Author: Christopher Martin
Title: Chasing Alexander: A Marine’s Journey Across Iraq and Afghanistan
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.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. My thanks.