GQ | September 2005
After graduating from Dartmouth in 1999, Nathaniel Fick was commissioned as A Lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps. Deployed with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in Pakistan and Afghanistan, he returned to the states and underwent training to join the Marines' elite Recon Battalion (The USMC equivalent of the Navy Seals.) He led a platoon in the invasion of Iraq in 2003, after which he resigned his commission. He is currently pursuing a joint Master's in business and policy at Harvard. His memoir One Bullet Away is being published by Houghton Mifflin in October.
So how did you get started writing this book?
I kept a daily journal, or as close as I could to a daily journal. I also had to keep a tactical log, where we were, what we were doing and all that, and I had all my maps that I had written on.
It was rare really that we spent more than 24 hours in a single place.
It's an atypical experience for someone of your background. What prompted you to join up?
I wish I could say it was a grand vision, or something patriotic, but it was really incrementalism at its worst. I went to college intending to go to med school, but I failed a chemistry class my freshman year. The lab was on Friday nights from 7--10, so I had a valid excuse. I started looking into other options. And I narrowed it down to the Peace Corps and the military. People raise an eyebrow when they hear that, but I think the two are actually similar in a lot of ways. They both offered what I was looking for. I wanted travel, I wanted something outdoors. I wanted something with leadership opportunities. The marines have something called the platoon leadership course. I went between my Junior and senior years. After the course, you have the option of walking away, but they know that by then you've invested too much, and you've worked too hard to turn it away.
The first half of the book has a lot of pull--ups and 20 mile runs. Have you kept in shape ?
I really wish I could say I had. Writing a book is not so good for the fitness level.
What was your writing process like?
I had never done any creative writing before. I first got interested in writing in high school, and I had an English teacher that first turned me on to it. Throughout this whole experience I never had any intention of writing a book. A journal was just a journal. And the maps and the patrol log were simply work requirements. When I got back from Afghanistan, my buddies sat me down and said you've got to write a book about these experiences. But Iraq was on the horizon. When I got back from there the same guys sat me down and said you've got to write a book, you've got a really good story now. So I went to the bookstore near camp Pendleton in san diego. I looked, I was a rank amateur at this, and looked at the spines of the military books I liked to see who was the publisher. I sent 25 copies of what I thought was a book proposal to 25 publishers, and 24 of them disappeared into the ether, and I got one very kind rejection letter back that referred me to an agent by name. I sent him my proposal, and he thought the project was good enough to take on but the proposal was not good enough to send out, so he kind of put me through the ringer for a few months.
Was the process of writing cathartic in some way?
I'd be lying if I said it wasn't. Especially in the beginning, I just started writing, I didn't think about structure, I just kind of poured it out for about three months. There were times when I couldn't see the keyboard through the tears. It was a very emotional experience. Once I was through that phase, with the help of my editor, I was able to be more objective and take a step back. That's when I started learning something about the craft of it, and could look at it more objectively.
Do you think that a program like the NEA's Operation Homecoming (a creative writing program for vets) is useful?
I'm buddies with the editor in charge of that. What they're doing is taking these writers, military and not, and putting them on these bases and teaching these classes and getting people to write about their experiences. And I think telling the story is an integral part of making the transition from combat back to civil society. I look at my own experience, I had a good education, I had a loving family, I had supportive friends, I came back to good job prospects, I had all the support I needed. And the Iraq war knocked me on my ass for a year. It took me a year to get my life moving forward again. And so I think about what the experience must do to people who don't have all of that infrastructure that I had. And I think writing about that, getting it out rather than letting it fester is very important.
There's a scene in the book after the first firefight where everyone's sitting around heating up coffee over burning sticks of C4 plastic explosive, and retelling the battle. What kind of role does that storytelling play? How do you burn C4 without blowing up, by the way?
It requires heat and pressure. You can burn it, or you can step on it. But step on it while it's on fire, say goodbye to your foot. You become accustomed to a whole different scale of risk. No sooner would a firefight end then the storytelling would begin. I encouraged it not only because I thought it was good for psychological well being, but because that's where the lessons are learned. Platoons learn, and the more they learn quickly, the better off they are.
You got your platoon and yourself out of the war more or less unscathed except for Sgt. Patrick. What do you think of the prosecution of the war since the "Mission Accomplished" moment?
I have a pet theory. That I look back at the summer of 2003, roughly from the time of the Mission accomplished banner in May until the UN HQ was bombed in August. Sergio Dimello was killed. There was a period there, like June and July 03, when Iraq was largely at peace. When I was there, everything the administration was saying about who we were fighting was true. We were fighting bath party hardliners, foreign jihadists, and criminals that had been let out of prison before the invasion. And then something changed. Sometime during that summer, ordinary Joe Iraqis on the street became dissatisfied and disillusioned with the American presence, and we saw that, and when we first saw that metastasizing, that was our first clue that things were going to get worse before they got better.
