Christopher Martin, Chasing Alexander: A Marine’s Journey Across Iraq and Afghanistan (2021)

Author: Christopher Martin

Title: Chasing Alexander: A Marine’s Journey Across Iraq and Afghanistan

Format: E-book

Pages: 310

Series: –

Christopher Martin is a US Marine veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during the War on Terror, between 2007 and 2011. His war memoir, Chasing Alexander, is both like and unlike other War on Terror non fiction I’ve read, and I’ve read a lot; the similarities are obvious, and heartbreaking, while the disparities are what makes this book unique.

Firstly, there is a matter of style. I’m pretty sure Martin did his required reading, as his book bears more than a passing resemblance to Hasford’s The Short Timers and yet still retains a bit of the wide-eyed American idealism of West’s The Snake Eaters. It’s clear Martin wanted to write his own book – and in this, he succeeded. The style of Chasing Alexander is simple and direct, and reads very much like a student’s report: an honest, open account of how it was – or, more precisely, how Martin thought it was. And I mean it as a compliment. Many of these new war memoirs are becoming masks; tools, if you will, tailored for the author’s purposes. A common trajectory for modern veterans is to go into business and management after the time in the military; a book doesn’t hurt your chances at an executive position.

But to me, war memoirs are a grand effort to be understood. A doomed effort, always, at least to an extent: war experience is not something that can be fully comprehended second-hand. The authors inevitably know it, all too well in fact, and yet they still write these books as a call out for… not empathy, exactly, but for some form of the recognition of them as fellow human beings. Martin is upfront about it in his book; he tries not to hide behind any  mask, and he shares freely his fears, his stupidity, his pride, his loyalty, and his exhaustion. And there is a lot of it in the war zone, frustration and triumph, boredom and adrenaline-fueled moments of lethal action.  

“Rolling my neck, I felt the power wash over me. It was like a dark shadow that I could direct, a shadow that could raze fields and level buildings, a shadow of destruction that I could sweep wherever I wanted. I had rifles and grenades and a machine gun at my command. Mortars, rockets, or airplanes dropping bombs if I wanted. I could rain missiles down from the invisible drones. I only had to ask.

The might and power of the US military was behind me. There was no supervision, no one above me. I was twenty-four, and I walked around with the ability to wipe buildings and people off the face of the earth. All that power was intoxicating. With the radio in my backpack, I could decimate everything in sight. I felt all that power running up my neck and down into my fingertips. I flexed my hand and grinned.”

This book offers such clear anthropological insights into American culture and its approach to war that I wish it was published earlier, so that I could incorporate it in my research. Martin’s path to the war is so typical of the huge part of the War on Terror generation that it’s almost uncanny. A lost teenager from the middle class, floating aimlessly through menial jobs and looking for a direction in life. An avid reader of  legendary war exploits, seduced by the myth of war, wanting to put himself on a trial to see if he’s worthy. A chubby guy in thick glasses, shaped by the US Marines into a killing machine, fiercely loyal to those he considers his own, fiercely proud of the place he earned. Soldier mentality is now a part of Martin, probably forever, and it shows in this book. I don’t think the word “patriotism” is mentioned in Chasing Alexander even once.

“When we got back from Iraq, I felt offended that the world hadn’t changed with us. This time I felt like we had been left behind. The world kept going, having fun, and living, while we were hurting and dying.” 

Chasing Alexander doesn’t display the burning rage of Klay’s Redeployment, the toxic despair of Walker’s Cherry, nor the professional veneer of success of Fick’s One Bullet Away. Its aim is way humbler, without any lofty notions of delving into the nature of war, the injustice and absurdity of the War on Terror, the concepts of heroism, patriotism, or modern warfare, or creating an image for the author. Martin is your guy next door, shaped to the core by the American culture, waving hello to the neighbor over the white picket fence while mowing the grass on Saturday, and quietly trying to get back to normal life, to merge his time as a US Marine into his self-image of a typical American citizen. 

And, damn, he’s lucky. He went to war and survived. He wasn’t wounded, he didn’t kill anyone, he didn’t watch his close friends die. He escaped almost unscathed, and I’m not sure he knows and appreciates how rare this was. But almost unscathed is not the same as unharmed, nor entirely all right. The break in realities between war and everyday life is too big.

“For the last seven months, all I wanted was to hear from my family. It killed me that I never got their letters. But now that I was home, I just wanted – needed – to pickle my brain with alcohol and escape from the world. I wasn’t ready to see my dad. I wasn’t ready to put on a normal face and try to pretend that I was okay.”

It’s a good, earnest book. We need more like it.

Score: 8/10

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.

