History Always Repeats Itself: A Book Release for
The Afghan Campaign
by Steven Pressfield

Title: The Afghan Campaign
Author: Steven Pressfield
Publisher: Doubleday
Date of Publication: August 2006

Language: English
ISBN: 0-385-51641-X
Description: hardcover, 368 pages
Availability: major distributors and online bookstores

Contents: (click on any section below to go directly there)

Book Release
Reviewers' Comments
Random House Interview with Author
About the Author

Book Release

Bestselling novelist of ancient warfare Steven Pressfield returns with a riveting historical novel that recreates a campaign that eerily foreshadows the tactics, terrors, and frustrations of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2,300 years ago, Alexander the Great--leading the undefeated superpower army of his era--invaded the territories we know today as Iraq and Afghanistan. He though the campaign would be over in a summer. Three years later, he was still mired in the sternest and most bitter struggle of his career. Only through a combination of new tactics on the ground, diplomacy, and intrigue and personal politics did he succeed at last in extricating himself and his army in a manner that could (with the right application of spin) be called 'victory.'

"Here the foe will not meet us in pitched battle, as other armies we have dueled in the past. 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,"

With the United States engaged in the same area of the world today, the story of Alexander's campaign resonates more powerfully than ever: the mightiest military machine on earth finds itself hamstrung by a tribally-based, insurgent, guerilla-style resistance. Has anything changed? Are we of the West fighting the same war we've been fighting for the past two millennia--in the same place, employing the same tactics, producing the same results?

In The Afghan Campaign Steven Pressfield is embedded, reporting "on the ground" from 330 BC in the voice of Matthias, an infantryman of Alexander's army. We follow Matthias, up-close and personal, across the identical terrain being fought over today. What did Alexander understand that our leaders don't? Can we draw lessons from warriors of the past--and from a campaign that demonstrates so many uncanny parallels to the "fourth-generation warfare" of today?

The result of years of research, Steven Pressfield's The Afghan Campaign recreates every detail of the daily routine of Alexander's infantry, from their pre-dawn chores; to their long marches of man (and women!), animals and supplies; to their personal rivalries and confidences at the end of the day. As for all soldiers throughout history, war distills into hours, days and weeks of anticipation and dread interrupted by intense flashes of violence, blood and death.

Intense, detailed, and sweeping in its action and its scope, The Afghan Campaign takes modern readers into the mind of the ancient warrior, where they will discover that this great battle of the last epoch is in many ways a blueprint for how we would fight in the next one.

The Afghan Campaign is an edge-of-your-seat of adventure and once again demonstrates Steven Pressfield's profound understanding of the hopes and desperation of men in battle and of the historical realities that continue to influence our world.

Reviewers' Remarks

"Masterful and thrilling--an insightful and timely look back at a region and its warring tribes. . .with clear connections to present day."--W.E.B. Griffin

"An impressive scholar and gifted storyteller, Steven Pressfield is the finest military writer alive, bar none. I cannot recommend him too highly."--Stephen Coonts

"The Afghan war that was waged by Alexander the Great over 2,000 years ago is eerily similar to the one that is being fought today. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to better understand what American and coalition forces are up against in one of history's most tribal and troubled regions. No one writes better historical fiction than Steven Pressfield."--Vince Flynn

Random House Interview with Author

Random House: Why this subject? What hooked you about this particular war and these particular combatants?

Pressfield: This book I wrote before this was "The Virtues of War," about Alexander the Great. There's a chapter called "Badlands" that described the campaign in Afghanistan. As I was researching it, it hit me with tremendous force: this war is exactly like the war our troops are fighting today in Iraq. Same tactics, same pattern of conflict, same West versus East dynamics.

I said to myself, This is the next book. I gotta expand this to book length.

Random House: In other words, it was the contemporary parallels that hooked you.

Pressfield: Historical fiction is a funny animal. Because it's set in the past, it seems to be about another era. (Same with science fiction, which is set in the future.) But you can get at issues in historical fiction and sci-fi--and hits the reader with greater power--than you can using a contemporary or topical approach.

Random House: Why?

Pressfield: Because the reader gets to participate. He gets to make the connections himself. Can I cite an example from my own stuff?

Random House: Please do.

Pressfield: My first historical novel was "Gates of Fire," about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. When I was writing it, I thought to myself: Nobody's going to be interested in this except me and a few historians and scholars; mainstream readers won't even be able to pronounce the name, let alone care about this obscure battle fought between nations that no longer even exist.

