The Afghan Campaign: A Novel
© 2006 Steven Pressfield
Afghanistan, 330 B.C. Alexander the Great, having toppled the Persian Empire and won eternal glory for himself and his men, now looks with hungry eyes to India. The way to those riches, however, must be forged through the unpredictable expanse of Afghanistan, and even veterans of Alexander’s campaigns will pause at the grim bloodshed waiting for them there. The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield is easily the most visceral account of ancient warfare I’ve ever read, as we witness a young fool who joined the ranks purely to avoid shaming himself in front of his brothers, but who is baptized by blood again and again and becomes a man in full, whose soul is hardened by the violence yet full of love and devotion for his brothers in arms…and his horse. Written only a few years into the interminable American war in Afghanistan, its portayal of that land and the futility of trying to impose outside order on it, brims over with relevance fifteen years later — such is the stupidity (or cupidity) of the DC elite.
I first encountered Steven Pressfield via his excellent Gates of Fire, a story of Thermopylae, and found The Afghan Campaign to be of similar quality. Given its setting in antiquity, I’m not sure how kosher some of the historical facts are — I couldn’t tell you what history books say about the Afghan campaign — but Pressfield provides such a level of fine detail about the little things, like food and clothing, that I was wholly “in” the world he’d created. It’s a harrowing story, with such bloodshed and loss that by its end I felt tempted to read a Vietnam memoir for comparison. Two of the characters can feel themselves being changed by the war; they begin as naifs, hesitant to even strike other men, but once thrown into the the constant hell of Alexander’s campaigns, they change. Not all of their prewar selves is lost, but they become different — bonded to one another instead of dreams of their lost homes and sweethearts, accustomed to nothing but marching and killing, hardened by a hostile landscape filled with implacable enemies whose lust for liberty they cannot help but admire, even is it kills them.
This is stirring, sober reading. The cover speaks volumes. This is twice I’ve tried Pressfield and twice I’ve found his characters and story absolutely enveloping, so I will be continuing to explore his work.