A Chronicle of a Soldier
WHEN NATHANIEL FICK MPA 2006 returned from fighting a war in Iraq that has dominated the news for three years, his parents couldn’t talk to him about it. Finally, at the end of an awkward dinner, his mother asked, “So how was the war?” At the time, he couldn’t answer the question.
Now he has, with the publication of his new book, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. Promoted to captain after commanding a reconnaissance battalion, Fick chronicles his preparation for battle and his experiences as a fighter and leader. He recounts his pride in representing his country in Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11 and the danger, confusion, and moral quandaries during the march to Baghdad in the early days of the Iraq war. Offering the perspective of someone on the front lines, the book answers the questions people too often are afraid to ask him, he says.
“It’s almost like, having been there, you have too much moral authority,” says Fick. “All of a sudden people won’t engage, or they won’t push back, or they won’t disagree. I really want the book to start conversations, something more than ideological mudslinging.”
In that, he has been successful, with national press coverage and large crowds on his book tour, including in his hometown of Baltimore and at Dartmouth College, where he graduated with a degree in classics. He enlisted in the military while in college, inspired by heroic tales of Sparta and Athens (the book opens with a quote from Thucydides) and drawn to the Marine code of honor and duty. Fick left the Marines shortly after returning from Iraq, having become a “reluctant warrior,” he writes, relieved that none of his men were killed and unable to face that prospect again.
He acknowledges experiencing a difficult transition to civilian life, as many combat veterans do. “I got out of the Marines, and I felt adrift,” he says. “My friends were gone, and my sense of purpose was gone. The book gave me that focus and purpose that I missed.”
Being part of an academic community also helped, he says. A joint degree student at Harvard Business School, Fick says the Kennedy School offers him new insight on national security and defense issues. “KSG took my down-in-the-weeds perspective on national security and jacked it up about 50,000 feet.”
He’s unsure what career he’ll pursue after graduating, but he expects it will be in the public sector. Though other Iraq war veterans have launched campaigns for public office, he says he’s more attracted to policy than politics. His book avoids the politics behind the wars, focusing on the men who fought and their missions. Now, however, he’s largely critical of the Bush administration for its handling of the Iraq war. “The idea that opposition to the policy is unpatriotic or somehow undermining the people in uniform is absurd,” he says.
Through his book, he wanted to present one perspective from a person in uniform and contribute to the public debate. He also wanted to tell the story for people who couldn’t tell it themselves. The man who replaced Fick, Captain Brent Morel, led a platoon when it was ambushed in Fallujah. He was shot in the chest and died on April 7, 2004. — LR
Excerpt from One Bullet Away
In the parking lot, I saw my replacement, a red-haired captain named Brent Morel. We had gone to lunch together the day before and sat for two hours as I tried to put the platoon into words — Colbert’s cool demeanor, Rudy’s enthusiasm, Jacks’s mastery of the Mark-19, Patrick’s southern aphorisms. The war in Iraq hadn’t ended, and I wanted Morel to know the men when he took them back for their second tour.
He looked up from the waterproof bag he was sealing. “Hi, Nate. We’re heading down to the beach for a fin.”
“Whole platoon. Wanna come?” It was a gracious offer, but I couldn’t accept it.
“They’re yours now, man. Have a good one.”
In the office, I collected all my gear, cleaning each piece and stuffing it into my rucksack to return to the supply warehouse. I held my rifle, thinking of Al Gharraf and the dead fedayeen. Putting my hand around the grip of the pistol, I was back at the bridge in Muwaffiqiya with tracers slicing through the dark. Brown bloodstains still mottled my flight gloves, but I shoved them into the ruck. I tried for a moment to beat Iraq’s dust from its canvas but gave up. This pack would probably be retired anyway. A piece of shrapnel had torn through its outer pockets and ripped away all the snaps.
At the warehouse, I waited in a line of Marines turning in their gear. Some were heading to new assignments, others getting out. All were quiet. Near the opposite doorway stood a group of second lieutenants, new guys with fresh haircuts. They joked and laughed, pretending not to see us.
I wanted to gather them up and tell them what my father had told me as a new Marine: “Stand tall, but come home physically and psychologically intact.” I knew they would clasp their hands behind them, listen respectfully, and then laugh behind the back of a crazy captain who’d forgotten that Marine lieutenants are invincible. So I walked to my car and drove home instead. They would figure it out for themselves.