Steven Pressfield: The Afgan Campaign

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Steven Pressfield The Afgan Campaign
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Steven Pressfield


The Afgan Campaign

“Do you believe that so many nations accustomed to the name and rule of another, united with us neither by religion, nor customs, nor community of language, have been subdued in the same battle in which they were overcome? It is by your arms alone that they are restrained, not by their dispositions, and those who fear us when we are present, in our absence will be enemies. We are dealing with savage beasts, which lapse of time only can tame, when they are caught and caged, because their own nature cannot tame them… Accordingly, we must either give up what we have taken, or we must seize what we do not yet hold.”

— Alexander, addressing his troops on the approach to Afghanistan

PROLOGUE

A Wedding in Asia

The war is over. Or it will be by sundown tonight, when Alexander takes to wife the Afghan princess Roxane.

Across the Plain of Sorrows, so named for the multitude of its burial grounds, the camps of the Macedonians sprawl flank-by-flank alongside those of the enemy. There must be half a thousand of the latter, those bivouacs the Afghans call tafiran (“circles”), each housing between fifty and five hundred men. Every tribe and clan from Artacoana to the Jaxartes has trekked in for the celebration, along with vendors and whores in thousands, tailors, seamstresses, acrobats, musicians, fortune-tellers. The whole Mack expeditionary force is here, including foreign units, horse and foot. Every captain and corporal parades in his finery, eager for the festivities. Except me and my mates Flag, Boxer, and Little Red. We’ve still got work to do.

Give Alexander credit. By marrying the Afghan princess, he turns his most formidable foe, the warlord Oxyartes, into his father-in-law. No other stunt could have produced victory in this war-or that state of affairs that can plausibly be passed off as victory.

So we shall have peace. I doubt that any cessation of hostilities has been longed for more ardently than this. A campaign that was supposed to take three months has dragged on with unbroken terror and brutality for almost three years. Those of us who came out from home as boys have become first men and then something closer to beasts or devils. The Afghans have suffered worse. Two hundred thousand dead, that’s the figure you hear. I believe it. Hardly a village remains in this country that our troops haven’t leveled, or a city that we haven’t taken apart stone by stone.

So this wedding is much looked forward to. The deal between Alexander and Oxyartes is this: The warlord gives away his daughter and accepts our king as his sovereign. In return, Alexander anoints him First Kinsman and his own Royal Companion. This makes Oxyartes premier among all Bactrian barons and the biggest fish east of the Euphrates. Then we Macedonians pack up and leave. I don’t know who’s happier-us to get out or the Afghans to see us go.

I’m getting married tonight myself. Fourteen hundred Macks will be linking with Afghan girls in one collective ceremony. My bride’s name is Shinar. It’s a long story; I’ll tell it as we go along.

My mate Flag dismounts now outside the tent as I finish arming. He’s about forty and the hardest knot I know. He has taught me everything. I would march into hell at his side.

He enters dressed in formal military kit, for the wedding. I indicate his cloak. “You’ll be roasting in that thing.”

Flag tugs back one wing. Beneath his left arm, a xiphos sword is strapped to his ribs. He’s got an Afghan long-knife lashed along one thigh and throwing-daggers inside both boots. He carries two more weapons in plain view, a ceremonial sword on a baldric and a nine-foot half-pike. These are for show. To give Baz (the name we Macedonians apply to any Afghan) something to fix his eyes on.

Boxer and Little Red have reined outside. In a few moments we’ll make our way across the plain to the camp of the Aletai Pactyans. There, I will meet the brother of my bride and pay him off, an indemnity of honor, so he won’t murder me and his sister. The price is four years’ wages and my best horse.

Such is Afghanistan. Only out here do you have to bribe a brother not to slaughter his own sister. Her crime: being with me.

Of course I suspect treachery. That’s what the weapons are for. In a way I’m hoping for it. Otherwise, our own Mack code of philoxenia (“love for the stranger”) forbids me to take the life of one of the family I marry into. I’m an idiot for still buying it, but there it is.

Atop the citadel, the crier calls. Two hours past noon. The Persian day starts at sundown. That’s when the wedding will take place. Lesser ceremonies have been going on all day. Late afternoon will be the military tattoo. The whole Mack army and all the Afghan clans and tribes will pass in review before Alexander, Roxane, and the dignitaries. The big wedding, the royal one, will take place in Chorienes’ palace atop the fortress of Bal Teghrib, “Stone Mountain.” The mass ceremony, the one where Shinar and I will get tied, takes place outdoors in the new stadium at the foot of the hill. When the weddings are over, the celebrations begin.

“All right,” says Flag. “Let’s go over this one more time.”

Flag is by far our senior. His rank is Flag Sergeant. He has a personal name but I’ve never heard anyone use it. We just call him by his rank.

He rehearses us in blocking moves. What’s critical is that Shinar’s brother and his two cousins not escape. They can’t be allowed to break away or survive with wounds. Our blows must be fatal. These three are Shinar’s last male kin. No others stand under the obligation of nangwali, the Afghan code of honor, to see that “justice” is done. Brother and cousins slain, we can buy our way out of the crime. Money will patch it up. But these three must go down.

I am grateful to my comrades. This is serious peril that they undergo for my sake. I’d do the same for them, and they know it. They’ll be embarrassed if I express gratitude overtly. When it’s over, if we’re all alive, I’ll get each of them a woman or a horse.

“All I can say,” says Little Red as we finish our preparations, “is this is a hell of a way to warm up for a wedding.”

As my mates and I cinch up, my bride appears in the portal. She will bathe now and, assisted by her bridesmaids, perform the karahal, the Pactyan purification rite. No male may witness this. She meets my eye. “When will you go, Matthias?”

“Now.”

A groom brings my horse. My mates have already mounted.

The Afghan farewell is tel badir, “With God’s care.” Shinar signs this to me. I sign back. Flag’s heels tap his pony. “Now or never.”

We’re off. To perform, if we must, one final murder; then get the hell out of this country.

BOOK ONE

A Common Soldier

1

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.

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