Christopher Martin was barely making it through a listless early attempt at college when he made an abrupt turn and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. The move wasn’t entirely out of nowhere; he had been borderline obsessed with reading accounts of warfare, especially ancient warriors such as Alexander the Great.
Growing up a “husky kid with thick glasses,” Martin said that in his small-town life in the shadow of Penn State University — the son of a teacher and grandson of a professor — adventure certainly didn’t seem like it was on the horizon.
But like many young people who join the military, excitement and adventure was exactly what he craved — and to be part of something historic.
Where does one find adventure in the Marines, or at least the promise of such adventure, as two wars rage? That’s right, the infantry.
He told his worried parents, however, that he would be in intelligence, probably doing some administrative desk work, a lie he kept up throughout his enlistment.
Since leaving the Corps, Martin has written a book about his experiences: “Chasing Alexander: A Marine’s Journey Across Iraq and Afghanistan.” He spoke with Marine Corps Times about his life as a Marine, why he decided to create a book and how he sees that life now that he writes computer software for a company that makes drone detection sensors.
Editor’s Note: The below section has been edited for content, clarity and length.
Q: In your book you intersperse short snapshots into the life of Alexander the Great in chapters before talking about your own experience. Why did you decide to write the book in this way?
A: On my Iraq deployment I remember sitting in the Humvee next to the Euphrates River and thinking, “there’s so much history right here.” I was really enraptured with how historical this area was. I had the same thoughts in Afghanistan. The seed germinated while I was deployed. When I sat down to write the book I was just in awe of these places where Marines were fighting. The Euphrates and Helmand river valleys.
Q: Had you read many war memoirs before you wrote your book? If so, what are some of your favorites?
A: I had read a lot of biographies before I went into the Marines, but when I got out I went to school at Denison University, a small liberal arts school near Columbus, Ohio. I had a professor, Brenda Boyle, who had us read war memoirs, war narratives. We read Thucydides, President George Bush’s memoir and saw all of these different ways to tell stories about war.
My favorite was a pair, “One Bullet Away” by Nathaniel Fick, a former Marine reconnaissance officer, and “Generation Kill” by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright. Wright’s book chronicles Marines of 1st Recon Battalion in the 2003 Iraq invasion. Fick was an officer in the unit and the second half of his book tells that story as well. Fick’s is this kind of “important sense of an honorable officer’s perspective.” While Wright’s is about smoking cigarettes with a lance corporal in a gun turret. It’s kind of like Tim O’Brien’s short story, “How to Tell a True War Story.” You can have a million different perspectives.
Q: Not to spoil the book but you had a fairly uneventful tour in Iraq, just post-surge, but a much more intense deployment to Afghanistan, which included heavy fighting around the Battle of Marjah. How might your experience have been different if you’d had only one of those deployments during your single enlistment?
A: It definitely would have been an extremely different experience had I just done one of the deployments. Had I only done the Iraq deployment, I certainly would not have written a book about it. There were a group of guys around when I did my two tours who did one or two pumps on float but never got a Combat Action Ribbon. There’s a little bit of “I wanted to do this and be in the fire, and I missed my chance.” I was scheduled to do a Marine Expeditionary Unit tour, but that got canceled and, instead, I went on both deployments. Had I done the MEU then Afghanistan I think it would have been a similar experience.
Q: Did you plan to write a book all along or did you do anything such as keep a journal while you were in or while deployed?
A: I didn’t journal but I did keep all of my patrol orders, all of my “Rite-In-The-Rain” field books. That’s how I built everything together. Other guys in my squad I asked, after I’d written sections, if they could fact check some of it for me: “Is this how you remember this?” One guy, Blackwood, kept a pretty detailed journal. He’d look at what I wrote and say things like, these things happened in a similar order, but this one happened before, for example. There was also an assistant patrol leader who helped me remember some of the internal squad dynamics, conversations.
I began writing down kind of short stories about my experiences a few years later. I don’t have any regrets from my time in the Marines except I wish I would have kept a journal. Even little things, like how I was feeling about getting promoted, would have helped.
The convoy made its way up a dirt road. When the truck stopped, the vehicle commander yelled for us to unload our rifles. I popped the magazine out of my rifle and put it back in a pouch on my flak jacket. I noticed my sleeves were wet; I was soaked in sweat.
… A year ago, I was a recruit on Parris Island. Now I was a full-fledged Marine on a combat deployment.— Chasing Alexander: A Marine's Journey Across Iraq and Afghanistan
Q: You made some other style choices in the book. For example, there are not a lot of acronyms.
A: It was an intentional choice to use words so that someone who’s not familiar with military jargon could read it and have a pretty good idea of what’s going on. Even things like ranks, most civilians don’t understand things like rank structure. There is an understanding of what’s behind those terms if you’re in the military or served in the military. It is easier for civilians to understand but it also cuts out some of the nuance and depth. The scene where I was screaming at the regimental sergeant major, and he didn’t do anything wrong, a civilian might not get that, where a veteran or military member would be “Oh my god, this corporal just smashed a handset and screamed at a regimental sergeant major?”
Q: You didn’t provide a lot of analysis or big-picture context of world events surrounding your experience. What could you share regarding your views on events such as the Iraq War’s end, ISIS and the recent Afghanistan exit?
A: I know when ISIS took over Ramadi, it felt very disappointing. When I was in Iraq it was post-Anbar Awakening. We were one of the last active duty infantry units in the country. We hadn’t really won, but things were on the right track. The police and Army had things mostly under control and the insurgency was pretty much wiped out. It felt like things were moving in the right direction. I felt much less disappointed or surprised when the Taliban took over Afghanistan this past year. It never seemed like the Afghanistan National Army was going to be able to hold on to the country. The locals in Helmand province were so disaffected with NATO forces and the Army. They just wanted to be left alone but were put in a really tough spot between NATO forces and the Taliban. They would just tell us, you guys are going to leave but the Taliban are never going to leave.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.