To my amazement, when the book came out, I started getting letters form Marines in Iraq, from Special Ops guys in Afghanistan, from cops and firefighters and hostage-rescue guys. Passionate letters, saying these warriors, the Spartans, are just like us! IN other words, these contemporary readers made all the connections effortlessly and automatically. They could relate completely to the warrior ethos of the Spartans. The book went straight onto the Commandant's Reading List; it became part of the course work at Annapolis and West Point; the Marine Corps included it in various curriculums. 2nd Bn, Sixth Marines even calls themselves "the Spartans." When I speak at military bases, at West Point or Quantico or Lejeune or Pendleton, these contemporary warriors read themselves into the past absolutely. And it's even more powerful because it's a metaphor. That was a real lesson to me.

Random House: What are the contemporary parallels in "The Afghan Campaign?"

Pressfield: It's an absolute prototype for the wars we're fighting today in the Middle East--and for the conflicts we're likely to get involved in, in other places, for the rest of this century.

Random House: Can you elaborate?

Pressfield: When Alexander invaded the Afghan kingdoms in 330 BC, his army was the lone superpower of its day, fresh from the conquest of the Persian Empire, the mightiest in history. Alexander was the consummate Westerner. His tutor was Aristotle, literally, which is about as Western as it gets. And his was at the peak of his power and self-confidence. Just like us before we invaded Iraq. Alexander believed he'd pacify this primitive place, this motley collection of tribes, in one summer. Instead he was stuck there for three long, brutal years. Longer in combat time than it took him to knock off the entire Persian empire.

Random House: He underestimated how hard it would be.

Pressfield: Exactly! He had a huge technological edge. His guys were the toughest, best-trained, best-equipped fighters the world had ever seen. He thought they'd be greeted like liberators. And they were, for about two minutes. Then the enemy found a new way to fight. More massacres of Macedonian troops happened in those three years than in all of Alexander and his father's Philip's other campaigns combined. Alexander simply didn't have an answer for the enemy's tactics. His guys were getting killed in greater numbers even than in huge conventional battles of the past, and he--the supreme military genius in history, with unlimited wealth and arms at his disposal--couldn't figure out how to overcome it.

Random House: What was the problem?

Pressfield: His army, just like ours, was designed to fight stand-up, head-banging conventional battles. And it was invincible at that. But the enemy in this new campaign wouldn't face him in a straight-up fight. They used guerrilla tactics, insurgency tactics. They used terror. Massacres. Their combatants hid among the civilian population. They used villages and tribal communities to conceal themselves; they got supplied and protected by civilians. They employed cross-border sanctuaries. Fighters flooded in from adjacent territories. They dispersed their forces across the entire region and wouldn't let Alexander come to grips with them. Wherever Alexander wasn't, that's where they'd hit. And they had a spectacular guerrilla commander, named Spitamenes, who fought Alexander to a standstill.

Random House: Was this Islamic?

Pressfield: That's the fascinating thing: it was pre-Islamic and pre-Christian. Yet the dynamics of the clash were exactly like what we see today. I mean the "feel" of it. You could beam one of Alexander's infantrymen into the present and he'd say, "Holy shit, nothing's changed! This is just the way it was!" The same essence of East versus West. Rational versus emotional. Technological versus primitive.

And most important of all, "national" versus tribal.

Random House: I know you have a theory about Islam and tribalism.

Pressfield: I do. I think the genius of Islam is that it incorporates tribalism and gives it a medium in which to flourish in the contemporary world.

And I believe that the essence of the enemy we're fighting today is not religious but tribal. It's tribalism expressed in religious terms. But underneath it all, it's tribalism.

Random House: What is tribalism? And what does it mean for our guys today fighting it?

Pressfield: That's what "The Afghan Campaign" is trying to get at. This interview has been a little misleading so far, in that it sounds like Alexander is the primary character in this book. He isn't. The book is told from the point of view of a young infantryman in Alexander's army. It's an on-the-ground perspective, as this young guy arrives in the war and starts to realize what he's gotten himself into. He relates to the enemy--civilians and combatants--as individuals. He has to because he deals with them every day, up-close and personal. And the primary characteristic that they possess (and that makes them so alien and hard to understand) is that they're tribal. They see the world through tribal eyes. They fight like tribesmen have always fought. And they're as stubborn and defiant and impacable and cunning and duplicitous and cruel and formidable as tribal fighters have always been.

Random House: When you say "tribe" and "tribal," I'm not sure that you mean. Can you give me an example?

Pressfield: Think Geronimo. These guys are Apaches, in the past and the present. The enemy that Alexander was fighting (and that our guys are fighting today) has more in common with the Sicilian Mafia or with a prison gang of Bloods or Crips than with a conventional enemy like the Russians or any "national" foe."

Random House: Tell us about "nangwali."

