Wednesday, March 28, 2007

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.

26 Comments:

Blogger Vince P said...

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

Didnt it?

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.

I guess yes, it's so tragic that one's comfortable morality had to be breached to defeat such an immoral enemy.. but what is the worse evil...

Defeating that enemy and then having the chance to reclaim the morality which had been set aside

or

Letting the enemy prevail and you and your morality being vanquished and lost to the world and his triumiphant?

The West better grow some balls or else there may not be one.

3/28/2007 04:34:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

It's a Blogged World, we just live in it.

Into this heartfelt swaying and singing of "We Are Cathy's World" entered the cyber-squatter. This is the disgruntled blogger who years ago bought the domain name cathyseipp.com; as a result, Cathy blogged from cathyseipp.net. What he did on cathyseipp.com varied — first he posted as Cathy, and then he merely posted disparaging comments about Cathy, Photoshopping her and her daughter's heads atop various bodies.

On the one hand, it would be hard to confuse cathyseipp.com with her actual site. On the other hand, when the cyber-squatter last week reverted to his earlier ways, posting a "last blog entry" signed "Cathy Seipp" in which Cathy supposedly begged final forgiveness for her politics, her friends and her parenting … this seemed to cross a new line.

By week's end, Cathy's family and friends were debating whether to take legal action. Everyone was offended, exhausted and still staggered with grief. The public expression of which — Cathy's funeral — was, of course, recorded without our knowledge and posted by another blogger. Yep, it's all out there on the Web, just start Googling — you'll see snot pouring out of my nose as I wail helplessly through my eulogy, which, along with everything else involving the ceremony, has all already been critiqued online.

And yet, I suppose the whole carnival is fitting. In the high-water days of Old Media, a writer's passing involved a duly-agreed-upon period of reverence, reticence and literary self-restraint. Our grief over a lost talent would dictate a certain vague lionization, and a certain dullness. Not so in this brave new Cathy's World of New Media, in which, as fishbowlLA calls it, Cathy's "funeral rites in Blogistan" have involved a verbal flaming pyre. That's right, highly searched Technorati entities literally have little flames next to them, and the initials WTF — "Where's The Fire?"

Which leads me to think that, for bloggers, death is not proud.

How could it be, when no one is searching it.

3/28/2007 06:15:00 AM  
Blogger Rune said...

I've read "Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae" by Pressfield. 3 or 4 years ago, when I was in Greece. Drove there with the family (from Copenhagen). I was actually on the last part of the book when we stopped at Thermopylae. Anyway, no blogging on 300 wretchard?

3/28/2007 06:26:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

No Mention of Col Kurilla,
Rune?
;-)

3/28/2007 06:57:00 AM  
Blogger Karridine said...

The only way I've learned of to disarm Muslim fanatics is to let the Muslim ummah learn of the coming of their Koran-promised Qaim (The Bab) and Mahdi (Baha'u'llah, the Glory of God).

Every passing day increases the probability of initiating a PUBLIC DIALOGUE which will have the power to catalyze hundreds of millions of God-fearing Muslims, while simultaneously giving them a God-ordained way to come into this Day, WITHOUT any clergy, mullahs or imams!

When this happens, there will be so few hate-filled Muslims remaining that they'll have NO COVER, and the remaining "imams" will have quite literally NO FOLLOWERS.

When those hundreds of millions of Muslims declare their faith as Baha'is, they will immediately BEGIN to learn the mind-tools for this Day: Independent Investigation of the Truth, Equality of Men & Women, the necessity for Science AND Religion, personal responsibility and personal initiative...

As this happens around the globe it will RADICALLY and almost overnight ALTER our political landscape for the better.

And it will obviate the widespread bombing or killing of Muslim extremists, won't it?

3/28/2007 08:01:00 AM  
Blogger PeterBoston said...

I am not sure anything could adequately compensate Palestinian depravity, but this is close.

3/28/2007 08:48:00 AM  
Blogger MrMyke said...

I don't blame Wretchard for avoiding blogging "300", but I do blame him for ignoring the recent report on the Tillman case.

That story makes my gut hurt everytime I hear about it.

C'mon, Wretchard, only a rank apologist would deny the Army continues to duck and cover...I thought you were better than that.

And don't hide behind a claim that it's a "small matter" and you're a "big picture" guy. If you can devote a post to a phony-video of an exploding Bradley, you can devote a post to a phony Silver Star issued to cover up an embarassment.

