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The Afghan Campaign: A Novel

The Afghan Campaign: A Novel


Author: Steven Pressfield
Rating: 8/10
Last Read: August 2016

Quick Summary:  This novel lies in the same vein as Pressfield's other historical novels - the narrator is a minor character following a famous historical figure.  The narrator joins up with a band of mercenaries who are leaving to fight alongside Alexander in Afghanistan.  However, this novel spends significantly more time focusing on the horror of war and the acts of atrocities enacted by Alexander's troops.  It is a stark picture of human nature, but the descriptions ring true to the stories of war shared by my friends.  

I think it is an important thing to remember that war is not full of glory - only death, loss, and destruction.

"What’s wrong, you fuck,” answers Lucas, “is that words have meanings. People believe the bucketwash you put out. They think that’s how it is, particularly young men, who are suckers for tales of glamour and glory. You have an obligation to tell them the truth.”

My Highlights

Why do soldiers drink? To keep from thinking, says Flag. If you think, you start to fear. --loc 505

It is simultaneously extraordinary and appalling to see how efficiently our Macks work this. They slaughter an entire male household with barely a sound, so swiftly that the wives and infants are cast into dumbstruck shock. It is the kill of wolves or lions, the cold kill of predation. It is work. --loc 575

A soldier who cannot be counted on by his mates is more dangerous than an enemy. --loc 601

When a new man is initiated into the confederacy of murderers, his seniors make him commit the same crime they have. Now he is as guilty as they. He cannot turn on them. He is one of them. --loc 659

Fear, men say, is the most primal emotion. I don’t believe it. Shame is. My feeling as Tollo bolts past after the foe is one of joy and relief, that my senior sergeant has seen me take down my man, however clumsily, and profound release that my humiliation from the village has been at least partly effaced. --loc 687

“Perhaps, Matthias,” Stephanos says, “you and I might profit, in an alien land, by suspension of judgment.” --loc 1157

“Each precept of wisdom you gain,” says Ash, “bears you farther from God.” --loc 1163

“Take a war-name, Matthias. It solves a lot of problems.” --loc 1180

“You know,” Stephanos says, “I’ve taken to you from the start, Matthias. Shall I tell you why?”
“Because,” says Flag, “he never shuts up.”
“Because he asks questions.”
“That’s his problem.”
“And one day he might get answers.”
--loc 1203

The view of life is that of a noble resignation to fate. God determines all, the Afghan believes. One can do nothing except be a man and bear up. --loc 1354

Stephanos cheers the men by predicting victory in Bactria. We’ll catch Bessus and Spitamenes, he swears, with their bollocks in the breeze. Why? “Because they’re men of intelligence. It’s beyond their imagination to believe that anyone in their right salt-sucking mind would cross these mountains at this season.” --loc 1409

We hear no more talk of mutiny. Porters trek tight beside us. We will live or die together. This is the way peril overhauls you. One hand’s-breadth at a time. Suddenly you’re in it. --loc 1447

It takes Flag pummeling me with both elbows (he can no longer feel his hands) before I understand our Color Sergeant is dead. “He was croaked at the bottom,” Flag declares. I’m furious. Why didn’t Flag tell me? He has made us break our backs. But I am in awe of him too. My God, what a soldier! What a friend. --loc 1569

The crime I have committed, Elihu explains, is called in Dari al satwa. The Hebrews have a term for it, too—tol davi. It means to bring shame upon someone by performing an act of responsibility that they have failed to perform themselves. --loc 1703

“Why can’t you tell it straight?” Lucas demands.
Costas replies that the public only wants certain kinds of stories. There’s no demand for the other kind.
“You mean the true kind,” says Lucas.
--loc 1904

Costas defends himself. What does he, or any correspondent, want? “Just to acquire a modest name, sail home bearing tales of distant lands, and offer them for readings and recitals. What’s wrong with that?”
"What’s wrong, you fuck,” answers Lucas, “is that words have meanings. People believe the bucketwash you put out. They think that’s how it is, particularly young men, who are suckers for tales of glamour and glory. You have an obligation to tell them the truth.” --loc 1908

God, what a stench when a man’s guts are opened to the air. That doesn’t go into your dispatches, does it? We read nothing about the sound the ‘follow-on’ makes, going down the line of throat-slit men with a club, bashing skulls like walnuts, while the still-living men pray without voices or curse us in gurgling blood or plead for their lives. The silent ones are the scariest. Men with guts. Better men than we are.” --loc 1926

Can you defend the massacres we enact, Flag? Is this Macedonian honor?”
Our sergeant’s lips decline into a dark smile. “There is no honor in war, my friend. Only in poems of war.
--loc 1933

“Does a lion hesitate? Does an eagle hold back? What is the call of a gallant heart, except to aspire to mighty deeds? --loc 1946

The fellow possessed that quality, innate to all born commanders, of focused and dominating intention. --loc 2245

And, for both of us, the terror of death. “If I die,” he tells me when we stop the first night, “don’t let the army cook up some phony story. Tell my people what really happened.”
As for my own end, I make no such scruple. “Tell ’em the biggest-balled lie you can think of.”
--loc 2305

hear that the solitudes of the Scythians are made fun of in Greek proverbs, but we seek after places that are desert rather than cities and rich fields. Why? For freedom! Rather would we dine on coarse meal at liberty than feast on honeyed cakes in chains.” --loc 2457

“Great trees are long in growing but fall in a single hour. Even the lion has been made food for the smallest of birds, and rust consumes iron. Therefore tell your king to hold his fortune with tight hands; she is slippery and cannot be confined against her will. --loc 2469

But if he is a mortal man, let him remember his place in the scheme of the Almighty. For what indeed is madness, save to recall those things that make one forget himself?” --loc 2472

“I always imagined that hard experience would make you stronger and less afraid. But it’s the opposite. It undermines you because you know how vulnerable you are and how bad things can get.” --loc 2617

The instrument of counterguerrilla warfare is the massacre. Its object is terror, to make oneself an object of such dread that the foe fears to face you ever. This practice has worked for the army of Macedon across all Asia. It does not work here. The Afghan is so proud, so inured to privation, and so in love with liberty that he prefers death to capitulation. --loc 2943

“They say a man becomes old,” he says, “when more of his friends reside beneath the earth than above it.” --loc 3175

“To be a soldier,” he says, “is no lofty calling. Who acts as a brute is a brute.” --loc 3179

“This is what war is,” says Alexander. “Glory has fled. One searches in vain for honor. We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of. Even victory, as Aeschylus says, in whose august glow all felonies are effaced, is not the same in this war. What remains? To prevent the needless waste of lives. Too many good men have perished without cause. More will join them if we don’t make this peace now.” --loc 3661

“I know, dear child, that you believe heaven has turned its back on you. Perhaps that was so, once. But all things turn in their season. Not even as cruel a deity as that of this pitiless land can remain unmoved forever by his people’s affliction. The proof grows now in your belly. Your suffering has redeemed you, Shinar. God holds out his hand. Take it, I beg you. Can any act be more impious than to spurn the clemency of heaven?” --loc 3854

What is money for anyway? Only to get what you need—or keep away what you dread. --loc 4004

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