31 thoughts on “Christopher Martin, Chasing Alexander: A Marine’s Journey Across Iraq and Afghanistan (2021)

  1. piotrek

    I’m interested, sounds like a very balanced perspective on this experience, and it’s been some time since I’ve read a book of this kind. I’ve returned to II World War and its soldiers and civilians, perhaps what happened with Afghanistan is a good pretext to return to our times for some time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you decide to read it, be prepared for a very honest and very American account; I think the quotes I picked are indicative of the contents in general. It certainly reads easily and won’t bring any second-hand trauma about, as certain books from this warfare wont to do, but it doesn’t embellish things either.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The army either makes or brakes you. It´s a platitude, but nevertheless the truth. The funny thing about the army is that most people sign up for all the wrong reasons. Some for the perceived glory, others because they think it’s just a job, and most of them because they don’t know what to do with their life. In general I’m not very fond of autobiographies: they’re too often abused for self-glorification or to settle some personal scores. Another reason why I abhor autobiographies is that most of their writers don’t realize in what snake-pit they’re stepping by invading the privacy of their closest friends, perceived enemies, and relatives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think the army breaks you always; sometimes it remakes you, and sometimes it leaves you broken.
      I don’t read autobiographies at all, and biographies only very rarely. War memoirs are a different beast as they describe only a tightly circumscribed portion of one’s life, and tend to focus on certain aspects of it. This particular book was very open about its goals, though, and kept to them: no hidden political/business motivations, as far as I can say.

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  3. Though not my kind of book I still found your commentary on this fascinating from an anthropological point of view, particularly your last couple of paragraphs where the aftermath leaves him alienated in a different way from being a trained fighting machine in the Middle East.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Chris! This is a fascinating subject indeed, and one very important in our times as tensions rise on the East and West. I feel we as a society are responsible for what’s being done to those people, even if they willingly join the military. We create the myths and feed them, and then we abandon those who believed in them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Very good review, Ola. It’s not something that I would pick up myself, but I can see in this reviews that it offers a lot of interesting perspectives on the experience of soldiering and on American culture. What is that “research” that you are doing?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jeroen! ☺️
      I used to work in academia. My research area had been post-war trauma in American culture and society and how it’s transferred between individuals and community. I published a book about it, but it’s in Polish (I have an English translation, but haven’t found a publisher, unfortunately). I also published a few articles in English about it, and while I’m currently not working on anything related to this, it’s still very much of interest to me.

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            1. Well, in NZ there isn’t any interest in those topics; it’s curious, really, how even WWII or Vietnam (NZ did send a contingent there) is never mentioned. Only WWI and Gallipoli are being taught widely. So after I moved here I found out there was no viable space for my research 😉

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              1. To me it seems that Deborah Challinor has managed to reach the NZ readers with her book Grey Ghosts, where the use of Agent Orange and the way it affected the boots on the ground have resonated strongly with contemporary readers in NZ. Agent Orange is probably still a source of discomfort in NZ since it has affected even stronger the Vietnamese, combatants and non-combatants alike. It was produced at an Ivon Watkins-Dow plant in Paritutu, New Plymouth. Personally I´m of the opinion that its use was a breach of the Convention of Geneva that prohibits the use of chemical weapons, and all rhetoric denying it is just self-serving innuendo. There might be a parallel there with the manufacturers who produced Zyklon B used in the extermination camps, who were either acquitted or condemned to relatively low sentences at the Nuremberg Tribunal.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting! I was particularly struck by the snipped you quoted about the author feeling “offended that the world hadn’t changed with us”: the change in perspective for returning soldiers, and the way it affects them (even without the further burden of PTSD) is something that is not often taken into account and causes a huge disconnect between the veterans and those who remained at home…
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading, Maddalena! 😀
      Haldeman’s The Forever War touches upon that subject, too. The difference between the modes of life, even without PTSD, is so different that it requires an accustoming period, and even then might not be successful. US army has a “lifer” category: people who go on multiple deployments, one after another, not because they must but because they want, because the reality of war is more understandable and comfortable to them than everyday life.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s interesting that you mention it; the training, especially in Marines, is so structured that certain forms of hazing seem to be endorsed and propagated on all levels as a quickest way to build group cohesion. It’s less Full Metal Jacket and more 1984 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          1. One of the purposes of the training of people designed for heavy combat duties is to break them physically as well as mentally. It is perceived that those failing the stress test are also unfit for said duties. They’re either reassigned to a combat supporting unit (logistics, signal troops, etc…) or just declared unfit for military duty. The only difference is that instructors are prohibited to use methods that show racially or sexually motivated biases.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yup; actually Martin writes quite a lot about it in his book – both the hazing/training and later on, during combat duty, he mentions both some irrational USMC regulations and also cases of racism.

              Liked by 1 person

    1. As I said to Jeroen, I used to work in academia. My research area had been post-war trauma in American culture and society and how it’s transferred between individuals and community. I published a book about it, but it’s in Polish (I have an English translation, but haven’t found a publisher, unfortunately). I also published a few articles in English about it, and while I’m currently not working on anything related to this, it’s still very much of interest to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Sounds like a thoroughly insightful and masterful account of this man’s experience of war. He was definitely quite lucky to have survived the journey unscathed like that. Going to war is probably one of the most eye-opening experiences out there… One that is most likely to put everything you know and understand in perspective. Thanks for sharing, Ola!

    Liked by 1 person

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