Chords of War

Chords of War by Christopher Meeks is a story of 21st Century self-discovery that takes the reader through the pain of personal growth, into the horrors of war, before it arrives at wisdom.  This fast read has a basis in reality that is sincere enough to make you think.  Ideal for anyone who doesn’t quite know who they really are just yet or what they want to do in the future.  Portions are reminiscent of post-Vietnam fiction.

I submitted questions for the author
and his source of inspiration.

Samuel Gonzalez Jr. is a film maker and song writer.  The character of Max Rivera is the name of his fictional counterpart, who stands in for him throughout the novel.  Max experiences the tragedy of September 11th (2001) at nearly the same time he's kicked out of the rock band he wanted so much to be a part of.  What you read in these pages is more than a search for identity; it's a literary portrait of millennial uncertainty.

Like so many young men before him, Max chooses to enlist in the U.S. Army for a dose of discipline.  The estrangement from his friends and sudden derailment of his musical aspirations after many loud and hurtful arguments is presented as flashbacks, while the story moves forward through fog of war as it is now perceived by today's youth.  For anyone who can remember the 1970s, this story strikes a familiar "chord" because it reads like the recollections of a Vietnam veteran.

Vietnam-era fiction emphasized just as many patriotic themes as are represented here. Readers are given a sense of the uncertainty that was so common for millennials immediately after the gruesome televised destruction of the World Trade Center.  Anyone born after 1980 has a hard time comprehending the scope and scale of the Cold War (1947-1991).  "Chords of War" is a testament to the shock and surprise felt by the millennial generation, much like our grandparents endured when Imperial Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

What begins with rejection by people Max thought of as friends later becomes a departure from people and places he didn’t really fit into.  As much as Max loves his country, he has a hard time finding his place in it.  Being an MP (military policeman) during the Iraq War feels like Vietnam-era fiction because chapters present flashbacks to what led Max to join the Army. Music plays its own part in the unfolding story.  It’s a personal refuge for Max that also serves to inspire him while he adapts to structured military life in a chaotic war zone.  His discovery of Vietnam-themed films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket underscores the fact that he, and the author who created him, are all too are of the similarities.

I asked Christopher Meeks: Do you share Max Rivera’s taste in music or literature?  His reply explains why you’re now able to read this story.

This question makes me smile because in writing the book, I had to imagine I was Max who was mostly Sam. While I love music and knew some of the music Sam did in 2005-2007, I also came to see that Sam as a musician loved and even played some of the classic rock I grew up with. Thus, some of the older music is what I loved, too.   Sam suggested many of the bands in this book, and then I’d go into Amazon and YouTube and listen to these bands until I found songs I really liked, and then I’d run them past Sam. What he liked of my choices went in. At other times, Sam simply said exactly what they played at a certain time in their Humvee."

Ever since consumers could walk about with a music player of some kind, we have thought of life in terms of music.  Anyone who likes the history of music will appreciate how references to specific tunes provide flavor to the chapters they occur in.  Meeks explained why music mattered.

Sam is film maker.  Like me, he builds stories in scenes. I sensed he was always thinking of the soundtrack to this book if it were a movie.”

The pointlessness of modern war has been in the minds of writers and movie makers since the Korean War.  “Chords of War” does more than portray what are now all-too-common consequences of failed foreign policy.  The first-person perspective allows a reader to understand why Max eventually returns to song-writing and occasionally performing for the enjoyment of his comrades.  It’s part of that discipline and purpose he looks for.

With such a large injection of popular culture to propel the story, I wanted to know what the author hoped for when future generations find this book.  He said:

“The Iraq War had a few similarities to Vietnam,” Meeks told me, “’Particularly in that American infantry soldiers had little to no familiarity of the country and culture they fought in--this was a different war.  It was an all-volunteer Army.   Many of the recruits, though, joined simply for a job or the mistaken idea it was patriotic or an adventure. Sam saw his own story and this book as coming-of-age tale. Like Harry Potter with assault rifles, he was swept into a different world.  I’m not sure what else people will get now or later. We didn’t write it to be preachy or get some political point across. As in all war stories, war is chaos. Thus, the book is also a metaphor for what all of us go through in life. We’re surprised, even traumatized, by things that happen to us. How do we get through it?  As you saw in this book, there’s a lot to be said about going through hell with those you trust and love.”

