

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    I have thrown away my crystal ball. I joined the Marines in 1998, and the world was largely at peace. And then all of a sudden, things changed. And I was in Afghanistan and then obviously in Iraq. And I realized that you can't control it. You can do a lot to prepare. You can train, and at the end of the day there's an element that's always going to be beyond your control.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, there are times in the book when no one looks very good. There are some people who make serious mistakes and put lives in danger. There are other times in the book where people behave so honorably. Does that reflect the experience that you had as you went through this?

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    I think it does. This is humanity stripped of the veneer of civilization. And the thing, decisions have immediate irrevocable consequences and when I was making decisions under those circumstances, I tried to apply two litmus tests. I wanted my Marines to be able to come home and look themselves in the mirror for the rest of their lives when they are shaving and know that they had done the honorable thing. Not in the big picture but in their slice, the bit they could control that they had done the honorable thing.

    And secondly, I wanted them to — I had to be able to go visit their parents after the war if any of them had been killed and explain to the mother and the father why their son had been killed working for me, honestly without sugar coating it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There are several decisions you make in which you challenge higher officers. There's a very moving section in which a couple of Iraqi children are accidentally wounded. And you force your officers to give them medical attention.

    And as a reader, it is fascinating to see the mind, your mind at work between following orders and your own individualism out on the battlefield.

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    The tension in making a decision like that is one thing I think a participant's book can convey in a way a reporter's can't – the thought process. And I had to know that my Marines would survive to fight another day — not only physically but psychologically. And we had to save those kids who had been shot — yes, for the kids — but more importantly, for me, for the sake of my Marines.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, you said at the beginning that you wanted to follow this tradition of the scholar soldier, I think is how you put it. In our society, those seems to be quite split. You have experience at an ivy institution, at Dartmouth. You're now in graduate school at Harvard and the Marines. It is dangerous that there is that split?

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    One of the ancient philosophers wrote that a nation that draws too great a distinction between scholars and its warriors has its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools. And I think the schism between the military and the opinion-making class in the United States is a dangerous one. It is bad for the military and it's bad for all of us as citizens; we have to do all we can to bridge that divide.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    This was of course, and still is, a controversial war. How did you, how did your men over there deal with that split that was going on in the country?

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    We had a Grundig shortwave radio that we had to crank. In the desert we could use it to listen to BBC World Service. So we heard about the protests in London and Washington during the run up to the war. The men in my platoon had opinions about the war. There were some who thought it was illegal, immoral and ill advised and there were others who thought Iraq would be the beachhead of democracy in the Middle East.

    But when you are serving, you know, volunteer professional military, you take an oath to the Constitution, not to a policy or a president and you swear to obey the lawful orders of the democratically elected government. And so at the end of the day we could table our personal political views and do our job.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And in the end of the book you say that you have become a what you call a reluctant warrior, and you write about, in the end, these men that you were closest to that you fought with and you said, "We fought for each other. I am proud."

  • NATHANIEL FICK:

    I think it gets to the point the policy and the strategy are almost luxuries that can't be afforded by the people on the ground in uniform. My commitment, my loyalty wasn't to the idea of a democratic Iraq, it wasn't even really to the United States at large; it shrinks to loyalty and commitment and trust with the people around you.

    And my loyalty was to the Marines to my left and to my right, to the men who were serving under me and to the commanders I worked with. And so it does become very personal in that sense.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right. The book is "One Bullet Away." Nathaniel Fick, thank you very much.

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