Friday, May 09, 2008

The Afghan Campaign - A Review


by Mary Harrsch

Stephen Pressfield has garnered laurels for his ability to describe the utter brutality of ancient warfare and his descriptions of battles fought during the campaign of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan in his novel "The Afghan Campaign" are as wrenching as those depicted in Pressfield's "Gates of Fire".

Told from the perspective of a common soldier rather than from Alexander's viewpoint or the viewpoint of one of Alexander's commanders, "The Afghan Campaign" provides the reader the opportunity to experience the grinding existence of a man struggling to maintain some shred of integrity in a hostile and intractable world.

Alexander is most often glimpsed from a distance and we are not privy to his strategic debates or daily dispatches to help us understand the "big picture" he sees in his efforts to add the tribes of the Hindu Kush to his role of conquered nations. We must, through Matteius' eyes, simply endure the relentless wind, quagmires of mud, and bitterly cold snow and sleet, as we climb and descend the deadly precipices that score the Afghan countryside in search of a foe that materializes suddenly to engage in deadly tribal rituals, counting coup and scalping or mutilating their victims, then escapes back into the mountains where, unlike the Macedonians, they appear to thrive. We feel Mattteius' frustration rise to an excruciating level as his comrades are butchered in ambushes or slain by duplicitous camp followers.

As the war wears on, he participates in retaliatory strikes where entire villages are put to the sword and torched as efforts intensify to "win" an ultimately unwinnable war. Matteius' acceptance of these measures poignantly demonstrates the ultimate result of living amidst so much brutality - the loss of one's own humanity as both sides must cultivate ruthlessness to simply survive.
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