Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

If in his last novel, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great, Steven Pressfield presented the eagle's eye view of war, in this one we see the same war from the level of the grunt. Matthias is a young infantryman in the army that Alexander takes to Afghanistan on his way to conquer India, but his experiences and complaints are those of every soldier in every war. Indeed, if you were pitching this one in Hollywood you'd go with: Jarhead and Alexander. This is both the strength and the weakness of the book.

Mr. Pressfield succeeds, as always, in bringing ancient times and battles to vivid life and manages to cast important light on our current war in Afghanistan, but the perspective is so subjective that broader questions are obscured. Consider that if all you knew of WWII was the first twenty minutes Saving Private Ryan you'd hardly think the whole kerfuffle worthwhile. But then consider Hitler. Ultimately, the lives lost and ruined in war are tragic, but not the whole story, nor even the most important part of the story. So novels and memoirs that concentrate on the enlisted men tend to invoke our pity without engaging our minds. We may well, at least during the reading, fail to place the stories in the context they require. But Mr. Pressfield escapes this trap when he connects Matthias's war with our own.

Here is Alexander, in one of his few walk-ons, addressing his men:
"My friends, brief as your sojourn in the Afghan kingdoms has been, you cannot have failed to notice that we are fighting, here, a different kind of war. You may feel, some of you, that this is not what you signed up for. These are not the fields of glory of which you dreamed. Understand: 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. He hates us with a passion whose depth is exceeded only by his patience and his capacity for suffering. His boys and old men, even his women, fight us as combatants. They do not do this openly, however, but instead present themselves as innocents, even as victims, seeking our aid. When we show compassion, they strike with stealth. You have all seen what they do to us when they take us alive.

"Please note, my friends, that I have made good and generous offers to the native peoples. I intend them no harm. I would make them our allies and friends. I abhor this kind of fighting. If an alternative existed, I would sieze it at once. But the foe will not have it. We have seen his methods. We have no choice but to adapt to them."

And here is Mr. Pressfield writing about the current war on the last anniversary of 9-11:
For two years I've been researching a book about Alexander the Great's counterguerrilla campaign in Afghanistan, 330-327 B.C. What has struck me most powerfully is that that war is a dead ringer for the ones we're fighting today -- even though Alexander was pre-Christian and his enemies were pre-Islamic.

In other words, the clash of East and West is at bottom not about religion. It's about two different ways of being in the world. Those ways haven't changed in 2,300 years. They are polar antagonists, incompatible and irreconcilable.

The West is modern and rational; its constituent unit is the nation. The East is ancient and visceral; its constituent unit is the tribe.

The tribe is the most ancient form of social organization. It arose from the hunter-gatherer clans of prehistory. A tribe is small. It consists of personal, face-to-face relationships, often of blood. A tribe is cohesive. Its structure is hierarchical. It has a leader and a rigid set of norms and customs that define each individual's role. Like a hunting band, the tribe knows who's the top dog and knows how to follow orders. What makes Islam so powerful in the world today is that its all-embracing discipline and order overlay the tribal mindset so perfectly. Islam delivers the certainty and security that the tribe used to. It permits the tribal way to survive and thrive in a post-tribal and supertribal world.

Am I knocking tribalism? Not at all. In many ways I think people are happier in a tribal universe. Consider the appeal of post-apocalyptic movies such as "The Road Warrior" or "The Day After Tomorrow." Modern life is tough. Who can fault us if now and then we entertain the idea of going back to the simple life?

The people we're fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan live that life 24/7/365, and they've been living it for the past 10,000 years. They like it. It's who they are. They're not going to change.
We may or may not accept Mr. Pressfield's pessimism about the intractability of tribalism, but you can't help but admire how he uses the novel to illuminate his own view and to make the implicit argument that just as Alexander had to figure out a way to get himself out of Afghanistan so they could move on to more important and achievable goals, so to must we limit our ambitions in the region. Perhaps it is enough, in Afghanistan, to ensure that a Taliban can not govern and an al Qaeda can not operate with impunity, rather than trying to turn the place into a modern liberal democracy.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Steven Pressfield (6 books reviewed)
Historical Fiction
Steven Pressfield Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: Steven Pressfield
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Steven Pressfield (IMDB)
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel
    -BOOK SITE: Killing Rommel (Random House)
    -VIDEO: Mini Documentary on Killing Rommel (YouTube)
    -ARTICLE: Bruckheimer Adapting Pressfield’s Killing Rommel (BeyondHollywood, 9/03/08)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW: Steven Pressfield (Hugh Hewitt Show)
    -PODCAST: Steven Pressfield on the Artist as Warrior: In Conversation with Mitzi Rapkin on the First Draft Podcast (First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing , July 12, 2021, LitHub)
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign (
    -BOOK SITE: The Afghan Campaign (Random House)
    -ESSAY: Tribalism is the real enemy in Iraq (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, 6/18/06, Seattle Post-Intelligencer)
    -ESSAY: Why We Will Never See Democracy in the Middle East (Steven Pressfield, September 11, 2006, ABC News)
    -ESSAY: Theme and Character in the Historical Novel (STEVEN PRESSFIELD, Historical Novel Society)
    -INTERVIEW: The art of the art of war (Steven Martinovich, November 15, 2004, Enter Stage Right)
    -INTERVIEW: Gates Of Fire: Richard Lee talks to Steven Pressfield about his new novel (Historical Novel Society)
    -ARCHIVES: "steven pressfield" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel by Steven Pressfield (Ray Palen, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Tony Perry, LA Times)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Patrick Anderson, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steven D. Laib, Intellectual Conservative)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Chet Edwards, Defense and National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Paul Katx, Entertainment Weekly)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Steve Terjeson, Ezine)
    -REVIEW: of Killng Rommel (Norm Goldman, American Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Andrew Lubin, Military Writers)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Armchair General)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jocelyn McClurg, USA Today)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Mary Ann Smyth, Book Loons)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (Jeff Valentine, Bella)
    -REVIEW: of Killing Rommel (John Boyd, Kliat)
    -REVIEW: of Kiliing Rommel (Michael Lee, Bookpage)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan War ( Lisa Ann Verge, Historical Novel Society)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Scott Oden)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign ( N.S. Gill,
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Critical Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Afghan Campaign (Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interest)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great Steven Pressfield (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War (Helen South,
    -REVIEW: of The Virtues of War(Chet Richards, Defense and the National Interes)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Great expectations: Four new biographies suggest that the more we write about Alexander the Great, the less we understand him (Rory Stewart, January 8, 2005, The Guardian)

Book-related and General Links: