After reading Scott Oden’s The Lion of Cairo, I decided to finally get around to reading Steven Pressfield’s The Afghan Campaign. This book has been around since 2006. I have mixed opinions on Pressfield. The Gates of Fire is an awesome novel, I liked The Tides of War though it was different. I didn’t care for Last of the Amazons and I did like his Alexander the Great novel, The Virtues of War. Pressfield does not come from the pulp tradition though he is very readable. Some of his novels are decidedly downbeat in their endings though that is how life can be.
The Afghan Campaign concerns Alexander the Great’s campaign in what is now Afghanistan. Pressfield is making a metaphor for the current situation in Afghanistan. Taking from his novel and also things on his website, his idea is make a deal with the tribes and get out. An idea I can’t argue with. There are some problems that I have with The Afghan Campaign. In order to “modernize” the novel, characters are given more modern sounding names such as Matthias and Lucas instead of Loukas. Afghanistan was called Arachosia in Classical times, he uses Afghanistan. The earliest recorded instance for the word “Afghan” is from 982 A.D.
Pressfield falls for the myth of Afghan invincibility which is based on the destruction of an Indo-British army in the First Afghan War. Cold and starvation destroyed that army which attempted a withdrawal in January short on provisions for the march more than Afghan hill knives. The fact is the Persians, Seleucids, Graeco-Bactrians, Kushans, and Moghuls all controlled that crossroads of Asia. Pressfield refers to the nomad armies of Scythians and Sarmations that fought Alexander as “Afghans.” This is not true as these tribes inhabited the plains of Central Asia to the north of Afghanistan. Those were not hillmen but steppe nomads who were a problem for the Persians, Sassanids, Ommayad Califate etc. Alexander inherited the eternal struggle of Iran versus Turan when he conquered the Persian Empire. Harold Lamb’s biography on Alexander gives the steppe nomads their due in that struggle. So I have problems with Pressfield’s presentation of history in this book.
The story itself is a page turner though told in the first person. It ends on a down note, which is no surprise to me having read most of Pressfield’s novels. Just take this novel with a grain of salt and understand that it is as much as a commentary on today as an historical novel.