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What War Taught Them

Photo: Courtesy Alexander Martin

Alex Martin in Sinjar District, Ninenvah Province, Iraq, November 2008.

By Robert L. Strauss

If Jake Harriman’s epiphany about war and peace came in 2003 along Highway 7 in southern Iraq, then Alex Martin’s arrived aboard the Magellan Star, a German-owned cargo ship pirated off the coast of Somalia in 2010.

Martin, a major in the Marine Corps reserve who co-directed Nuru’s operations in Kenya for two years, also served, like Harriman, in Iraq and in Force Recon, a special operations component of the Marine Corps. When he was offered an anti-piracy assignment off the Horn of Africa he jumped at it, thinking, “Yeah, we’ll go kill some pirates.” That attitude soon changed.

Members of his platoon had fought al-Qaeda and the Taliban. When they confronted an armed, violent Taliban leader, the decision was straightforward. “He was a known terrorist. He was a murderer. He can die and you can rest easy with that,” Martin says. With Somali pirates it was different.

Unlike al-Qaeda or the Taliban, Martin found an absence of evil in Somali piracy. It was a business enterprise, a form of organized crime. Martin, who completed the GSB’s Stanford Ignite program last summer, wondered what would cause so many people to venture hundreds of miles out to sea in little boats for so much risk and so little reward. He came to the same conclusion as Harriman: poverty so extreme that people had no other options.

“The people in the little boat aren’t the people making the money,” Martin says. “These are the people who are being taken advantage of.”

In a mission that went all the way to the Oval Office before being approved, Martin twice faced down armed pirates on the Magellan Star. “Two-and-a-half pounds of trigger pull” was the difference between the Somalis living or dying. Ultimately, Martin and his men took the ship, captured the pirates and freed the crew, never having fired a shot. Of the Somalis, Martin says, “We knew this was just another father who was a criminal but who didn't need to [die].” Soon after this mission, Martin, having heard good things about what Harriman was doing, got in touch with him. Martin retired from active duty in June 2011 and signed on with Nuru two years later.

Martin, the son of Kurt Martin, ’68, says he loved the camaraderie of his war experience but didn’t always love the mission. He wasn’t always sure why he was there or if what he was doing had any meaningful, lasting value. Immediate objectives were often inseparable from immediate concerns. “Like staying alive.” He used to tell his men that they were firefighters, and that firefighters don’t have time to ask how or why the fire got started while the building is still aflame. Their job was simply to put the fire out, if only for the moment.

Brian von Kraus, another retired Marine Corps major, joined Nuru in 2015 after 15 years in the military. He says that especially after deployments in Afghanistan, he came to realize that no matter how long he stayed in the military or what rank he achieved, he could never have the impact he had hoped. He hadn ’t been trained in development and didn’t have the knowledge or experience to work with the local population in a substantive way. Plus, he and his men were often too busy “fighting off the bad guys” to do much else. Then, just as they started to acquire some of the expertise they needed, they would be transferred elsewhere. “It was very frustrating,” von Kraus says, adding that what Nuru has achieved in Kenya with mere millions would have been a “huge success” in Afghanistan, where according to a U.S. government audit, billions upon billions have been squandered or simply disappeared.

Martin says he never had a tough day before joining the Marines after graduating from the Naval Academy. But he characterizes his two years on the front lines of extreme poverty as “much harder” than the nearly three years he spent on the front lines of a war on terror. In the Marines, it was “Ours is to do or die.” According to Martin, that won’t work in development, because development is too complicated and too hard to approach on a day-to-day basis. Over the long haul, “You have to believe in the mission you are doing.” Sometimes over the very long haul.

For Martin, the complexity and challenges of development work have been far more enriching than those of his military service. In development, people come from completely different cultures, often with widely divergent norms and values. They haven’t been through years of standardized military training or experienced boot camp together and don’t “all have the same way of talking and thinking.” But they do all want the same thing—“the people you work for to have the meaningful choices you've always had . . . starting with basic, fundamental human rights that shouldn’t be a problem: clean water, access to education that matters, being able to take care of yourself and your family in a free market. These kinds of things should not be a fight. That they are is really troubling.”

Comments (2)

  • Mr. Glenn Benest

    Great, great article. When you provide these longer, insightful articles it gives you a real sense of these people and their stories.  I applaud you for really taking the time to explore unusual people and their journeys!  

    Posted by Mr. Glenn Benest on Nov 21, 2015 8:11 AM

  • Ms. Tanja Markovic

    Another brilliant article, a very vivid portrait. And, yes, completely agree that "These kinds of things should not be a fight." as I could see for myself.

    Posted by Ms. Tanja Markovic on Nov 21, 2015 8:30 AM

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