The Afghan Campaign

The Afghan Campaign: A Novel
© 2006 Steven Pressfield
368 pages

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.

The fact is clear, though no rookie other than Lucas owns the bowels to give it voice, that we have entered a crucible of the soul, of war’s horror, and that it will change us. It has changed us already. Where will it end? Who will we be then? Myself, I feel its weight nightlong inside my skull, as spectacles of slaughter re-present themselves with such ghastliness that I dare not even shut my eyes. “Part of me is dying,” says Lucas. “Something evil grows in its place. I don’t know what it is, but I fear and hate it. I fear and hate myself.”

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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5 Responses to The Afghan Campaign

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    This is definitely on my ‘Read List’. I did laugh when the US invaded Afghanistan and (apparently) didn’t bother talking to our experts. After all we’d been fighting there for over 100 years and had LOTS of experience in the region. But seriously, Alexander – arguably one of the greatest military commanders humanity has produced – couldn’t hold it, the British Empire – arguably the most successful Empire in human history – couldn’t hold it, the Soviets couldn’t hold it despite throwing EVERYTHING they had at the Afghans and yet the US thought THEY could hold it? Yeah, good luck with that one! Afghanistan is EASY to invade and IMPOSSIBLE to hold!

    I like Pressfield, he’s good. I might not read everything he’s done – both fiction and non-fiction – but I’ll be reading a goodly chunky of them at some point.

  2. Brian Joseph says:

    This sounds so interesting. Though I have not read any of these ancient warfare books, based on some reviews that I have read it sounds like at least some of them are a bit trite. Based upon your commentary that obviously is to be not the case here. The way that the protagonist enters military service also sounds realistic.

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