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Friday, August 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"The Afghan Campaign": Greek war story echoes today's battles

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Afghan Campaign"
by Steven Pressfield
Doubleday, 351 pp., $24.95

Steven Pressfield's first Greek warfare novel, 1998's "Gates of Fire," was so different from his novel of golf and mysticism, "The Legend of Bagger Vance," that one wondered if, after his immersion in ancient battle, he'd fly off in a new direction yet again.

However, in the years since starting "Gates," Pressfield, a 62-year-old former Marine, truck driver, teacher and screenwriter, has not strayed, writing four more novels that extend and expand a personal, vividly imagined, and singular world: that of the Greek warrior. His era is simpler, more brutal, more personal, and more heroic than ours, and so carefully researched that the reader is never sure where fact leaves off and fiction begins.

As Patrick O'Brien's prose seemed to encapsulate in amber the feel of the Napoleonic-era warship, Pressfield's crisp and eloquent style reconstitutes the ancient battlefield.

His latest book, "The Afghan Campaign," shows his focus growing ever-more intense. It continues the story of Alexander the Great he began in "The Virtues of War" but transfers the point of view from king to common soldier, and from decisive battles to early guerilla war. As such, the novel echoes the transition from America's "mission accomplished" blitzkriegs in Afghanistan and Iraq to today's frustrating search for stability. As the narrator states, "one final murder, then get the hell out of this country."

While "The Afghan Campaign" includes a tragic near-marriage between soldier and native woman, it is in many ways an uncompromising book aimed squarely at fans of historical military fiction. The hero, Matthias, is the newest member of what is essentially the classic World War II infantry squad of countless tales, going from neophyte to veteran in a series of increasingly brutal battles. This is a worm's-eye-view of ancient war.

While we see Alexander in a few scenes, the king is mostly left offstage. Episodes in the conqueror's life that preoccupy biographers, such as his increasingly paranoid assassination of some of his veteran generals, barely register with these Alexander-worshipping foot soldiers. They assume the dead lieutenants had it coming to them. They have a grim confidence in their king, themselves and their purpose, which again seems to echo the modern American military.

The Afghanistan campaign was Alexander's most difficult and inconclusive, requiring the slaughter of half the nation's male population and his marriage to the princess Roxanne. It also presents problems as a story, since the goal is vague, the warfare grinding, and the victories exhausting. The hero does not triumph, he survives, and the Greeks once more seem almost superhuman in their endurance and courage.

Yet Pressfield's portrayal of ancient Afghanistan is fascinating, his details are convincing, and the book's timing is apt. This is a novel about the timelessness of guerilla war, and a mountainous nation that has been defying attempts to tame it for at least 2,300 years.

William Dietrich's latest novel is "The Scourge of God."

He is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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