39 The Warrior Archetype

Episode Thirty-Nine: The Afghan Campaign

When a “civilized” army like Alexander’s confronts a primitive tribal foe (as Alexander did in the Afghan kingdoms in the 330s B.C.), it often sinks to the level of brutality and pitilessness of its enemy.

Ask the British and the Russians of their own experience in that cruel country.

Ask our own guys.

Subscribe here for the full series, or watch previous episodes here

Subscribe here for the full series, or watch previous episodes here


  1. Chetan on December 28, 2020 at 6:59 am

    The only time Afghanis have been defeated in history was by the Sikh empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and his legendary commander Hari Singh Nalwa.

    A short account is here: https://www.rbth.com/articles/2011/11/17/winning_in_afghanistan_what_the_west_can_learn_from_india_13265

    Nalwa himself is a legend. At the age of 14 he earned the nickname Baghmar (tiger-killer) after bare-handedly killing a tiger which attacked him and his horse during a hunting expedition. The reason the Sikhs under Nalwa and Ranjit Singh kept winning battles, and ultimately conquered Afghanistan has been attributed to sustained aggression combined with magnanimity towards the civilian population.

    Nalwa’ Wikepedia page is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hari_Singh_Nalwa

    Hari Singh Nalwa would be a fascinating historical character for a book, unlike Alexander, he was much more recent and there are plenty of credible records of his life and time as a general, including accounts of battle.

    • Brian Nelson on December 28, 2020 at 3:44 pm

      Nice link. Good post.

  2. Andrew+Lubin on December 28, 2020 at 7:45 am

    The Taliban had a similar expression: “You have the watches, but we have the time.” Mix in some historic-level corruption by the Karzai family and friends, and an ego-driven American concept that all problems could be solved by massive injections of money instead of effort, and we have…the Afghanistan of today.

    A shame really. Alexander realized that brutality didn’t work, and so by marrying Roxanne (and letting his officers marry locals); he was the first to practice ‘no worst enemy/no better friend.’ Warriors are equally proficient at either, as the world learned in 2009-2010 as the Marines pacified Helmand Province with the active assistance and help of the motivated local tribes.

    The difference between Alexander (or Sikundar Gul!) in Afg and America’s 19 year venture is that Sikundar was there for conquest, and we were not. We were there for vengence? To make Afg a better place? Deny AQ, Talibs, someone else, a place from which to attack America again? And that’s what affected our warriors; it’s difficult to successfully complete your mission when you’re not sure what it is.

    • Brian Nelson on December 28, 2020 at 5:07 pm

      Good points and good questions. My own cynical interpretation of our ‘mission’ when I was over there–at least from the timidity of the GOs was, “not on my watch”. This was post Abu-Ghraib, the war protests were gaining steam, and (it seemed to me) our senior officers were more afraid of the American public/post Army life than winning the war.

      As I just typed that, I questioned myself on what does ‘winning the war’ mean. While Alexander was hell-bent on conquest, it does seem that he was able to ‘win’ wars with less bloodshed because of his respect for the people he was trying to conquer. Interesting things to consider from the safety of my suburban life.

  3. Scott Mitchell on December 28, 2020 at 9:21 am

    These are great videos, and the varied exterior backgrounds make each video unique. We could build on that by photo-shopping appropriate background scenery, like for this episode, Steve at the Khyber Pass.

    More seriously, it’s interesting that Alexander (and for that matter, maybe other Warrior-Conquerors) don’t seem to learn from the experience of wars like the Afghan war. It was “on to India”. When he got back to Babylon, it was then “on to Arabia” and maybe western Europe. Maybe there is a qualify of insatiability that goes with this archetype.

    • Brian Nelson on December 28, 2020 at 5:12 pm

      Hadn’t thought about the backgrounds of the videos until Joe Jansen mentioned it in another post last week. You’re right, it would be cool to see Steve at the Khyber Pass. When we were planning to go to Afghanistan, I learned that Hindu Kush meant “Hindi Killer”.

      As for his insatiable appetite, I immediately thought of all the ‘other side of same coin, other side of the blade, greatest strength is also greatest weakness’ type paradoxes of the human condition.

    • Benjamin R. Tong on December 28, 2020 at 6:39 pm

      Scott Mitchell: Speaking of “a qualify of insatiability that goes with this archetype”: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/03/19/and-alexander-wept/

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  5. Joe on December 29, 2020 at 4:12 am

    This post has brought out a lot of historical depth (Chetan and Benjamin) and insights based on personal experiences (Andrew and Brian, if not others). Jim Gant has been known to comment on these posts, and his monograph “One Tribe at a Time,” based on his insights as a Green Beret working, living, and fighting alongside Afghan tribesman, was widely praised by Generals Petraeus and McChrystal. It would be interesting to hear a thought from him.

    I think of this “imperative to conquer” that is clearly wired into this congregation of consciousnesses we call “human.” All continents, all eras. At one level it’s about claiming wealth and resources… land, gold, water, beaver pelts. But what is the story REALLY about? Maybe fear of death? “How can the gods take me when I clearly have so much 𝐒𝐓𝐔𝐅𝐅 to manage!”

    Thinking of the eastern dragon sitting in a cave, jealously guarding piles of jewels and riches. Or the suburban homeowner who thinks she’ll cheat the reaper by jamming a U-Store garage to the rafters with accumulated objects that she hasn’t laid eyes on in a decade, and probably never will again.

    “Maybe I won’t be taken if they see how much luggage comes with me.”

  6. Scott Mitchell on December 30, 2020 at 8:14 am

    Brian, that was a chilling translation for “Hindu Kush”! Makes you wonder whether certain Afghan landmarks now have American references.

    Benjamin: that was a fascinating article by Anthony Madrid. A deep dive into scholarship is always stimulating, particularly if it strips away the accretions of misleading reporting. Who can say what drove Alexander — especially after he beat the Persians? Maybe it was just ravenous curiosity. I recall a quote from one of the classical sources that Alexander “longed to see the Great Ocean [at the end of the world].” Or maybe it was a phenomenon that the veterans here might recognize as “mission creep” on a grand scale.

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