Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield

The Afghan Campaign
This is about a soldier in the time of Alexander the Great of Macedon, around 330 BC. Alexander the Great has conquered everywhere using standard tactics of drawing out his enemy and defeating it on the battlefield. And he has conquered the Persian empire, the greatest in the world. And, on the way to the riches of India, lay the Hindu Kush, present day Afghanistan.

The Afghan Campaign is written from the point of view of a new soldier. During the war against the Persians Matthias joins the Macedonian army, following in the footsteps of his brothers. However, he is too late to join in the glorious wars against the Persians. But, he arrives in the Hindu Kush, after the main battle. But the war is not over. Over the course of the campaign, Matthias sees victory, loss. Friends are killed in barbaric ways and he takes part in atrocities that make him sick. His family gives his support, and his fiance leaves him. And at the end, he is frustrated with the war, has the spoils of war that his brother tells him to take home, and decides to continue with Alexander.

So, what is the point? Why this pseudo-history of the ancient world? The question for this is not to present a history, but to present an experience. So, do I think it is accurate, all things considered. And, well, it is. When you are in the middle of things, you don't have too much time to think about the big picture, unless you have that kind of position. Your general thoughts as far as war is concerned are about the day in question. But there are times to think about other things. You are very concerned about your comrade around you, their fortunes, successes, failures. Their hurts and their victories are shared and felt by you. And you think of loved ones behind. Of people back home who support and love you. Of those who have forgotten you. And those who have let you go and gone their own way.

Someone asked me if I missed anything about serving in Afghanistan, it was that. The sense that we shared in the struggles, successes and frustrations of each other. The guy who we all said had the worst job in the office, as he was having his direction of effort changed
almost hourly, and never could get what he was doing done well enough to be satisfying. The senior officer who did not have a well defined job, who spent his time making snide remarks and complaining about little mickey mouse issues. The guys who got regular packages and letters from home (I was one of them), especially the newlywed whose wife sent him a package including baked cookies weekly (the winner). We worried about the guy who was a bit of a loner and never got packages (and were real relieved when his mother sent something). I loved it when all the guys on the staff were pulling for me when I gave a big presentation that needed very senior officer support, giving me feedback, suggestions, and general "ask for whatever help you need" support. We talked to our families and shared in the fustrations, joys, stories (funny, sad, frustrating and proud). The ideas, dreams and hopes we had for the future. All the things that make us real human beings. And Pressfield presents that well, both the good and the bad.

Obviously, the book is for a certain type of person. The gore exists, as it is also a part of war. But it is not there for its own sake. It is there because it is part of the environment that shapes the people. And to that extent, it, like some of his other works (e.g. Gates of Fire), does the job wonderfully.
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