Western armies have been fighting insurgencies for centuries. My buddies who are in Iraq right now, many of them have Lawrence's "Seven Pillars of Wisdom" as their bedside reading. A lot of what he said still applies. Principle number one is developing relationships and developing trust at the local level. When I was there we were pulled out of neighborhoods after a day or two and sent to another neighborhood, we never had the opportunity to begin building that trust.
I tried to say in the book that one concrete act of good will, whether it's a gallon of water or blowing up that RPG warhead in someone's front yard, one concrete act of good will is worth a thousand speeches about freedom and democracy. When the marines went back to Iraq about a year later, just before the first Fallujah offensive, they tried to revive a Vietnam concept called the combined action platoon. CAP. And what that program did was put a squad or a platoon into a village to live. They would essentially be immersed in the community, and they would stay there for a 12 month tour. That's a step in the right direction. It's a dangerous job, you pay a blood proce up front because you're not driving by in your Bradley armored fighting vehicle, you're not holed up in your compound, you're out there living in a village. No helmet, no flak jacket, maybe nit even a weapon some of the time. You know what? It's the only way to get the job done.
Do you think the war is winnable, and what would that look like now?
I look at it now and I say the price of losing is too high. We cannot afford to have a failed state in the heart of the Middle East with almost limitless oil revenue. It's a terrifying prospect. So some semblance of victory isis unit prisoner. And I noticed that they all had chemical suits and boots and gloves and gasmasks and atropine injectors in case they got hit with a nerve agent, and I went up to him, he spoke almost flawless English, and I said did you really expect the Americans to use chemical weapons against you? And he said, no, we expected Saddam to use them against you, and we would be caught in the crossfire. The deception was wide and the deception was deep.
The bottom line is that Colin Powell's line is right "If you break it, you own it." And we broke it, and now we own it, and getting rid of it is just not an option in the foreseeable future.
Who in contemporary political life do you admire?
I'd be hard--pressed to give you a name, but I always thought that John McCain was a reasonable and honorable man. I'm a life long Republican, but I think I'm about to re--register. What I'd like to see, you know what my dream is? The 14 centrist Senators who killed the filibuster nuclear option, I'd like them to form a third party. If they could get together and form a truly centrist party, rob the democrats and republicans of the whole middle, that's an agenda I could probably get on board with.
What about yourself, you're going to the KSG, what do you want for the future, are there any political inclinations?
I'm very interested in policy, but not especially interested in politics. I'm also doing a joint MBA over at the business school. I'd like to get into defense policy somehow, Having seen it from the side I was on, I'd like to get in on it from the policy planning side eventually. People with that sort of perspective are in short supply today.
We have a lot of chicken hawks.
A lot of them.
Evan Wright tagged along with your platoon for the whole time. Were you happy with his portrayal of your unit in his book?
I tell you what, I was adamantly opposed to having him along. I had tremendous reservations. I thought it was another mouth to feed, I thought he wouldn't know how to take care of himself, one more person for me to worry about, I thought he wouldn't understand our culture and wouldn't be able to keep up. And then I had a moment of clarity after that first firefight, when I found him on his hands and knees next to the humvee he'd been riding in, counting the bullet holes in his door. There were six of them.
We had the option of uparmored humvees, and my platoon sergeant and I decided not to use them because roadside bombs were not a problem then. Rather than carrying all that armor, we preferred to use the weight to carry food and fuel and ammunition and medical supplies and water. Your max gross weight remains the same. The more armor you carry the less of everything else you can carry.
How do you feel about the Hummer being co--opted to shuttle soccer moms back and forth between PTA meetings now?
The cynic in me says that we need to keep burning fossil fuels so that the marines have a job, but I think hybrid cars and alternate energy sources are the wave of the future. I don't get along with the personality type that drives a humvee in civilian life.
So when Evan Wright was counting those bullet holes, I was figuring he was going to take that opportunity to leave. At any point he could have said hey I'm done, I have enough for my story. In fact in Kuwait we had two other reporters with the battalion, a writer for the New Yorker and a photographer for Men's Health. The New Yorker writer eventually wrote a short piece about un--embedding himself. But Wright stuck around. He stuck around after that first ambush and the subsequent ambushes, and in the process he won all of our respect. After the war, he stayed in close touch with the platoon. I think that the book, Generation Kill, was accurate. It was raw, it was unvarnished, it wasn't the sort of thing I wanted my mom to read, but it was fundamentally accurate. And there was a lot of outcry in the Marine Corps about it, people were not happy with that portrayal. Now it's really been endorsed by the Marine Corps recently the Marine Corps heritage association, this governing body of former generals named it the best Marine Corps book of last year.
A reviewer called Generation Kill an act of moral witness. There are scenes in your book that invite that sort of comparison. Did you feel that you had to pull any punches or limited about what you could write about your experiences?
