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Book Reviews

The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great

by Steven Pressfield
New York: Doubleday, 348 pages

Reviewed by Lieutenant-Colonel Terry Loveridge

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Book cover Some novels deserve military journal reviews. The Virtues of War is one of these. It is timely, and it evokes that universal soldier experience that will make it one of those favourites that will emerge from the rucksack wherever soldiers pause to ‘hoochie-up.’ And so it should, for it is the chronicle of a commander’s experience of war, from the Balkans through Baghdad to Kandahar and Kabul and beyond. The commander in question happens to be Alexander of Macedon, and only an author with Steven Pressfield’s credentials could present a book purporting to be the memoirs of one called “the Great” and pull it off. Pressfield is well established as modern scribe to the ancients. His Gates of Steel recorded what it was to be Sparta at Thermopylae, and his Tides of War made us witness to the corrosion of honour and ambition that was the Peloponnesian War. Both were written well enough to satisfy historians and to occasion the author’s appearance on the History Channel as a ‘talking head,’ but he writes, essentially, for soldiers. His books sell very well to the broader public, but he is not a populist, not a Bernard Cornwell or C.S Forrester in sandals. His protagonists are not unlikely heroes or role models; they are the flesh and blood products of war, violence and calamity. Soldiers can’t aspire to be Pressfield characters, for they already are that.

Virtues of War pretends to be Alexander’s military memoirs as delivered to a junior officer about to take command in his army prior to the invasion of India. This is a daunting approach, considering that no real contemporary accounts remain of his campaigns, and what there is of the record has been burnished in the service of “to make a point” history. Yet, Alexander’s outline story is known well enough to appear familiar and to be the subject of a new Oliver Stone movie. He was the son born to eclipse an innovative and ruthless father and to lead his father’s honed and magnificent Macedonian war machine in a conquest of the known world. This he began at an age that most moderns would consider too young to command a platoon. By the time he was old enough to command a company, he had pacified the Balkans, shattered the sole superpower Persia, brought to heel the guerrillas of Afghanistan, and toppled the great kingdoms of India. He offered his troops the rest of the world, but they asked him to turn back, and he did. He died before he was 33 and left no personal record of how and why he did what he did, so Pressfield fleshes out the record, and, in familiar military colloquy, convinces the reader that this is how it happened. To help, he includes a preface that explains which bits of his story appear on the brief record, which pieces he extrapolates, and which he re-orders. He also throws in two adequate maps and a handy timeline.

This is an elegantly written, absorbing novel that feels and sounds like what it alleges to be – a commander’s military autobiography. Pressfield’s Alexander is all soldier – the book opens with: “I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life. The calling of arms, I have followed from boyhood. I have never sought another.” – and it remains very much the combatant’s view of Alexander’s wars, even as he navigates his ‘bad patch’ when he is distracted by the responsibilities of governing. The tactical, operational and strategic thought expressed by Pressfield’s boy-general is satisfying (and when was the last time you read a book that you could say that about?). He explains, lucidly, how he learned from his father even though he understood from his earliest memories that he was superior to, and destined to eclipse, that brilliant general. Lest this makes him sound like any other over-confident ‘subbie’ in the presence of an ancien, Pressfield reminds us all, as Alexander’s father teaches him, that his first, and hardest, lesson is that “War is a brutish business,” or more precisely, a business for brutes. The example episode does not bear retelling at the dinner table, but it does bear remembering as we wrestle with attempts to recast soldiers as icons of social respectability. The memoir is episodic and skimps on detail of the fantastic sieges, and there is no story of the Gordian Knot, but this is in keeping with the framework of a “lessons learned” account to a subordinate. Siege work, after all, is basic engineering, and grand politics is of less interest to an aspiring junior officer than describing how to manoeuvre a Macedonian phalanx through the Persian version of an anti-personnel minefield, or how to use wedged cavalry to break heavy infantry – or, most importantly of all, how to inspire troops to resist luxury.

By concentrating on marching and on the smacking of bronze on wicker, Pressfield’s Alexander reveals much about his protagonist as a soldier, if not as a man. This Alexander is beyond conventional analysis as manoeuverist, attritionist, Clausewitzian or disciple of Sun Tzu. He is a genius above formulaic constraint and understands war sufficiently well to be able to follow but one path – to see what needs to be done and to do it. He is both Rommel and Haig. Here is the master who shocks the doctrinaire by manoeuvring to attack the very hardest point of the Persian line. But then, he wants to occupy Baghdad without suffering follow-on insurrection. He writes: “Our object is to break the will to resist, not only of the king’s soldiers, but of his peoples. The subjects of the empire are the real audience of these events.” The boy general’s later reputation for massacre, looting and assassination are fully explored in his own words. Much of it stemmed from his adjustment to “asymmetric” warfare. “To say one fights a guerrilla is inexact. One hunts them, as he would jackals or wild boars, and he can feel pity for them no more than for savage beasts. The tribesmen of Afghanistan were the fiercest fighters I ever faced, and their general, the Grey Wolf, the only adversary I ever feared.”

Despite glimpses into strategic or even geo-strategic thought, Pressfield’s Alexander is most alive at the tactical level, and it is his description of ancient battle with its elephants, chariots, javelins and surprising reliance on an all-arms tactical manoeuvre, that bring the soldier to this book. J.F.C. Fuller’s descriptions of Caesar’s campaigns cannot match these for stirring the familiar primeval pulse. Interestingly, Fuller claimed that even the much-vaunted legions of Rome would not have stood against Alexander’s combined-arms army in its prime. What gives Pressfield’s book this “operator appeal” is his ability to transport the reader into Alexander’s saddle, and to feel what he feels while manipulating Companion Cavalry and sarissa-armed phalanxes against apparently overwhelming odds. Readers will find themselves grinning empathetically as Alexander slashes annoyingly wayward plumes off his helmet while trying to calculate the closing time of opposing forces. Be warned, while the grand tactical solutions are clear enough to withstand the ancient fog of war, the reader is still challenged in trying to comprehend the simplest things about ancient warfare. Alexander, for example, has no need to explain to his acolyte just how he maintains his seat on a war-horse without stirrups as he hacks his way into densely packed infantry. Nor does Alexander feel the need to explain how he became the most frequently wounded supreme commander in history.

In the end, the key to understanding this Alexander is in understanding his troops and his hold on them and their hold on him. Time and again, Pressfield takes his Alexander into the ranks to sort malcontents, to inspire the dispirited, to lead the blood-maddened. His sarissa-armed phalanxes, like Wellington’s Brown Bess infantry, were the heart of his army and the anvil of his designs, and his interplay with these troops will be familiar to all soldiers at all times. The reader fully understands that when they can march no more, Alexander must turn about and go home. The reader also understands that, at that point, Alexander has nowhere to go but to his own funeral. The book ends with the soldier’s ditty favoured by the king-emperor. It is a soft song, sung to the music of the wind as it blows through the phalanx’s stacked sarissas. I suspect that these four lines from Pressfield will evoke, for most of us, the story of Alexander more effectively than will all of the expensive imagery of Mr. Stone’s epic.

The sarissa’s song is a sad song.
He pipes it soft and low.
I would ply a gentler trade, says he,
But war is all I know.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Loveridge, an infantry officer, teaches history at the Royal Military College of Canada.