Chasing Alexander by Christopher Martin, out on 28 September, 2021
I was rather surprised to be asked to review a soldier’s autobiography, but I am glad I was – though perhaps not for the reasons the soldier would like.
Christopher Martin was – in his own words – a middle-class kid in a university town with little sense of direction. He enrolled in college but didn’t really attend, instead spending his days in the library reading up on Alexander the Great and other great military heroes. By night, he worked in a restaurant, sometimes reduced to eating food off plates that were returned from the tables for washing (been there, done that). Life was going nowhere until he decided to become a US Marine.
He was offered any unit or entry rank he wanted, but chose to become a grunt, a front-line infantryman. As a podgy kid, he was not cut out for the rigours of boot camp. On his first attempt at an obstacle course, he didn’t clear the second obstacle. Rather than defeating him, however, this turned out to be the pivotal moment. He pushed himself harder than anyone else, took every chance to do things the hard way, and turned himself into a Marine.
His first posting was to Iraq, in 2007..This was what he had dreamed of: to serve on the front lines in the very places Alexander had once conquered. He arrived there and:
We sat down in metal folding chairs and inspected our gear. Flares – check. Radio – check. Machine guns – locked and loaded. With that, we settled in to spend the next few hours together.
We talked about the react mission and the deployment so far, and promptly ran out of things to talk about. We sat in silence for a while. I checked out the area. Our neighbours were out working a small vegetable patch. Some cars drove past on the highway. Haley started muttering to himself and pushing a flashlight around like it was a toy car. I checked my watch. Fifteen minutes had passed.
By the time he arrived, Iraq was tired of war – both foreign and civil – and the country, although there were still violent outbursts, was pacified..
He got what he wanted on his second posting. On the way to Afghanistan, he met hollowed out Marines; it was almost as if he himself wanted to become one. He was posted to one of the most remote and violent parts of the country::
We patrolled past mud brick homes, fields and irrigation canals. I was sweaty and excited. For years, I had trained, dreamed to lead a patrol in a combat zone. The smell of burning trash, sweet grass, and sewage from the canals melded together under the intense sun. I had never felt so alive. The combination of fear and excitement was heady. There was an undercurrent of power, too..
He’d found what he joined the Marines for: a posting on the front line. Although the combat starts slowly because he arrives in Afghanistan’s blistering summer, the violence increases as the weather cools. His situation becomes more and more intense – and isolated.
So, what light does this book shine on the current withdrawal? The Marines are elite forces, and what surprised me was the lack of discipline and support. They are not trained (as the British SAS are) to live off the land; they end up living on ration packs and cigarettes. Even when back on base in America, there is little in the way of daily routine or training. Most seem to spend their time on drunks or playing video games. Martin makes his own discipline, it is true, but the structure seems lacking.
As to the larger picture:
I took a cab to Camp Geiger. As I pulled into the base, there was an old helicopter dramatically mounted on a slab of concrete. Next to it was a large sign with an American flag that read “Pardon our noise. It’s the sound of freedom.” I got chills. I was exactly where I wanted to be.
There are many similar observations; I will not impose my own conclusions.
Chasing Alexander is well-written, and the postage-stamp excerpts of the hero’s life are well-placed. There’s a wry undercurrent of self-deprecation, and also a brutal honesty. However, what lets the book down is the absence of context. Martin never pauses to consider why America was engaged in these distant lands or whether the overwhelming use of force was the best response. This lack of self-reflection to me undermined an otherwise excellent – and timely – account.