Where's the outrage that every soldier-supporter should have over this travesty?

Anyone?

3/28/2007 10:29:00 AM  
Blogger jane long said...

"Victory. Nothing else matters. Not decency, not chivalry. Look war in the face. See it for what it is.”

War is hideous, but it isn’t always elective, irresponsible, wholly mercenary or self-aggrandizing- often it’s necessary to stop an aggressor, escape an oppressor, achieve security or independence, etc. The question we’re facing now is Can we engage in limited war for national security, economy and humanitarian purposes and achieve our goals without our committing wholesale carnage and brutality, or do certain or even all peoples/cultures need to be bloodily bludgeoned, either by us or with the help of a local proxy/ strongman working with us, before admitting defeat and acceding to a victor’s agenda?

Bush and even most of the military brass seem to be saying that our wars must be “humanitarian” and surgically precise (as is possible- feces happens) against identifiable enemies on any given day in order for a stable government amenable to us to follow, else resentment and hatred are stoked in terrorist, counterproductive ways. Others point out that humanitarian war is oxymoronic and always forces a bloodier reckoning down the line when certain parties don’t internalize their moderate defeat or recognize a negotiated peace/cessation of hostilities in the long-term.

Maybe war has become more local, and that waging it is less a matter of raining doom on an entire people who are fractious, anyway, than one of better knowing who’s who and leveraging community leaders’ influence more judiciously or removing it with targeted assassination and destruction of local infrastructure. But if we must become more like our enemy (and the Russians and Chicoms) to subdue regions and antagonists, we've got to coarsen our sensibilities, loosen our ROEs, keep better secrets, and discipline the WH, State, Defense and CIA to share the same agenda, intel and assessments. IOW, we may not be able to.

3/28/2007 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Eggplant said...

I have not yet read "The Afghan Campaign". However I found Steven Pressfield's "Gates of Fire" to be an excellent book. I also read "Tides of War" by Pressfield. "Tides of War" was not as entertaining as "Gates of Fire" but I learned more from "Tides of War". "Tides of War" was mainly about the Athenian general Alcibiades who was a very interesting character. The book also chronicled the collapse of Athens and serves as a caution for current day politics, e.g. a great nation can rapidly fail if its leaders are sufficiently stupid.

3/28/2007 11:03:00 AM  
Blogger Mətušélaḥ said...

When it's your life, you don't care about honor. You care about your next minute alive, your next chance to apply your wits to kill the enemy in any way you can. The idiots that rave about honor in war, are just that, idiots. Anyone that ever fought in a real war, and these glorified police actions, will immediately understand this.

3/28/2007 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger wretchard said...

MrMyke,

Pat Tillman's Silver Star should not be rescinded, in my view. Those who were responsible for trying to cover up and distort the story are justly being investigated. And the odds are that those responsible are going to get punished or censured.

3/28/2007 12:02:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

Although it has nothing to do with the Tillman story, and although Afghan Campaign is fictional, the book has a scene where the Macedonians debate whether or not to inform the relatives of dead soldiers that they died under torture in enemy captivity as they prepare to send home the ashes. In the fictional scenario, a courier is captured and found tortured to death by the Afghans.

Do they tell the relatives? The consensus among the Macedonians in the end, if I remember the narrative aright, is not to. They send home a dispatch saying the courier died valiantly winning the battle with his unit.

For an actual historical comparison, it is now known how Rudyard Kipling's son died. Rudyard was told he was missing and assumed dead. But at least one witness subsequently came forward to say they had seen the young Kipling mortally and horribly wounded by a shell and that he had expired in agony. In the heated political atmosphere of the Great War, some undoubtedly would have told Kipling about his son's agonies with a relish. I am sure that if it were possible, some antiwar activists would reanimate Kipling to tell him now. But in the event the actual witness did not have the heart to tell the father.

What is the truth, wax-scratcher? What is the truth, chronicler?

3/28/2007 01:15:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Don't know where you picked up such a low opinion of Antiwar activists, Wretchard.

3/28/2007 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Comment at Wonkette's:
"
Dear Tony,
I Hate You!
signed,
God
"

3/28/2007 01:56:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Almost easy to see how one could think that to be "true:"

Tony's mom died of Colon cancer, and he was diligent about getting checked every 6 months.
Life is not fair.

