This was the first book on my list. It was given to me by a friend years ago when she learned I was heading back into the Army. It has sat on my shelf since then and I finally picked it up to lead off the End of War Reading List.
It’s a tough read. It is as readable a history of Alexander’s campaigns into Afghanistan can possibly be (which isn’t very). It’s kind of like jumping into ‘Game of Thrones’ mid-season or picking up the book and starting to read from just anywhere. Lots of strange names and locations that are difficult to place unless you’re already read-in. Mind numbing, but rewarding for someone willing to sit and focus. Not something to pluck through in the moments before falling asleep.
Frank Holt (the author) is a professor of ancient history who specializes in Alexander the Great. He is the guy that you would want to write this book if what you’re interested in historical accuracy.
For its difficulties, Holt manages to paint the contours of the great campaign well enough, which is the best that could be accomplished, given the extreme lack of source material. He also lightly infuses comparisons to the British, Soviet, and American escapades into Afghanistan where appropriate. It is clear through his writing that Holt holds a very dismal opinion on the West’s current involvement in Afghanistan, but he expresses it not with the venom of a talking head on a cable news channel, but instead the sad disappointment of a respected high-school teacher. It’s not too heavy-handed, but Holt does ride the “graveyard of empires” train.
Before reading this, I knew pretty much nothing about Alexander’s Afghanistan campaign except what I learned from the Oliver Stone movie, which was practically nothing except everyone looked fantastic in antiquity. The book accomplished its job of taking me through the campaign without making me do the hard work myself. There are plenty of notes and references for the historians interested in where the source material comes from, and Holt is always careful to inform the reader what is conjecture and what is sourced.
Holt is good about adding in quotes through history that bring the ancient campaign to life through grim prophecy. Here he is in the introduction, quoting British general Robert Franks on the perils of being in Afghanistan:
It may not be very flattering to our amour propre, but I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us the less they will dislike us. Should Russia in future years attempt to conquer Afghanistan, or invade India through it, we should have a better chance at attaching the Afghans to our interests if we avoid all interference with them in the meantime.
I earmarked some spots in the book that I thought might be interesting to highlight.
Fortune can turn in an instant – Quoting a British officer, comparing Alexander’s troubles in taming Afghanistan after initial successes to a line from the Second Afghan War (British):
A change has indeed come over the vision of our dream – last night we were all cock-a-hoop, thinking ourselves fine fellows, and that all we had now to do was walk around and burn some villages; and within twenty-four hours we are locked up, closely besieged, after a jolly good licking and all communications with the outer world cut off. (p. 50)
All we had to go do “was walk around and burn some villages” and be done with the whole thing. Turns out, as quoted above, that heavy handedness doesn’t always work the way it ought to.
More on the perils of reckless abandon:
In the so-called fog of war, Alexander’s men jabbed, sliced, torched, and bombarded in a frenzied swath. Innocents no doubt perished in the heavy use of firepower, just as American warplanes have accidentally bombed Afghan allied, coalition partners and even several wedding parties. Twice in one week (December 2003), U.S. forces killed groups of Afghan children while trying unsuccessfully to target individual warlords. Such events take a heavy toll not only on indigenous peoples but also on the luckless soldiers whose orders place them in these winless circumstances. (p. 58-9)
The story of the ‘Silver Shields,’ an elite, veteran unit of Alexander’s forces:
One indication of this sad state of affairs may be found in the history of the elite unit Alexander’s army called the Silver Shields. As these veterans grew old in service and passed the age of sixty, they demanded of Alexander’s successors the benefits and rewards promised to them. Deemed unruly and ungrateful for making such petitions, these worn-out soldiers were sent away to southern Afghanistan where, we are told, they were to be secretly assigned by twos and threes to perilous missions from which they would not return. Betrayed, they still haunt the region of Kandahar. (p. 120)
This book took me way too long to read. It wasn’t very gripping, but worthwhile for someone being plopped onto the end of a cosmic timeline.
The End of War Reading List
Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)
The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)
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