The Afghan Campaign: A novel
The cost of war
By Steven Martinovich
Modern day Afghanistan is teaching NATO's peacekeeping force the same lessons that Alexander the Great's army learned nearly two-and-a-half millennia earlier: winning the peace can be far more difficult than winning the war. Victory in Afghanistan is at best a temporary condition and an invading army can find itself swallowed up in the mountainous land, beset on all sides by a foe that might have sworn loyalty only days earlier.
Alexander learned those lessons during a three-year campaign that began in 330 BC, the longest and most arduous of his illustrious military career. After smashing armies from Syria to Persia, the Macedonian king's unstoppable force collided with the immovable rock of Afghanistan. Although he ultimately left as victor, in reality Afghanistan represented a defeat of sorts. The nation was barely governable and only so long as a large garrison force remained.
Steven Pressfield tackles this war in his latest novel The Afghan Campaign. Pressfield previously explored Alexander in his last novel The Virtues of War but with this effort he focuses on the common soldier. Matthias is a young and eager soldier looking for action and fortune. Against his parent's wishes -- who already have two sons serving with the Macedonian army -- he runs off with his friend Lucas to join his beloved king to the east.
Dreams of martial glory are quickly replaced by the reality of military life. Matthias marches, trains, marches, hustles for supplies and marches some more as the latest recruits race to catch up with the bulk of the army. Though guided by veterans who dispense invaluable advice, the transition from civilian to military life is a difficult one. He is a raw recruit in a company of men used to bloodshed and receives the respect commiserate with his position.
That is a lesson that is brought painfully to him when he sees combat. Terrified by the din and confusion of battle, Matthias loses his weapon and finds himself wandering a village as his peers' slaughter its inhabitants. Dragged into a tent by some NCOs who have witnessed his shame, Matthias is forced to kill an unarmed man. Memories of that murder haunt him long after its conclusion.
That is the strength of Pressfield's novel. Matthias' story serves to remind us that behind the reputation of famous military commanders, whether Alexander, Napoleon or George Patton, is the reality of the average soldier. It is they who pay any price, bear every burden to achieve the dreams of their superior. Stories of great victories mask the horrific suffering of the combat soldier. Love their commander as they often do, that doesn't stop the complaining, misery or trauma that combat brings about.
The tension between tales of glory and the reality of war is illustrated by an exchange between Lucas and poet-soldier Costas. Lucas lashes out at the bard, demanding to know why he sanitizes his stories for public consumption, such as using "put to death" as a euphemism for the mass execution of prisoners.
"Language matters, Costas. Words mean something. How dare you paint over with pretty phrases the acts of horror that turn us, who have to perform them, from soldiers into butchers and from men into beasts. Look at my feet. That black isn't dirt. I can scour my flesh with lye and caustic: That man-blood never comes out."
Indeed, The Afghan Campaign serves as a powerful counterpoint to The Virtue of War. In that earlier novel, Pressfield portrays Alexander as a brilliant military commander tortured by an inner spirit, one that drives him to conquer. Alexander is less a man than a god, one capable of inspiring his men by virtue of his words and acts, one who walks among his men, but never truly with them. The Afghan Campaign shows the horrible price that the whims of gods have on mortal men.
It would be tempting to draw parallels between America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with the events of The Afghan Campaign. Certainly, Alexander could sympathize with continuing and only partially effective efforts to pacify the two nations and one can only guess how many men today have stories similar to those of Matthias. This novel, however, is more universal. Matthias' story is soldiers's story, regardless of when and where their war was fought.
With The Afghan Campaign Pressfield has given the reader an insight into Iron Age combat, the cultures of ancient Afghanistan and the Macedonians, and the eternal struggle that soldiers face in reconciling their duty with the reality of warfare. With this novel Pressfield once again continues his tradition of crafting relatable, human characters in the midst of a compelling story, regardless of the distance that time places between them and us.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
Buy The Afghan Campaign at Amazon.com for only $16.47 (34% off)
Other related essays: