The Afghan Campaign

Steven Pressfield

Chet Richards
Editor, Defense and the National Interest
October 5, 2006

“This is what war is,” says Alexander. “Glory has fled. One searches in vain for honor. We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of … What remains?”1/

At the end of the US Civil War, some Confederate leaders wanted to reject the verdict of Appomattox, take to the hills, and continue the struggle for Southern independence as guerrilla warriors. To his everlasting credit, Lee refused and ordered his men to lay down their weapons and rejoin their former countrymen in the United States of America. If you are wondering what might have happened had Lee decided differently, Steven Pressfield’s new novel, The Afghan Campaign, may give you some insight, for Afghanistan in the fourth century, B.C., had no Robert E. Lee.

In all likelihood, the result would have been no better in 19th century America than it was for Alexander two millennia earlier. One of the lessons of history appears to be that if a people are determined not to be occupied by a foreign power, then nothing short of genocide will guarantee their submission. In order to stave off genocide, no tactic is too brutal, and brutality is something the Afghans were very good at. Just to cite one example, near the end of the campaign several Macedonian captives end up nailed to boards, doused in turpentine and set alight not to make them talk so much as for sport and as a warning to others. Rapes, beheadings, disembowelments, and mass murders of captive women and children became standard tactics by both sides.

Such tactics certainly were not what Alexander had in mind, and in the end, despite all the suffering and resentment they caused, they didn’t work. When Alexander invaded what is now Afghanistan in 330 B.C., he had a sure-fire method for conquering countries: Draw the opposing army into battle, defeat it, and incorporate the conquered state more-or-less intact, and often with most of the existing power structure, into the Macedonian realm. Unfortunately, even in defeat, the tribes did not submit to Macedonian rule, and the attacks on outposts and supply trains continued unabated. Advancing Macedonian columns gave way to search-and-destroy sweeps and finally to a scorched earth policy where no outrage was off limits. Despite all his maneuvers and provocations, Alexander could never force the Afghans into a decisive battle, and after the victories he does win, his opponents slip away into the vast Asian hinterlands and reform.

When the defeat and decapitation of the man he has imagined as the leader of the resistance doesn’t end it, Alexander finally concedes that a military solution isn’t possible. It turns out that Alexander’s only strategic reason for occupying Afghanistan – i.e., other than for ego-gratification – is to secure his lines of communications for the upcoming invasion of India. This he can accomplish politically, and he does by striking a deal with a local warlord to serve as his representative, marrying his daughter, declaring victory, and leaving.

You are probably thinking at this point that Pressfield has written an anti-war treatise in the form of a novel. Fortunately, The Afghan Campaign emerges as a novel, and a very good one, and not a polemic. In fact, it’s not even anti-war, per se. At the end, far from swearing off war, Alexander licks his wounds and sets off on the invasion of India. As a historical figure, he can do nothing else, but many of the book’s fictional characters fall in behind him when they could have returned home with honor and considerable fortune.

Because we know how the actual events will end, an historical novel has to stand or fall on character development. For me, Pressfield’s book works well as a grittier Starship Troopers, albeit without that novel’s didactic undertones. We join Alexander’s army in the person of a new recruit, Matthias, as he leaves Macedonia and travels with his friends across the length of the world to join the army as it prepares for the invasion. We participate in his first killing, his first encounter with mass murder, an ambush by the great Afghan rebel, Spitamenes, and the interminable marching and camp life in-between. We develop into battle-hardened and counterinsurgency-hardened NCOs. We lose friends, leaders, and relatives. We are shocked when Afghan allies that we drank with the night before try to murder us in the morning. We come to understand why it is not only allowed but required that an Afghan male will try to kill someone who rescues his sister. And we see first-hand why military actions can only be one part of the solution to a people’s war.

Although a novel has to be a novel – to develop characters we care about and tell an interesting story around them – we can learn something about human nature from a good one. People seem as addicted to independence today as they ever were and as willing to fight and die for it. If we can get them to form up into state-sponsored armies and agree to abide by the results of decisive battles, then our present military structure may be just what we need. If not – no state, or no army or no agreement to quit if they lose – then things could get very nasty. As they did in Vietnam, and in Algeria, and would have after 1865 had Lee not surrendered his army and agreed that the rebellion was over.


The Afghan Campaign, (New York: Doubleday, 2006. 354 pp.) p. 296

Also by Steven Pressfield:

The Virtues of War - DNI Review

Return to DNI Home Page