I tried never to shy away from the hard choices. I wrote the book completely honestly. And I expected to go back and Bowdlerize some of it. And then as I was able to distance myself from it a bit, I realized that if anything made it worthwhile it was its honesty. If I went back and tried to clean it up, it was going to lose that immediacy and lose the emotional content that made the experience so compelling to me.
There was a piece you wrote in the NYT where you wrote that the men in your platoon were more diverse and willing to act on their principles than the people you had gone to college with. Do you think a quota or more recruiting of people from the Ivy League side of the spectrum would be a good thing?
It's vital for this whole country. That question is one of the things that convinced me to join the Marines right out of college. Tom Ricks, then the WSJ's Pentagon correspondent, came and gave a talk at Dartmouth one night during my junior year, and he was arguing fot he presence of ROTC on elite college campuses, and at the end one of our professors stood up and asked how he could advocate ROTC at a place like Dartmouth, the idea being that it would destroy the culture of tolerance and militarize the campus. And he told her point blank in front of 300 people, no, you're wrong. What it will do is liberalize the military. I look at something like Abu Ghraib, and I think, who do I want to make the decisions at Abu Ghraib? Do I want it to be a kid from West Virginia whose other option was to pump gas and flip burgers, or do I want it to be somebody who could have been doing something else and instead chose to be there.
The burger--flippers seem to have won the day at Abu Ghraib. Are you for a draft?
A draft would be a tragic mistake. The military has to be representative of the United States, not only of a certain geographic or economic sector. There are six guys from Dartmouth in the Marines right now. And last spring I worked out with some of the guys from Harvard who were going into the Marines. It's about changing the perception. Why do people snicker. It's perfectly acceptable to come out of Dartmouth or Harvard and go to Goldman Sachs. It's perfectly acceptable to come out and join McKinsey. It's a little less, but still acceptable, to go to the Peace Corps or go to Teach for America. But it's not okay to join the military. There's been a cultural shift, because 300 members of Yale's class of 1946 went straight into the military. My grandfather's class. Something changed. I'm not an advocate. We don't have to militarize our society. I think it's a wonderful thing that I can drive around this country for months on end and not see a single sign of the US military in this country. I don't want my mom and dad and sisters to know a thing about the military. But it has to at least be on the radar screen of people graduating from these schools. At least be considered as an option. But there's a huge amount of parental pressure on kids not to do it.
Your first year out was probably the roughest, are you okay about it now?
Well, starting school helped. Having a community, and a reason to get up every morning. A buddy of mine who was in Somalia and the Gulf war said to me "when you're laying in bed at night and you don't want the night to come, that's okay, but when you wake up and you don't want the sun to rise, that's when you know you're in trouble." And I definitely went through that phase. And I think most people do. The support system was woefully underfunded when I got out, but it's getting better. Even the DOD says that about 1 in 5 returning combat veterans has PTSD. About 1 in 5 who are serving in the theater are in direct ground combat. Because there's not really a front line. A lot of the logistics people, truck drivers, people who wouldn't normally be exposed to shooting are subject to enemy fire. I think the incidence of PTSD among people who are subject to direct fire in combat is almost 100%.
Your platoon is still back there, right?
Some of them are on their third and fourth tours. For some of them it's just the money. You get paid a little bit more every month and it's tax free. Some of them are adrenaline junkies. The whole platoon went back for a second tour this spring, and they're going for a third this fall.
And how many of those guys are from your original group?
About a dozen from the original group of 23. And almost all the rest have gone back as private contractors. They went and got out of the marines and signed their fat contracts with the security firms. It's about a grand a day. They're making in a year what they would have made in a decade.
Do you ever wish you were back there?
Not so much wishing I was back there as wishing I was with them. Just the purity of the lifestyle, there's something about living in that small group, with no telephone, no television, no email, no distractions. And you have this real single--minded focus, and there's a part of me that really enjoyed it.
The officer that replaced you was killed a few weeks later. Did you know him well?
Yes. Brent Morel. In Recon, officers are often allowed to pick their own replacements, so it's kind of a tap system. I was picked by the guy before me, who had the platoon in Afghanistan. And I had a hand in picking Brent. So hearing about his death was very, very hard for me. He was actually just awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest award below the Medal of Honor, for leading the counterattack that day that he was killed, and in the process probably saving half of the platoon.
Have you showed your book to any other guys that were in your platoon?
I did. Everybody gave me the green light. They were pretty satisfied with the way I told the story. I told them right up front that I was going to work on it, even before we knew Evan Wright was turning his Rolling Stone articles into a book.
I guess they're turning Evan Wright's book into a miniseries. Who do you want to play you, George Clooney? I guess he's a bit old.
They're not adhering to the original story too closely. I heard that Evan and I get killed in the first episode, which frankly is fine with me.