ave always been a soldier. I have no other life. So begins Alexander’s extraordinary confession on the eve of his greatest crisis of leadership. By turns heroic and calculating, compassionate and utterly merciless, Alexander recounts with a warrior’s unflinching eye for detail the blood, the terror, and the tactics of his greatest battlefield victories. Whether surviving his father’s brutal assassination, presiding over a massacre, or weeping at the death of a beloved comrade-in-arms, Alexander never denies the hard realities of the code by which he lives: the virtues of war. But as much as he was feared by his enemies, he was loved and revered by his friends, his generals, and the men who followed him into battle. Often outnumbered, never outfought, Alexander conquered every enemy the world stood against him—but the one he never saw coming . . . .
1. A SOLDIER
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.
I have known lovers, sired offspring, competed in games and committed outrages when drunk. I have vanquished empires, yoked continents, been crowned as an immortal before gods and men. But always I have been a soldier.
From the time I was a boy I fled my tutor to seek the company of the men in the barracks. The drill field and the stable, the smell of leather and sweat; these are congenial to me. The scrape of the whetstone on iron is to me what music is to poets. It has always been this way. I can remember no time when it was otherwise.
One such as myself must have learned much, a fellow might think, from campaign and experience. Yet I may state in candor: all that 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 apprehend as a child.
As a boy I instinctively understood the ground, the march, the occasion, and the elements. I comprehended the crossing of rivers and the exploitation of terrain; how many units of what composition may traverse such-and-such a distance, how swiftly, bearing how much kit, arriving in what condition to fight. The drawing up of troops came as second nature to me; I simply looked; all showed itself clear. My father was the greatest general of his day, perhaps the greatest ever. Yet when I was ten I informed him that I would excel him. By twenty-three I had done so.
As a lad I was jealous of my father, fearing he would achieve glory on such a scale as would leave none for me. I have never truly feared anything, save that mischance that would prevent me from fulfilling my destiny.
The army it has been my privilege to lead has been invincible across Europe and Asia. It has united the states of Greece and the islands of the Aegean; liberated from the Persian yoke the Greek cities of Ionia and Aeolia. It has brought into subjection Armenia, Cappadocia, both Lesser and Greater Phrygia, Paphlagonia, Caria, Lydia, Pisidia, Lycia, Pamphylia, both Hollow and Mesopotamian Syria, and Cilicia. The great strongholds of Phoenicia–Byblus, Tyre, Sidon (and the Philistine city of Gaza)—have fallen before it. It has vanquished the central empire of Persia—Egypt and nearer Arabia, Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Media, Susiana, the rugged land of Persia herself—and the eastern provinces of Hyrcania, Areia, Parthia, Bactria, Tapuria, Drangiana, Arachosia, and Sogdiana. It has crossed the Hindu Kush into India. It has never been beaten.
This force has been insuperable not for its numbers, for in every campaign it has entered the field outmounted and outmanned; nor for the brilliance of its generalship or tactics, though these have not been inconsiderable; nor for the proficiency of its supply train and logistical corps, without which no force in the field can survive, let alone prevail. Rather this army has succeeded because of qualities of warriorship in its individual soldiers, specifically that property expressed by the Greek word dynamis, the will to fight. No general of this or any age has been so favored by fortune as I, to lead such men, possessed of such warlike spirit, imbued with such resources of self-enterprise, committed so to their commanders and to their call.
Yet now what I have feared most has come to pass. The men themselves have grown weary of conquest. They draw up on the bank of this river of India, and they fail of passion to cross it. They have come too far, they believe. It is enough. They want to go home.
For the first time since I acceded to command, I have found it necessary to constitute a unit of the army as Atactoi—Malcontents—and to segregate them from the central divisions of the corps. Nor are these fellows renegades or habitual delinquents, but crack troops, decorated veterans, many trained under my father and his great general Parmenio, who have become so disaffected, from actions or words taken or omitted by me, that I can station them in the battle line only between units of unimpeachable loyalty, lest they prove false in the fatal hour. This day I have been compelled to execute five of their officers, homegrown Macedonians all, whose families are dear to me, for failure to promptly carry out an order. I hate this, not only for the barbarity of the measure, but for the deficiency of imagination it signalizes in me. Must I lead now by terror and compulsion? Is this the state to which my genius has been reduced?
When I was sixteen and rode for the first time at the head of my own corps of cavalry, I was so overcome that I could not stay myself from weeping. My adjutant grew alarmed and begged to know what discomfited me. But the horsemen in their squadrons understood. I was moved by the sight of them in such brilliant order, by their scars and their silence, the weathered creasing of their faces. When the men saw my state, they returned my devotion, for they knew I would burst my heart for them. In strategy and tactics, even in valor, other commanders may be my equal. But in this none surpasses me: the measure of my love for my comrades. I love even those who call themselves my enemies. Alone meanness and malice I despise. But the foe who stands with gallantry, him I draw to my breast, dear as a brother.
Those who do not understand war believe it contention between armies, friend against foe. No. Rather friend and foe duel as one against an unseen antagonist, whose name is Fear, and seek, even entwined in death, to mount to that promontory whose ensign is honor.
What drives the soldier is cardia, heart, and dynamis, the will to fight. Nothing else matters in war. Not weapons or tactics, philosophy or patriotism, not fear of the gods themselves. Only this love of glory, which is the seminal imperative of mortal blood, as ineradicable within man as in a wolf or a lion, and without which we are nothing.
When my father took Athens’s surrender in my eighteenth year, he sent me, with his senior general Antipater, to address the Athenian Assembly. I stood upon the Hill of the Pnyx, with the Acropolis and the splendor of Athens before me, and my heart broke for that proud people, whose hour of greatness had so clearly come and gone. It was our time now, Macedon’s time. That was little over ten years ago. Has my nation’s glory failed so fast? Has mine?
When I was small a sergeant named Telamon befriended me. He was the first to set me, out of sight of my tutor, on the back of a full-grown horse. That sergeant is a general today; I have made him rich beyond emperors. Yet even he will not follow me across this river.
Praise for The Virtues of War
Pressfield takes his readers beyond Alexander's brilliance and shows them his flaws.
Virtues of War works as military fiction. Its account of Alexander—part real, part imagined by the author—is, in effect, an imaginative tutorial for the serving officer in battlefield leadership. Marines should look to The Virtues of War as they would The Red Badge of Courage or Fields of Fire—a good story of valor, fear, camaraderie, and courage.
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.
I have since changed my mind.
Virtues of War is at least as good as Gates of Fire. Indeed, it may even be better. I won't know until I've re-read it (which I rather intend to do, just as soon as I get done writing this review).
. . . a work of art; a beautifully written, delicately and expertly crafted, perfectly structured testament to the ability of an author to imagine a subject, and to share it with his readers . . . Suffice it to say, for the first time in something like four years, I have read a novel (other than Gates of Fire) that actually moved me in the reading. The best novels stay with you in your dreams and in your waking moments when you finish. I have dreamed of Virtues every night since I picked it up.
If you want to understand [Maneuver Warfare] . . . read the standards: Bill Lind's Maneuver Warfare Handbook, John Boyd's Patterns of Conflict, Marine Corps Doctrine Pub 1, Warfighting, and then pick up The Virtues of War to experience how it was practiced by one of its earliest and greatest masters.