A Book Review of Pressfield's "The Afghan Campaign"
Darius is dead. The great Persian empire lies at Alexander's feet. Now he plans to march on mythical India. But the road to it lies through Afghanistan, and there the 28 year old conqueror of the world will meet a new enemy. Alexander will meet the Afghan God, who though blind, sees; and though deaf, hears. And what this Afghan God sees and hears above all is shame. The protagonist in Pressfield's book, The Afghan Campaign , is a trooper called Matthias. He spends most of the story trying to save an Afghan woman he has protected from rape and harm from the wrath of her brother. For the fact that a Macedonian has protected her implies that her clan could not; and shamed them beyond measure. While she lives the woman is a permanent affront to Afghan manhood. Therefore she must, and does die -- in the end -- through unlimited treachery, brutality and lies to restore the "honor" of her relatives.
Steven Pressfield's historical novel attempts to describe the moral nature of war from two viewpoints. The European Macedonians are mad in their way, with their ideas of glory and lust for empty spaces. And glory to them lies primarily in memorialization. The recorder, the poet, the minstrel: these are the agencies of their attempts at immortality. But their insanity is matched by the Afghans, under the tutelage of their unforgiving God, for whom everything is hermetically self-referential. No minstrels have they. Just the tribe. What is good for the tribe is good; and nothing exists beyond. For them immortality lies in submission to the truth. And the truth is that brutality is precisely how things truly are. That is as their God wills it. The battle between the European conception of truth and the Afghan perception of it runs through the whole book.
Pressfield emphasizes the contrast with his considerable literary talent. In one memorable scene the fictional Alexander tells his troops to prepare to fight an enemy unlike any other they have met. What is the Afghan?
His word to us is worthless. He routinely violates truces; he betrays the peace. When we defeat him, he will not accept our dominion. He comes back again and again. He hates us with a passion whose depth is only exceeded by his patience and capacity for suffering. His boys and old men, even his women, fight us as combatants. They do not do this openly, however, but instead present themselves as innocents, even as victims, seeking our aid. When we show compassion, they strike with stealth. You have all seen what they do to us when they take us alive.
It is a contest between two world views. Alexander employs strategems of genius, surpassing courage, brilliant diplomacy and social engineering to prevail. Nothing works. Nothing works except becoming as brutal and treacherous as his enemy. And in the end Alexander prevails, but only at the cost of becoming less godlike: less Macedonian and more Afghan. Pressfield seems to suggest that the Afghan God of brutality and not the Macedonian fancy of glory is the truest representation of war. One of the Macedonian infantrymen, Lucas, asks the Chronicler Costas if it were possible to write a history of warfare without lying.
"Do you know what I hate about you wax-scratchers? ... It's the phoney phrases you use to make this shit sound like it makes sense."
Costas replies that the public only wants certain kinds of stories. There's no demand for the other kind.
"You mean the true kind," says Lucas.
"You know what I mean," Costas answered.
"Language matters, Costas. Words mean something. ... You don't tell that, do you? Nor how the men we slaughter writhe on the earth, squirming away from the weapon's edge ... The silent ones are the scariest. Men with guts. Better men than we are."
"Were they better men, Lucas, when they flayed our countrymen alive or spitted them over the coals?"
"I hate the Afghan," Lucas replies. "He is a beast and a coward. But what I hate most is that he has dragged us down to his level. Can we defend the massacres we enact? Is this Macedonian honor?"
"There is no honor in war my friend. Only in poems of war."
"Then what is there?"
"Victory. Nothing else matters. Not decency, not chivalry. Look war in the face. See it for what it is. You'll go crazy if you don't."
One wonders whether Pressfield had the contemporary world crisis in mind when he wrote The Afghan Campaign. If so it is a book of questions without answers, at least none that mortals can comprehend. His fictional Alexander defies the Afghan God by paradoxically invoking Prometheus, not as the suffering Titan but as omnipotent Zeus. The God of the Afghans can run, but in the end he cannot hide even from a man risen to the full height of his will.
Even at earth's extremity
Almighty Zeus reigns.
Men fly from his justice,
from which no crag stands too distant
and no fastness too remote.
Each deity won some measure of success. The legendary Macedonian became a character in the Koran, ascending as it were to the heaven of the successor religion of the Afghans themselves. Afghanistan still remains, but in its bosom lies the city of Kandahar, a corruption of the the Persian word Ishkandahar. The city of Alexander.