Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Afghan Campaign

The Afghan Campaign is historical novelist Stephen Pressfield's second journey to the time of Alexander the Great, but where The Virtues of War was narrated by Alexander himself, The Afghan Campaign is seen through the eyes of Matthias, a grunt in Alexander's army. The great one invaded the Afghan kingdoms about 330 B.C. and found himself against a completely different kind of foe. One who wouldn't stand and fight, but instead used the tactics of terrorism and insurgency. A foe that blended in with the civilian noncombatants and used women and children as weapons. Sound familiar? Pressfield isn't subtle about drawing comparisons between the Afghan war and our own situation in the Middle East, or our time in Viet Nam for that matter.
Think of the book as a Bronze Age version of the movie Platoon. Matthias, a callow youth dreaming of the glories of war, follows in the footsteps of his father and older brothers and joins the army. He gets a rude awakening when he reaches the front lines. Matthias is so afraid during his first real taste of combat that he flees in panic, a crime punishable by death. But some veterans run him to ground, drag him back, and actually force him to kill someone. They've seen it all before. Shamed and desperate to redress his behavior, he tries to kill as many enemies as he can in the next skirmish. There's nothing glorious about this war. Pressfield seems to be going out of his way to show the grit and grime and the horrors of war in this book. Matthias learns first had what it's like to fight with spears and swords up close and personal. There's a darkly humorous scene where he can't seem to kill a man because his keeps sticking his sword in the wrong spots, bouncing it off ribs or plunging through a non vital area and getting the blade stuck. At one point he even wounds himself.
Pressfield is a master at dropping in the needed historical data almost casually. It never feels like you're reading a text book. All information is given as needed. If I've any complaint with his writing style it's that he sometimes skimps on visual details, making it hard to imagine the lands the protagonists are passing through. But that's fairly minor.
I've said in other posts that historical fiction has become the place I go for my sword & sorcery fix. No one in the fantasy field is writing the kind of hard hitting, gritty tales so beloved of Robert E. Howard and his followers. The Afghan Campaign fits right in. It's easy to imagine Conan as one of the vets in Alexander's army. He has no illusions about war. To him it's a job and he does it because he can.
Anyway, this is probably my favorite so far of Pressfield's books. I recommend it, but with the qualification that it's not a happy book.

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