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Literature / One Bullet Away

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Marine commanders, like all great warriors, are able to kill that which they love most - their men.

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer is Nathaniel Fick's autobiography, describing his training as a Recon Marine, his brief time in Afghanistan and his part in the invasion of Iraq.

Fick is perhaps better known for appearing in another work: Evan Wright's Generation Kill, and the HBO series based on that book.

This work contains examples of:

  • Awesome McCoolname: Lampshaded with Sergeant Marine.
  • Badass Bookworm: Fick graduated with top honors from Dartmouth College with degrees in classics and government. Instead of playing it safe by heading to Wall Street or Silicon Valley like most of his classmates, he went and became a Recon Marine.
  • Benevolent Boss: Fick tries his best to embody the trope, but The Chains of Commanding mean he can only protect his men so much while still enabling them to perform their very dangerous mission.
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  • Blood Knight: Discussed via internal monologue. He's concerned he may be learning to enjoy their firefights. Late in the book, Fick decides it doesn't apply to him. He enjoys combat, and won't hesitate to fight, but he is not eager to seek it out.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: A nagging sense of this is what leads Fick to sign up for Officer Candidate School.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Fick is made painfully aware that all of his commands come at a cost. During one training exercise that he pulled off flawlessly, an instructor takes him aside and points out the men under his command that "died" in his successful mock-assault of an enemy position. See also Moral Dilemma below.
    Captain McHugh: “Even when you win, you lose. By the books, these are great numbers. You captured a fortified position, outnumbered, and lost less than a third of your people. But that’s eleven letters to eleven mothers, eleven funerals, eleven names you’ll never forget for the rest of your life. Nice job tonight, but you paid a price for it.”
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  • Cultured Warrior: He studied classics at Dartmouth. He draws on this knowledge to give lectures about historical battles to his men in between physical training while they're aboard ship.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Fick writes at length about the hazing and verbal abuse instructors heap on OCS candidates. His army airborne instructors also relish making a marine officer as miserable as possible.
  • Elites Are More Glamorous: The Recon Battalions are legendary within the Marines and this is one of the reasons Fick decides to joinnote . He also makes sure the reader is aware that the only reason Recon is not a special operations unit is semantics.
  • A Father to His Men:
    • Ultimately the reason Fick decides to part ways with the Marine Corps, following from the page quote above:
      It’s a fundamental law of warfare. Twice I had cheated it. I couldn't tempt fate again.
    • One night, Fick comes across General James Mattis at a guard post alongside significantly younger and more junior marines when the general could have been safely in bed far away. This seals Fick's opinion of Mattis as a man who cares deeply about the men under his command and shapes how Fick views the marines under his own command.
  • Heroic BSoD: When Fick thinks the command is going to refuse to treat a wounded Iraqi boy, he actually—if momentarily—contemplates shooting his Captain.
    • Invoked and Subverted on a training exercise at Quantico. He is secretly ordered to fake a Heroic BSoD during a field exercise to give the current leader training in dealing with battlefield fatigue. After a few days of getting berated for dragging ass and confronted by his friends, he eventually reveals the ruse.
  • Hero of Another Story: Evan Wright, who wrote Generation Kill. Several other characters come and go throughout as well, including Sergeant "Poke" Espera and Rudy "Fruity" Reyes.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • OCS instructors are to be addressed as "Sergeant Instructor [Full Rank] [Name]". Fick slips up and catches hell for it.
    • During training, Fick is taken to task by an instructor for claiming that he was digging a foxhole, as a foxhole is a place where foxes hide from predators, and Marines don't do that. He is informed that he was in fact digging a Fighting Position.
  • Interservice Rivalry:
    • A sergeant on loan from the Royal Marines is overseeing the officer candidates during physical training. Noting their struggle to keep up with the intense workout, he thus notes:
      “Your Corps has been around for two hundred twenty-three years, right? Not a bad run. A respectable try, really. The Army will pick up your slack.”
    • Fick attends the US Army Airborne School and the instructors take perverse joy in trying to make the marine officer as miserable as possible.
  • The Men First: In once instance, Fick recalls there wasn't enough food in camp to feed everyone so senior NCOs immediately begin making sure that the most junior marines ate first and turned away everyone else.
  • Mexican Standoff: Discussed. Fick refers to a situation this way, and Espera pretends to take offense.
  • Mildly Military: Despite his superb competence at his job as a Recon Marine, Rudy Reyes comes off this way to the Marines around him. So much so that even high-ranking officers have stopped referring to him by rank, and refer to him on a First-Name Basis.
  • Moral Dilemma: Discussed. Many choices made on the battlefield are the choice between a bad outcome and a worse one, and you can't always tell which is which beforehand. One Friend or Idol Decision late in the deployment has Fick delay a recon mission to care for a badly wounded child, only to find that his delay may have allowed the Fedeyeen to remove several Anti-Air weapons from a warehouse before he could reach it.
  • The Neidermeyer: 3rd Platoon's Captain (codenamed "Captain America" in Generation Kill) Though he hides it, Fick doesn't like third platoon's captain any more than the enlisted men do.
  • Not So Above It All: When their unpopular captain calls cadence at PT, the Marines sullenly mumble along. When Gunny Wynn takes over and the Marines shout the numbers back at him like they're in boot camp, Nate just grins to himself and tries to out-shout them all.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Fick is educated, erudite, takes his duties to his men seriously and does his best to make ethical decisions despite the fog of war.
  • Overt Operative: It's common knowledge that the "military contractors" one of their first bases in Iraq are special forces operators. Likewise for the "Lockheed and Boeing contractors" at the first base in Pakistan.
  • Perspective Flip: Of Generation Kill. The two accounts can be used to piece together the identities of individuals each author tried to obscure.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: Deconstructed. Fick has serious issues with his company commander's leadership, but eventually notes that whatever his failings as a combat leader are, he's still a fundamentally good person, and the two manage to reconcile their differences towards the end of their deployment.
  • A Real Man Is a Killer: All the Marines want a chance to take some enemy fighters down.
  • Semper Fi: The Marines unironically love the Corps, despite their many sarcastic jokes.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Not an extreme case, but Fick and his men are disappointed to realize their part of the invasion was a feint.
  • Shaped Like Itself: Mocked in training, as the pre-mission briefings for the various training missions (at Quantico) all describe the area as "Quantico-like terrain." It becomes a Running Gag for the officers.
  • Shellshocked Veteran: Fick shows signs of this after returning from Iraq, and at one point is rejected by a grad school over concerns of this combined with one of his quotes from Generation Kill.note  Out of concern for veterans with fewer connections and opportunities than he has, he has promised a portion of the proceeds from the book to support veterans' charities.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: After returning from Iraq, Fick finds his experience has made it difficult for him to fully reintegrate with his friends and family. He also finds himself unconsciously following habits he learned in Iraq, like swerving his car beneath highway overpasses (which would make it harder for an ambusher to drop a grenade into his Humvee)
  • Title Drop: About a quarter of the way into the book, the title is explained when Lt. Fick's company commander informs the Lieutenants why he trains them so hard:
    Captain Whitmer: Any one of you is one bullet away from commanding this company.
  • Training from Hell: A recurring theme, Fick and his men are rigorously trained in everything from infantry tactics to planning operations and issuing orders (a written order for an operation might include specific orders for a multitude of contingencies). This allows them to quickly improvise on the fly based on their experience when faced with actual contingencies.
  • You Need to Get Laid: Colbert tells this to Espera following one of his rants about the universe.


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