As much as those may sound like modern sentiments, they reflect the views of fiction writers throughout the 20th Century...when faced with the realities of war.  Meeks has had plenty to say about writing (in other venues).  So, I asked him: What does an aspiring writer need to know about tackling a writing challenge like this?  His reply was:

"Writing novels take drive and naiveté. That is, you can’t particularly grasp what you’re about to do or you won’t do it, but you go do it anyway. It’s much like marriage or having kids. You think it might be great, and it often it is, but, man, there are a lot of twists, turns, and surprises along the way. Luckily, you didn’t know about them in advance. You persevere and don’t really think about it."

As a long-time reader of fiction and biographies, I've always wondered what it would be like for anyone to read about themselves--even if the thing was just made up.  So, I asked Sam Gonzalez:  What is it like to read yourself? His response was quite expressive.  He wrote:

"Looking back at my experience in the sandbox often feels like a distant memory – as if it happened to a different person.  In a way, it did.  That person was young and full of wanting adventure.  It’s like trying to remember what it’s like to be five years old on your first day of kindergarten. Do you remember those feelings; do you remember what you said or how you acted? With each passing day, those memories are drifting away like a light slowly burning out.  In the end, all I’m left with are the small flashes of the faces of the brave boys and girls I fought with and a strong disease that is PTSD, which creeps in oh so gently from time to time."

As a reader of history, I can't help noticing that we so often do overlook the mental baggage that people must live with after they've been to war.  Gonzalez didn't pull any punches when he mentioned the therapeutic value in this project:

"...writing it with Mr. Meeks, brought me back there.  I could hear those distant explosions, the crunching pebbles of sand underneath our boots, and the intense relationships of sex, rock n roll, and tension between the tents walls we all shared. 
I was there again, every single day."

"Reading about myself in fiction is surreal because it’s like looking into a mirror at yourself today and seeing an entirely different person you once were. It’s emotional and real but it was the ultimate cure to my PTSD even if it was just for a while. Revisiting that space gave me a calm peace because we were revisiting my old friends, brothers, family, who I miss everyday."
Like this author and the fictional Max Rivera, Gonzalez was pragmatic and sincere about what life had to teach.  I asked the film maker about his road to personal peace.  He said:

"Peace didn’t come until we completed the book. The mission we fought over there never ended, and it still is ongoing for the troops over there today. Jumping back into the war from home, opening that part of my mind and into dark memories was a different kind of war, like walking through a minefield blindfolded. We just knew were going to step on some bombs that could bring intense memories. However, as a filmmaker and storyteller, I have trained myself to shine light on those dark places – for they are the places we often ignore or choose not to see."

Gonzalez was as sincere as the writer who depicted Max's heartache and redemption.  He emphasized: 

"I promise you, in those dark places lies the answer to your peace and calm. You just have to look closely.  Mr. Meeks helped me find that peace, and together we found a deep understanding and respect for the story and the characters that shaped it while finding a way to tell their story. I t was a long and unique process that ultimately allowed me to share all of the memories from those days.  From the day I stepped foot into the war until the book was complete, I  never noticed that I had never truly left it. Writing with Mr. Meeks helped me realize that the only way to come back home was to re-live it and share it with the world. That was the ultimate peace."
Anyone who has a parent that never talks about their military experience would be well served by reading "Chords of War."  If nothing else, it's a way for younger adults to understand what their parents have been exposed to.  In a nutshell, that's why I asked for the chance to submit questions to the man who wrote this book and the person who is the inspiration for the main character.  In the spirit of that good intention, I put the same question Sam Gonzalez: Who do you most want to read this book? He said:

"It would be my honor to have the world read this book -- to know the story of the brave young boys and girls who fought beside me, rocked out beside me, and never came home.  It’s my responsibility to share their unheard CHORDS OF WAR with everyone that I can.  But, I can passionately say that my dear wish is to get these pages into the hands of the veterans across the U.S. and those around the globe. For many of us, we have our own music that is never heard.  May this book be a beacon of sound that will bring us all together, forever, and to never have to lose another veteran to PTSD again.  Music saved my life, it bought me home. May this book do the same for everyone who reads it. Thank you so much."

I can think of no better sentiment to conclude with that that: Earn the future you want to live in by understanding your past and making peace with whoever and whatever hurt you.  Victory does come from defeat if you are willing to hear what it has to say, even if it is a bittersweet song that somehow keeps you awake at night.