You might wonder why a guy with an Ivy League degree and the world seemingly on a string would sign up for Marine Corps Officer Training School and eagerly volunteer to fight in Iraq. But Donovan Campbell never even stops to raise the question in his beautiful and harrowing debut, Joker One. Instead, he launches right in, introducing the characters under his command as they prepare to ship off to the Middle East a ragtag group of Marines that includes a crazy Filipino with a naked she-devil tattoo and a jug-eared narcoleptic who falls asleep during the hairiest situations. Once in Iraq, the frat-house craziness slips away. And Campbell, with a mix of fear and pride, whispers to himself, ''Dear God, please don't let me screw up and get everybody killed.''
When the untested infantry platoon (known by their radio call sign, Joker One) arrives in Ramadi, east of Baghdad, it's early 2004 10 months after President Bush stood proudly on an aircraft carrier in front of a ''Mission Accomplished'' sign. The platoon's mission is to ''secure and stabilize'' the sardine-packed city of 350,000. They try to win over hearts and minds by handing out candy to Iraqi kids, who pelt them with rocks. Within a few days, one of Campbell's men has his jaw blown off by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Campbell unspools blow-by-blow accounts of his unit's patrols from street level. The fuzzy radio transmissions, the roadside bombs laid by faceless enemies, the dust-filled, hand-trembling confusion it all comes dizzyingly alive. ''Sometimes, on the front lines, there are no great options,'' he writes, ''just bad ones and worse ones, so you do what you can.... Then you live with the results and shut up about the whole thing.'' By the time the platoon finally returns home, exhausted, scarred, and with fewer men than they set out with, Campbell's admiration for his men has become contagious. It's only then that you realize that Joker One isn't as much a story of war as it is a story of love. A