October 25, 2004


The man behind the legend: a review of The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great By Steven Pressfield (Steven Martinovich, October 25, 2004, Enter Stage Right)

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.

Of course, if you're unfamiliar with Mr. Pressfield you should start with his best, Gates of Fire.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2004 11:43 AM

I'm reminded of the words of Will Cuppy:

"Alexander spent the next nine years fighting more battles, marching and countermarching, killing people at random, and robbing their widows and orphans. He soon grew tired of impressing Greek culture on the Persians and attempted to impress Persian culture on the Greeks. In an argument about this, he killed his friend Clitus, who had twice saved his life in battle. Then he wept for forty-eight hours. Alexander seldom killed his close friends unless he was drunk, and he always had a good
cry afterwards."

Posted by: carter at October 25, 2004 3:20 PM

Pressfield addresses this in The Virtues of War. Along with Clietus -- who he killed in a rage and then wept over -- he also killed another in a similar fashion.

He also tackles Alexander's growing love of Persian culture, something that made many of his Macedonian soldiers quite angry.

All in all, a good novel.

Posted by: Steve Martinovich at October 25, 2004 9:19 PM