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The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great
The man behind the legend
By Steven Martinovich
"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...All I know, I knew at thirteen and, truth to tell, at ten and younger. Nothing has come to me as a grown commander that I did not comprehend as a child." It's either a fool or a confident and capable writer who would decide to write a novel from the first person perspective of Alexander the Great, a commander who by 32 had conquered much of the known world.
Fortunately Steven Pressfield falls into the later camp with The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great, an exhilarating chronicle of the Macedonian king's campaigns and the pressures that a commander in the field faces. Covering the period as a commander under his father King Philip during the battle at Chaeronea to his failed attempt to move a weary army past India's Hyphasis River, Pressfield brings to life a man whose achievements became legend before he died just days shy of his 33rd birthday.
The Virtues of War is written from the perspective of Alexander's late night confessions to Itanes, brother of his bride Roxanne and a page in his service. Pressfield thrusts the reader into the battles that Alexander fought, horrific affairs filled with blood and suffering. Ancient battle was not how Hollywood typically presents it, with swords and spears cutting through men with little effort or soldiers dying easy deaths. Men during Bronze Age warfare were little different from carcasses in a slaughterhouse. Blades penetrate a man like a cleaver in a side of meat.
The novel, however, is not merely an account of the Macedonian army's successful battles. Pressfield elevates The Virtues of War by turning into a study of leadership. As talented at warfare that Alexander was, the challenges he faced two and a half millennia ago are little different from what a commander must grapple with today. Though Alexander was driven to take his army to the ends of the earth, he led ordinary men. While he seemed to know no limits to his abilities or endurance, he had to deal with an army that satiated with wealth and victory after years of campaigning eventually wanted to go home. After the defeat of the Persian king Darius, for example, Alexander is faced with an army encamped in Babylon that feels its job is complete.
"I cannot stay angry at my brothers and countrymen. But what can I do? ... The men like it here. They're getting a taste for the easy life. Many even prattle of turning back -- to Syria or Egypt, where they can throw their money around, or home, to pitch their yarns and set themselves up as petty lords."
Other pressures Alexander faced should resonate with military commanders today. Headquartered in what is today modern Iraq, Alexander must pacify a vast kingdom filled with corruption, violence and intrigue before he can move on to his next objective. Later, in Afghanistan, he is faced with savage guerilla warfare conducted by tribes who would rather die than live under the yoke of a foreign conqueror. His tactics must constantly be evolving to deal with new threats, particularly because Alexander practices maneuver warfare utilizing a smaller but faster force in comparison to the vast numbers his enemies bring to bear. The Virtues of War sometimes reads like a modern battlefield report from the Pentagon.
Pressfield humanizes Alexander by portraying him not as an inhumanely efficient killing machine, a Macedonian version of Achilles for example, but rather as a commander that eventually begins to question himself. Though he is always confident of his superlative abilities, thanks to an inhuman spirit that exists within him that drives him on a quest for more glory, Alexander is also aware of his limitations. He realizes that the 'daimon' that compels him to conquer the world also holds its own threat to him. Like all great men he realizes that he needs his daimon, that inhuman spirit, if he is to exist -- he will either be king of everything or nothing at all -- but that it will consume him in the process.
Though it is a novel The Virtues of War often reads instead like Alexander's diary, personal in tone and contemplative of its subject. A lesser writer would have turned the subject matter into a one-dimensional adventure story filled with the hack and slash of pulp literature. Instead, Pressfield has crafted an engaging character study that is relevant to us today. A Hollywood treatment of Alexander the Great will be in theatres soon but it is unlikely that it will meet the standard that Pressfield has set.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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