“I have come to fear this god of the Afghans. And that has made me a fighting man, as they are.”
— the Macedonian warrior Matthias in The Afghan Campaign
I’m going to talk as a writer and not a historian in this episode. I wrote two books about Alexander. The Afghan Campaign is the second. It details Alexander’s three-year campaign in the same country the U.S., the Russians, the Brits, and other would-be conquerors back to Cyrus the Great of Persia, all of whom were defeated and driven out by the primitive, tribal defenders of this stony and sterile land.
What’s the theme?
We always ask that first. What is the book (and, more importantly, the actual historical experience of Alexander and his men) about?
To me, it’s a different (and darker) aspect of the Warrior Archetype. And I hope it can further illuminate the issues we’re examining in this series.
There’s a story of Alexander when he first entered the Afghan kingdoms. He was invited by a delegation of tribal leaders, in what was then called the Wild Lands and today includes Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The leaders met Alexander on the windswept steppe, in tents. They implored Alexander, for his own sake, not to invade their country. They told him (and it would prove prophetic)
You may defeat us. But you will never defeat our poverty.
We’re now talking of the Warrior Archetype in its most ancient and primitive form. The tribesman.
Pashtunistan is the tribal area the bridges much of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Anyone who has fought there knows this region and its tribal honor code, Pashtunwali.
Pashtunwali is typical of tribal codes of honor around the world. Its tenets reflect the deep, Collective Unconscious/evolutionary roots of the Warrior Archetype. A strong case could be made that the primary thrust of any contemporary military training, from the Navy SEALs to the Marine Corps to the SAS to the Russian Spetsnaz, is to turn the group into a tribe.
Tribal virtues are warrior virtues: hatred and mistrust of all outsiders, obedience to elders, respect for the ancient ways, courage, Readiness to die. Capacity for suffering. Patience extending over centuries. Unity of warring tribes to repel an invader.
But most of all, the capacity to endure and to inflict pain on a level beyond any … and this capacity produced by a fierce love of freedom that one has to respect.
You may defeat us but you will never defeat our poverty.
Consider the difference between warfare against, say, imperial Japan or Nazi Germany with war against the Afghan tribes, either in our day or Alexander’s. Against a modern nation, one can destroy harbors, manufacturing plants, bridges, highways, communications networks. One can raze cities. And these targets destroyed will terminate the enemy’s capacity to resist and, more importantly, break his will to fight. Dresden. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Berlin.
But in the Afghan kingdoms, then and now, there are no cities. No strategic targets that can be captured or destroyed that will bring the enemy to sue for peace. He simply retreats deeper into his mountains and waits.
This is what the tribal leaders meant when they warned Alexander that he would never defeat their poverty.
What happened to Alexander’s army, fighting such an enemy, was it was reduced to enacting matching measures of brutality, in the vain hope of making the Afghan enemy crack. It didn’t work. Instead that “butcher’s war” sapped and destroyed the Macedonians’ own self-respect and sense of honor.
This kind of war reduces the modern army to a level that it cannot sustain, morally, and spiritually.
Compare our own “war against terror.” Who “won” when the U.S. did what it did at Abu Ghraib?
Again, we are faced with the limits of the Warrior Archetype. And again, I’m not speaking of the injury inflicted on the enemy but the emotional and psychological devastation suffered by the Western warriors themselves. Then as now, in the Afghan kingdoms, the brutality and frustration of this fight against a foe who would do anything, endure anything, inflict anything to repel the invader broke their hearts and sapped the invaders’ will to fight.
In the end, what did Alexander do in Afghanistan?
How did he beat his unbeatable enemy?
The answer is he didn’t.
He made a show of marrying the Afghan princess Roxanne, daughter of his greatest tribal rival, the warlord Oxyartes, and basically turning over the entire country to this warlord (in return for Oxyartes’ promise not to cut off Alexander’s routes of supply and communication through his country) and moved on to the next fight, across the Hindu Kush to India.
In other words, he “declared victory” and got the hell out.
We’re seeing, again, the limitations of the Warrior Archetype under certain circumstances, against certain foes.
if we translate this to our personal lives, in other words to the inner war, what it means is that sometimes the pure application of will, intention, force, and aggression – however brilliantly conceived or executed – doesn’t work.
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.
Nice link. Good post.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scott Mitchell: Speaking of “a qualify of insatiability that goes with this archetype”: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2020/03/19/and-alexander-wept/
Great post, thank you for sharing with us!
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.”
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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