Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield - A Book Review

Afghanistan is supposed to be the graveyard of foreign armies and empires. The US and other coalition forces are relearning this lesson now. Soldiers from the British Empire, many of whom were recruited from the subcontinent, learnt this over a century ago. However, Alexander the Great’s invasion of the various kingdoms that comprised modern day Afghanistan was an exception to this rule. Despite enormous losses of men, Alexander managed to subdue Afghanistan after a three-year campaign, after which he moved to India. Steven Pressfield, author of the highly acclaimed Gates of Fire, an account of how 300 Spartans held the Persian army at bay for many days, has written an equally exciting account of Alexander’s Afghan campaign. Mind you, this book came out almost four years ago, though I managed to read it very recently.

Narrated by a lowly soldier, a cavalryman named Matthias, The Afghan Campaign starts with Matthias’s enrolment and his departure for the field of war, Matthias’s father has recently died of Sepsis in Afghanistan,whilst serving Alexander. Two of Matthias’s brothers have been with Alexander for many years. And what’s Matthias’s motive for signing up? Glory and wealth. This seems to be the case with most Macedonians and other Greeks.

One of the most interesting things about this book is the author’s abundant use of modern military terminology. Catapults and bolt throwers are described as ‘artillery’ and ‘missile troops’. Alexander’s army has whole divisions of ‘engineers’, whose jobs range from building bridges to undermining forts. Macedonians are referred to as Macks and military ranks in Alexander’s army vary from sergeant to corporal to captain. In between, Pressfield slips in mentions of phalanxes and Xiphos (sword). More often than not, Matthias and his colleagues carry out ‘cordon operations’, using ‘block and search’ tactics.

Here’s a sample of Pressfieldese:

The column marches in four sections. The vanguard breaks the trail. These are army engineers. Their division leads three thousand camels, laden with timber post and beams, cables, ropes, planking and fittings; they will fabricate bridges to span the torrents and gorges in spate. The van drives sheep and oxen as well, not only to drag timbers for the construction, bit to beat down the trail - and to be slaughtered for meat. To protect the fore elements, the engineers have archers, slingers and javelineers, mercenary cavalry of Lydia, Armenia and Media, with hired Afghans of the west, mountain troops who hate the Panjshiri and our own Mack pioneers. The latter are the miscreants of the army, stripped of the privilege of bearing arms and handed axes and mattocks instead. The poor scuffs are clearing tracks through twenty and thirty foot high drifts. Alexander and the elite units come next, the agema of the Companions, the Royal Guardsman, battalions of Perdiccas’s and Creterus’s crack brigades with Agrianian javelineers, Cretan archers and specialised mountain companies, including combat engineers with stone throwers and bolt-hurlers. These divisions will take the foe in strength, here in the Panjshirif if the tribesmen contest our passage, and on the plains of Bactria beyond, when the King overhauls Bessus’s and Spitamenes’ cavalry. Next the central phalanx brigades, including ours, Hephaestion’s and Ptolemy’s and the non-detached battalions of Perdiccas and Craterus; then the heavy sections; then the light brigades of Erigius, Attlus, Gorgias, Meleager, and Polyperchon, along with mercenary and Iranian cavalry. The baggage, such as there is, comes between them and the rearguard, composed of foreign contingents and native light troops. The total is nearly fifty thousand.

I initially found Pressfield’s use of contemporary terminology disconcerting and even upsetting. I felt cheated. However, by the time I was half way through, I had settled in and stopped differentiating between English, Greek and Afghan words.

The Afghan Campaign has plenty of drama. Matthias practises Greek philoxenia (love for stranger) which easily comes into in conflict with Afghan ‘Nangauli’. Nangauli translates into honour, revenge and hospitality. If a woman is in distress and her male relatives are not in a position to help her, but a stranger does, the woman has brought dishonour to her family and should be killed! Does that make sense to you? It doesn’t to me and I wish I could find out if Pressfield made that one up or if Nangauli was a historical fact. To me, Nangauli appears to be a more extreme version of the Sharia, as practised in certain parts of modern day Afghanistan.

Pressfields’ description of battle scenes are excellent. There’s one where the Afghan warlord Spitamenes is facing Alexander’s troops across a river. Afghan archers are itching for the fight and they think they have the upper hand. Alexander, the master deceiver, has a few trumps up his sleeve and the result is a rout for the Afghans. After a few pages of masterly narration, Matthias the narrator makes an innocuous statement: “The Afghan does not understand modern artillery” (emphasis supplied) Towards the end of the book, there’s a final battle where Alexander’s troops decimate Spitamenes’s army. Those few pages alone make it worthwhile to read the entire book. I won’t spoil the fun, please do read it for yourself.

What was the secret of Alexander’s (relative) success in Afghanistan? There are two secrets. One, Greek soldiers were brutal, as brutal as the Afghans who thought nothing of flaying captives alive or using equally painful methods to torture and execute men. There were wholesale massacres of villages and communities. Opposition was simply not tolerated. Two, at the end of the book, Alexander marries Roxane, daughter of the Warlord Oxyartes who was one of the various chieftains opposing him. Alexander’s marriage earns him a number of friends and pacifies most of Afghanistan. If you think I am being a spoilsport in disclosing the ending, you are wrong. The Afghan Campaign begins with Alexander’s wedding and the rest of the book is a flashback.

Can the US and the rest of NATO take a leaf from Alexander’s book? I doubt it. These days, western solders can’t be ruthless and cruel. However, Obama can and should emulate Alexander and take Mullah Omar’s daughter as his second wife. May be that will pacify Afghanistan and enable the troops to return home.