In ”Excalibur,” director John Boorman’s brilliant 1981 telling of the King Arthur legends, Merlin warns Arthur’s knights–and us: “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”
Not so Steven Pressfield, who repeatedly holds up the past as a mirror to our present. Case in point: His 2006 novel, The Afghan Campaign.
By 2006, Americans had been fighting in Afghanistan for five years. And today, almost ten years into the same war, there remains no clear end in sight–to our victory or withdrawal.
Pressfield’s novel, although set 2,000 years into the past, has much to teach us about what are soldiers are facing today in that same alien, unforgiving land.
Matthias, a young Greek seeking glory and opportunity, joins the army of Alexander the Great. But the Persian Empire has fallen, and the days of conventional, set-piece battles–where you can easily tell friend from foe–are over.
Alexander next plans to conquer India, but first he must pacify its gateway–Afghanistan. Here that the Macedonians meet a new–and deadly–kind of enemy.
“Here the foe does not meet us in pitched battle,” warns Alexander. “Even when we defeat him, he will no 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.”
Matthias learns this early. In his first raid on an Afghan village, he’s ordered to execute a helpless prisoner. When he hesitates, he’s brutalized until he strikes out with his sword–and botches the job.
But, soon, exposed to an unending series of atrocities–committed by himself and his comrades, as well as the enemy–he finds himself transformed.
And he hates it. He agonizes over the gap between the ideals he embraced when he became a soldier–and the brutalities that have drained him of everything but a grim determination to survive at any cost.
Pressfield, a former Marine himself, repeatedly contrasts how civilians see war as a kind of “glorious” child’s-play with how soldiers actually experience it.
He creates an extraordinary exchange between Costas, an ancient-world version of a CNN war correspondent, and Lucas, a soldier whose morality is outraged at how Costas and his ilk routinely prettify the indescribable.
And we know the truth of this exchange immediately. For we know there are doubtless brutalities inflicted by our troops on the enemy–and atrocities inflicted by the enemy upon them–that never make the headlines, let alone the TV cameras.
We also know that, decades from now, thousands of our former soldiers will carry horrific memories to their graves.
These memories will remain sealed from public view, allowing their fellow but unblooded Americans to sleep peacefully, unaware of the terrible price that others have paid on their behalf.
Like the Macedonians (who call themselves ”Macks”), our own soldiers find themselves serving in an all-but-forgotten land among a populace whose values could not be more alien from our own if they came from Mars.
Instincitvely, they turn to one another–not only for physical security but to preserve their last vestiges of humanity. As the war-weary veteran, Lucas, advises:
“Never tell anyone except your mates. Only you don’t need to tell them. They know. They know you. Better than a man knows his wife, better than he knows himself.
“They’re bound to you and you to them, like wolves in a pack. It’s not you and them. You are them. The unit is indivisible. One dies, we all die.”
Put conversely: One lives, we all live.
Pressfield has reached into the past to reveal fundamental truths about the present that most of us could probably not accept if contained in a modern-day memoir.
These truths take on an immediate poignancy owing to our own current war in Afghanistan. But they will remain just as relevant decades from now, when our now-young soldiers are old and retired.
This book has been described as a sequel to Pressfield’s The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great, which appeared in 2004. But it isn’t.
Virtues showcased the brilliant and luminous (if increasingly dark and explosive) personality of Alexander the Great, whose Bush-like, good-vs.-evil rhetoric inspired men to hurl themselves into countless battles on his behalf.
But Afghan thrusts us directly into the flesh-and-blood realities created by that rhetoric: The horrors of men traumatized by an often unseen but always menacing enemy, and the horrors they must inflict in return if they are to survive in a hostile and alien world.