Running Toward Fire: Following the Warrior Path

Boaz, Nate. Running Toward Fire: Following the Warrior Path, Barstool Ballads Press, 2024. pp. 290. $34.99 (hardcover, Amazon). ISBN 1649980302.

By BJ Armstrong

The opening scenes of Nate Boaz’s new memoir of his Marine Corps service during America’s recent “long wars” offer a study in contrasts. It begins driving headlong into the crossfire of multiple defensive positions around Saddam Hussein’s palace, his team of human intelligence Marines sitting atop sandbags layered along the floorboards of their HMMWV, the only protection offered in their soft sided and unarmored vehicle. Boaz writes evocatively, with tracers arcing across the sky and the rush of adrenaline and fear mixing as they fight their way into a culminating moment of the run to Baghdad in April of 2003. Boaz tells his readers that the scene “is seared into my memory and is more vivid to me than yesterday.” But from that moment of dramatic combat, he shifts our attention to another place of potential conflict and trauma, the office of his psychologist many years later. There, the description is just as vivid with hot peppermint tea to calm the stomach, the washing of the white noise machine outside the office door, and the comfortable and familiar place on the couch. 

This opening of a memoir, one which takes Boaz from a lower middle-class upbringing in rural Florida to some of the most consequential military operations of our generation, foreshadows something courageous about his reflection on his service and his life after he wore the uniform. He offers up observations on his experiences that are full of vivid detail and clear writing, but which also do not shy away from the complications of how we mentally and emotionally process our experiences in war. His experience and his honesty reminds us that this has an impact on our lives, both during and after our service.

Running Toward Fire follows a generally chronological form and guides the reader through Boaz’s life before, during, and after his service. He is admirably open about his life growing up in Florida, his motivations and interest in becoming a Marine and what led him to the U.S. Naval Academy, and about his early formation as an officer. He relates to the reader the experiences of going from a Marine Corps and a nation at peace to one under attack on an early September morning, leading to involvement in a pair of conflicts on the other side of the world. There are moments of heroism, the dangers of combat, and the murky world of intelligence work in a warzone. Boaz and his small group of intelligence Marines were involved in a series of significant operations during the early years of the war in Iraq, and the reader is brought along in the back of the HMMWV as they help with POW rescues, hunt for high value targets from the infamous “deck of cards,” and interact with the Iranians.

Throughout the chapters that take place deployed overseas, readers are reminded of a few of the realities of war. First, that a creative junior officer and a good team of enlisted Marines or sailors can accomplish an enormous amount if given proper leadership and open mission orders. Second, that our adversaries and enemies are humans as well, which Boaz reminds us a number of times and recalls with the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow observation that “if we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” And, though the war in Iraq was a messy one, all wars (to paraphrase Tolstoy on families) are messy in their own way.

In addition to Boaz’s wartime experience, this memoir helps us understand some of what it is like to come home from war. His reflections on the messages of masculinity and toughness that most of us internalized as young recruits will hit home for many veterans. He reflects that “I had believed that the answer to all things in life was simply ‘be a tougher warrior,’” a belief that led down some dark paths. The realities of struggling to belong and looking for meaning in post-service American society also will resonate for many. And he shares some thoughts on how we can help one another. Boaz offers his own experience and the things that he has learned along the way not as a mentor or a guide but as a good intelligence officer would, warning us of the indications and warnings and the possible implications for the rest of us.

The great strength of Nate Boaz’s memoir is that it is not just about going off to war. It is not just about the combat and the heroic acts of his fellow Marines, although those elements are certainly there and in vivid detail. But Boaz reminds us that war is a human endeavor and humans don’t go off to war in isolation. They leave people behind, they go with shipmates, and eventually the lucky ones return again to people they love and who love them. This story does not treat war in isolation, it acknowledges that human continuum, in both its complications and its blessings. 

In this way, this book joins the memorable memoirs of Marines of the past like Eugene Sledge and Nate Fick, but it also raises the genre to something higher as Boaz brings years of reflection and wrestling with what it means to be an American at war, and an American home from war. Running Toward Fire is both a gripping read and a deep and meaningful offering that gives veterans and Americans things to think about.

BJ Armstrong is a naval professional and a historian who has served more than 25 years with the sea services. He is the author or editor of seven books on naval history, strategy, and the military profession. His book Developing the Naval Mind , with co-author John Freymann, was recently added to the list of books recommended as “CNO’s Professional Reading.” Opinions expressed here are offered in his personal and academic capacity and do not reflect the policies or views of the U.S. Navy or any government organization.

Featured Image: U.S. Marines from the Hawaii-based Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment patrol through back alleys in Haqlaniyah, Iraq, June, 1, 2006. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by SGT Roe F. Seigle, 1st Marine Division)

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