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Book Review: "The Afghan Campaign"

written by Andrew Lubin
on September 09, 2010

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Newsweek recently called "The Afghan Campaign" by Steven Pressfield one of the five books needed to understand Afghanistan today in its article, "What You Need to Read Now: Taliban Territory." Although the book is a few years old, it's worth a review given its relevance to the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

"The Afghan Campaign" is the story of Alexander the Great's struggle to conquer Afghanistan as told from the grunt's-eye-view of Matthias, one of his Macedonian infantrymen.

This is historical fiction, at which author Steven Pressfield excels. Similar to his best-selling book, "Gates of Fire," Pressfield lets the reader share the dirt, heat, and weevilly food with Matthias and his mates Lucas, Flag and Ash. Harangued by their senior enlisted, problems with their pay, rotgut liquor, no women — these are problems suffered by Marines and soldiers for thousands of years. Pressfield entertains when describing these problems, but he also describes how the tactics that helped Alexander conquer the known world aren't effective in Afghanistan.

"You can't use the phalanx," Matthias is taught, "the foe won't face it in pitched battle. And why should he; we would annihilate them." Some 2,340 years later, the Taliban still fights the same way, and like the Macedonians, the American military has struggled to adapt.

Alexander had already conquered Greece, the Middle East, Iraq, and Iran when "The Afghan Campaign" opens in 330 BC. Pressfield succeeds in bringing ancient times and battles to life while managing to cast that war of long ago with ours of today. Consider Alexander when addressing his men after the Afghans inflict a defeat on him. The Afghans are proud warriors who do not fight by the same rules as Alexander:

You cannot have failed to notice that we are fighting, here, a different kind of war... These are not the fields of glory of which you dreamed. The actions we take in this campaign are as legitimate as those enacted in any other. This is not conventional warfare. It is unconventional. And we must fight it in an unconventional way.

Here the foe will not meet us in pitched battle, as other armies have dueled us in the past, save under conditions of his own choosing. 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.

Please note, my friends, I have made good and generous offers to the native peoples. I intend them no harm. I would make them our allies and friends.

The descriptions of life on campaign contrast the best and worst of human behavior, and Matthias and his friends learn this quickly. In a scene both tragic and comic, Matthias is ordered to kill an Afghan prisoner, yet manages to stab himself in the process. This is Pressfield's writing at its best as he initiates the reader into the confusing realities of war.

Then, as now, the home-front still needs to know what its troops are doing, and so Pressfield gives us the world's first embedded reporter, Costas. In scenes reminiscent of conversations today between journalists, troops, editors and the Department of Defense, Lucas castigates Costas, "Why can't you tell it straight?" But as the journalist fires back that the public only wants one kind of story, Lucas responds, "You have an obligation to tell them the truth." Part of the truth is that the embed and the soldier share the same danger, and similar to the journalists killed by IED's, Lucas and Costas are later captured by the locals, nailed to boards, and set afire.

What makes "The Afghan Campaign" better than most historical fiction is Pressfield's superb command of the subject. A former Marine, he understands viscerally what binds warriors together, the bravado, the boredom and the fear of failing one's fellow trooper — conversations Matthias, Flag and Ash dance around regularly as the glory of soldiering slides into a determination to simply survive.

"Things you thought you'd never do, you've done, and you can never tell anyone except your mates. Only you don't need to tell them. They know." Powerful stuff, and as true today as it was in 330 BC.

Newsweek is correct; "The Afghan Campaign" provides an understanding of the terrain and mindset of the Afghan. But more important, it gives the reader a glimpse into the world of the Taliban fighters and our Marines and soldiers opposing them. Highly recommended!


Note: Look for more book reviews in the coming months on the Regarding War blog. From books on strategy and tactics to those from Marines, soldiers, parents and spouses who write so eloquently about the heat, the firefights, the boredom and how to explain Cpl Dad's absence to a 7-year old, Regarding War endeavors to bring you some of the best in current military literature.

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