Pressfield: Nangwali is an Afghan tribal code of honor. Its tenets are nang, pride; badal, revenge, and melmastia, hospitality. But it could be any tribal code from any era of history. They all share those precepts, whether it's the Lakota Sioux or a tribe of head-hunters from the Amazon. You can't fight a tribe like you fight a nation.

Random House: What's the difference?

Pressfield: The tribe is primitive. It has evolved out of the hunting band mentality. Its fundamental imperative is survival. The tribe's mindset is that of warrior pride. That's why the tribe subjugates women and limits their role to physical labor and child-bearing. In the tribe, women are nothing. Warrior pride is all. The tribe has an admirable sense of justice within the tribe, but none at all outside. Non-tribesmen are infidels, gentiles, devils. Tribes are notoriously and hideously cruel to captives. Beheadings on video. . ..that's nothing compared to what tribes all over the world have always done. The tribe values cohesiveness far above individual freedom. It despises individual freedom. The tribe picks a leader and follows him no matter what. That's its code. That's how it survives. The tribe respects power. Saddam Hussein understood this.

Random House: What about democracy and freedom? What are their chances in contemporary Iraq?

Pressfield: In my view, zero. The tribe will never accept individual freedom. The only way Western-style democracy will take root in the Middle East, in my opinion, is if societies are broken down to absolute zero and built up from scratch, and even then it won't work. It'll never happen. The tribal memory is thousands of years. It's ineradicable. When you see photos on the news of Iraq or Afghan men and women showing off their ink-stained fingers from the voting booth, that's not democracy. Their tribal leader told them how to vote and that's what they've done.

Random House: If this is true, if we really are fighting a predominantly tribal enemy today, what can we learn from Alexander? How did Alexander overcome them?

If we could beam Alexander into this room and ask him that question, I think that he would laugh. He would say, "Beat them? I barely got out of there in one piece--and I had to use very trick in the book to do it!"

Random House: What tricks did he use?

Pressfield: First, he pounded the hell out of the enemy militarily. Worse than anything a contemporary army would dare. He leveled cities, depopulated entire regions. And it still didn't work. Tribal fighters are united on the deepest levels to the land. They would rather die than yield. Still, Alexander softened them up a little by wiping out so many of them. He at least made their lives so miserable that they were, on some level, amenable to an understanding.

Second, he denied them sanctuary. He closed the borders. He burned out all their regions of supply. He established strong garrison towns. And he used his vast wealth (gained from acquiring the treasury of the Persian Empire) to enlist many of them in his own army for pay. In other words, he bought the country. In the end, he even killed his rival, Spitamenes. And the amazing thing is this still didn't win the war for him.

Random House: What did?

Pressfield: Alexander's supreme stroke was political: he married the daughter of his worst enemy--Roxane.

She was the daughter of Oxyartes, the most powerful warlord of the foe. The key to fighting tribal enemies is their warrior pride. Imagine you're facing Geronimo or Crazy Horse and you want to reach an accommodation. You have to show tremendous respect, you have to understand the passion and implacability of tribal pride. It's not one aspect, it's everything. You have to give the enemy a credible way to convince his people that he won, that he beat you. Otherwise his own people will eat him alive.

That's what Alexander did. He brought in Oxyartes and treated him with great honor. What could be more honorable, after all, than joining the families in marriage? Oxyartes was no longer Alexander's enemy, he was his father-in-law. He sat next to him at the sat of honor and rode at his side in public before the troops. His grandchildren, when they came, would be of Alexander's blood and, as his heirs, would one day rule the world. That was a deal Oxyartes' pride could accept--and that his people could accept.

It worked. Alexander and Roxane were married in a spectacular ceremonial wedding, to which all combatants of both sides were invited and feted with great gifts and clemency. Then Alexander packed up and got the hell out of there.

Random House: Sounds great. Do you think we can pull the same trick in Iraq today?

Pressfield: I'll leave that to Karl Rove. I'm sure he can come up with something.

About the Author

Steven Pressfield is the author of four historical novels set in ancient Greece--Gates of FIre (under option by Universal Studios), Tides of War, Last of the Amazons (optioned by Twientieth-Century Fox) and The Virtues of War--as well as The War of Art, a non-fiction work about the craft of writing, and The Legend of Bagger Vance, which was made into a movie directed by Robert Redford and starring Matt Damon, Will Smith, and Charlize Theron.

Gates of Fire has been included in the curriculum at West Point and Annapolis and is on the Commandant's Reading List for the Marine Corps. In September 2003, the city of Sparta in Greece made Mr. Pressfield an honorary citizen."

(Posting date 23 May 2006 )

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