Friday, February 6, 2009

The Afghan Campaign, A Novel By Steven Pressfield

After writing his novel, The Virtues of War, A Novel of Alexander the Great, Steven Pressfield decided to devote a new novel entirely to Alexander’s Afghan campaign 330-327 BC. (The Afghan Campaign, a Novel.) Unlike Virtues, we get the view from a regular serving soldier. It is meticulously researched, and you have the aid of maps at the front of the book to follow the action. With the NATO mission in Afghanistan going on in the present day, it is a timely read.

The narrator is Matthias, a Macedonian “scuff” who enlists into Alexander’s force after the glorious victories in Egypt, Arabia, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia. This would not be the first war book, that features a character that has romantic notions of military service who gets disillusioned by the harsh realities. However, it is done well. The Macedonian, hence Greek view of war is one of honor. A pitched battle, despite the horrors, and violence is respectable. But for Matthias, the guerrilla campaign in Afghanistan is not this type of warfare. Mentally he is ill prepared for it.

I remember reading an article in 2001 before the US invasion of Afghanistan and they quoted an ex-Soviet general on his strategy for fighting there. He said “Lots of napalm.” The Soviets were in the exterminating business and saw that as the way to beat the insurgency.

So it goes with Alexander’s army of spears and swords. The enemy refuses to fight in the open and patiently retreats into the badlands, circling and waiting for a time to ambush. When they leave, almost by nature the locals engage in trade and are employed by the invading army. If it is not the opportunity to strike, they will cooperate. This confounds Alexander, because it is almost impossible to “win and secure” an area because the locals will turn coat on you as soon as it’s convenient. Hence, slaughter becomes the strategy.

Still green, Matthias and his team are ordered to execute some treacherous villagers. With no kills under his belt, as his colleagues hold down a grey haired old man, he is ordered gut him with a sword. Physically his body won’t let him do it and he botches the job. His squeamishness doesn’t last long when they discover mutilated, tortured, and burned bodies of Greek soldiers soon afterwards. (I won’t get graphic here, you can read that detail in the book.) The slaughter was perpetrated by women and children villagers. After that he kills willingly, aided by poppy seed chew and alcohol.

Guerrillas are caught and executed.

We kick down their gates and drag them into the dark. Orders have been issued not to put captives to the sword in front of their women. Better to haul them off into the desert, leaving their ends unknown; this produces a more abiding terror because of the natives’ belief in djinns and demons. The scent of blood draws wolves, who scavenge the corpses. The packs learn to follow us. Their yellow eyes glitter in the torchlight. They cannot be driven off, even when pelted by stones.

Matthius saves an Afghan girl from slavery, and from being beaten to death. He’s shocked to find out, rather than being grateful, her family wants her put to death in their twisted honor/shame code. This is an example of what the Afghans call A’shaara and it baffles the Macedonian occupier’s sensibility.

Alexander’s strategy is to co-opt as many Afghans as possible into his fighting force. It proves difficult, as observed with a new cavalry unit:

I am learning the Afghan mind and the tribal manner of expressing a thought. The brothers don’t mean their horses won’t let them. They mean their hearts won’t. Fighting Macedonian-style, as a unit, is unmanly in Afghan eyes. It lacks honor. It is effeminate. For the tribesmen of the steppe the object of battle is to count coup, to distinguish himself in the eyes of his fellows. The Daans have a phrase, ‘to kiss the mouth of death.” This is their warrior ideal. You cannot kiss the mouth of death except as an individual. So they won’t fight in wedges. They won’t charge boot to boot.

Ultimately this book is a gripping adventure. There are many counter-insurgency missions that keep you turning the pages. The locale is as terrifying as the locals: Huge mountains; snow squalls; and hot, ochre colored, barren deserts. Pressfield aims for realism, this is not a comic book. The hopelessness, and psychological pressure weigh on the reader.

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