In words that might have been ripped from today's combat dispatches, Steven Pressfield, the bestselling novelist of ancient warfare, returns with a riveting historical novel that re-creates Alexander the Great's invasion of the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C., a campaign that eerily foreshadows the tactics, terrors, and frustrations of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Narrated by Matthias, a young infantryman in Alexander's army,The Afghan Campaignexplores the challenges, both military and moral, that Alexander and his soldiers face as they embark on a new type of war and are forced to adapt to the methods of a ruthless foe that employs terror and insurgent tactics, conceals itself among the civilian populace, and recruits women and boys as combatants. Matthias joins Alexander's army after it has conquered the Persian empire and is advancing east into Afghanistan on its way to the riches of India. Part of a unit that includes recruits his own age as well as veterans, Matthias chronicles his rapid coming-of-age as a soldier as he enacts Alexander's scorch-and-burn strategies, experiences the joys and sorrows of a romance with an Afghan girl, and faces the barbarism of the Afghans, his fellow soldiers, and ultimately himself.
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July 17, 2006
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Excerpt from The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield
I am the third and last son of my family to come out to Afghanistan. My older brothers went out as cavalrymen. I signed with the infantry.
The distinction between horse and foot is not so great in Afghanistan as it was in Alexander's earlier campaigns in Asia Minor, Mesopotamia, and Persia. Out east, an infantryman is expected to leap onto the back of any creature that will bear his weight--horse, mule, ass, or yaboo (the Afghan pony)--and ride to the site of action, there to dismount and fight, or even fight from the beast's back if necessary. Likewise horse troopers, even the King's Companions, think nothing of hitting the ground and slugging it out on foot alongside the dirt-eaters.
My father was killed in Afghanistan, or more precisely he expired of sepsis in a military hospital in Susia, in the province of Areia, which lies on the western border of the country. My father was not a mounted warrior or a foot soldier but a combat engineer of the siege train--what the troops call a "bucket man" because miners and sappers dig their trenches and raise their earthworks with wicker baskets. His name was the same as mine, Matthias.
My father fought at the Granicus River, at Tyre, Gaza, and at Issus. He was an authentic hero. My brothers are too. Once, when I was sixteen, my father sent home an army warrant worth a quarter talent of gold. We bought a second farm with it, with two barns and a year-round creek, and had enough left over to fence the place in stone.
It was my father's keenest wish that I, the youngest brother, not come out to war. My mother, further, was violently opposed to any step that would take me away from the land. "You may call it your misfortune, Matthias," she declared, "to have been whelped last of the litter. But, like it or not, you are my bulwark and the bulwark of this farm. Your father is gone. We shall never see your brothers again. Lust for glory will be their finish; they will leave great names and nothing more."
My mother feared that I, gone overseas, would tread into the snare of some foreign wench and, taking her to wife, never return to Macedon.
I was eighteen, however, and as mad for glory as every other overheated young blood in a kingdom whose twenty-five-year-old sovereign, Alexander son of Philip, had in only four years sacked earth's mightiest empire and turned our homeland delirious with conquest, fame, and treasure.
In the Macedonian army, enlistments are measured not by years but by cycles, or "bumps." A bump is eighteen months. Minimum enlistment is two bumps, one to be trained and one to serve, but a man must commit for a third cycle, a total of four and a half years, if and when he is called overseas. It worked this way: A recruit entered service with a regiment of the Occupation Army. This was the force left behind by Alexander to hold down Greece and the tribal north. All these contingents were territorial; you had to come from the district or you couldn't get in. As Alexander's needs in Asia necessitated, he sent home for replacements. Sometimes entire regiments were called up; other times individuals, either those in specific military specialties such as intelligence or siege engineering, or simply infantrymen with seniority whose lucky number came up.