3/28/2007 02:01:00 PM  
Blogger Mike H. said...

Upon the defeat of the loser the war continues with the cultural imprinting of the victor on the loser. One should ponder on the culture that one wishes to live in after the conflict. Maybe that's where backbone comes from.

3/28/2007 02:22:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

ot, but amazing:
--
Saudi King Condemns Iraq Occupation
At an Arab summit, King Abdullah called the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq an “illegitimate foreign occupation.”

3/28/2007 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger Tony said...

There's the same sentiment in "Flags of Our Fathers" where Doc Bradley's best friend, the guy he buddied up from the beginning, his fellow medic, meets a most horrible end.

After the war, Doc goes to meet his buddy's family, and when he tells them about it, as he tells his son "I lied."

3/28/2007 05:59:00 PM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...

We aren't the Macedonians, we fight for money and markets more than glory and expansion. We do not need to beat them to impose our will. We merely need to corrupt their codes of honour by using their greed and ambition against them.

3/28/2007 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger wretchard said...

doug,

I don't have a low opinion of all antiwar activists; but there are those who actually relish war -- as long as it it waged against their country; who dance in the streets, as long as it is their country which is attacked; and who spit on soldiers, but only soldiers wearing a uniform and preferably of their country. I'm not so sure they can be honestly called pacifists. But having chosen the one side, such activists ought not bedgrudge others for choosing the opposite cause.

3/28/2007 07:02:00 PM  
Blogger Teresita said...

Wretchard: Pat Tillman's Silver Star should not be rescinded, in my view. Those who were responsible for trying to cover up and distort the story are justly being investigated.

THE BLUE MAX (from Wikipedia)

Lieutenant Stachel, an ambitious pilot who transferred to the German Air Service from the trenches, is trying to win the coveted military decoration, the Pour le Mérite, better known as the Blue Max, for which he must shoot down twenty enemy aircraft. He will stop at nothing in his quest. First he must overcome the disdain of his fellow pilots, but ultimately he fails by putting them at risk for his own purposes. His commanding general, von Klugermann, sees the propaganda value of this junior officer for the 'common people' because he is one of them. When he meets the Red Baron in mid air and helps him escape from British aeroplanes, he is shot down himself. Because this disables him from flying, von Klugermann uses the opportunity to order him to Berlin for propaganda purposes, where he gets to see a new mono-winged prototype. Finally, he is ordered to test-fly the new aircraft—considered to be too dangerous to fly in an earlier test flight—to send him to his death because his ambitious lies endangered the integrity of the military corps.

3/28/2007 07:34:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

What is the truth, wax-scratcher? What is the truth, chronicler?
////////////
In christian circles the saying is that truth without love is not truth. And love without truth is not love.

3/28/2007 08:29:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

jane long said...

"Victory. Nothing else matters. Not decency, not chivalry. Look war in the face. See it for what it is.”
////////////////
all this stuff is old empire talk.

my betting is that this war goes out with a whimper within a decade when fantastic new ways of generating energy collapse the market for gulf oil.

3/28/2007 08:32:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Wretchard,
Sorry, I was just making a lame sarcastic comment conflating the total lack of class, taste, and decency displayed recently by the left re Cathy Seipp and Tony Snow, with that of the leftists in the "anti-war" movement.

3/28/2007 08:41:00 PM  
Blogger Teresita said...

unaha-closp: We aren't the Macedonians, we fight for money and markets more than glory and expansion.

Americans define glory by how much money we have. That is why Osama bin Laden hit the World Trade Center in the heart of the financial district, and succeeded in shaving half a trillion dollars from our economy.

We merely need to corrupt their codes of honour by using their greed and ambition against them.

Assuming you are talking about our enemies, I am having a hard time processing your use of the phrase "codes of honor". You mean the Persians/Iranians who published out one lat and long for the capture and abduction of the 15 sailors, got a nod of the head from the Brits, then came back with a totally different lat and long closer to their coast?

3/28/2007 09:33:00 PM  
Blogger unaha-closp said...

Teresita,

Wretchard says: "Just the tribe. What is good for the tribe is good; and nothing exists beyond."

It is this code of honour that needs to be removed. They are to be educated that they can do more and better things in cooperation with us and that this will reward their greed. Than to stand apart from us and behave clannishly as this only ensures their poverty.

3/29/2007 03:56:00 PM  

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