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Steven Pressfield: Alexander the Great in Iraq
Steven Pressfield: Alexander the Great in Iraq
 

About the Author

Steven Pressfield is the author of Gates of Fire and the upcoming (October 2004) The Virtues of War, a Novel of Alexander the Great.


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A '65 graduate of Duke University and a Marine Corps reservist from '65-'71, Steven Pressfield was not one of those writers from whom success came early. He worked for seventeen years before making his first writing dollar, along the way doing every form of writing-for-hire from advertising in New York to screenwriting in Hollywood, as well as working all those jobs that writers work when they're not writing -- bartending, school-teaching, driving tractor-trailers, working on off-shore oil rigs, picking fruit.

The Legend of Bagger Vance (1995) was his first published book. He followed it with Gates of Fire, about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, and three other historical novels set in ancient Greece, including the upcoming (October 2004) The Virtues of War, a Novel of Alexander the Great. In 2003, Mr. Pressfield was made an honorary citizen of the city of Sparta in Greece. He lives in Los Angeles.



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What can our contemporary soldiers and Marines learn from the campaign of 331 B.C.?



[Have opinions on this article? Go to the Discussion Forum to sound off.]

There's a great scene in the movie "Patton," where George C. Scott and Karl Malden (as Patton and Omar Bradley, in north Africa in 1943) are being driven out to the site of the recently-fought battle of the Kasserine Pass. As their vehicles approach the location, Patton makes them take a detour, insisting that the battle had been in a different place. The driver informs Patton of his error, and Bradley confirms that the driver is right; he was just out here yesterday. But Patton insists. Bradley and the sergeant/driver exchange an uneasy glance. Has the old man lost his marbles? Patton makes them press on to a site alongside some ancient ruins. "It was here," Patton says. "The battlefield was here."

He gestures out over the desert. "The Carthaginians defending the city were attacked by three Roman legions. The Carthaginians were proud and brave, but they couldn't hold. They were massacred." Bradley and the sarge grin, impressed. The boss knows what he's talking about after all.

DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

Our troops in Iraq today may not be as knowledgeable about ancient history as Patton, but they know that armies have been clashing for thousands of years on the turf they now patrol. The land occupied by modern Iraq has been in centuries past the kingdoms of Ur, Sumer, and Akkad, and the empires of Assyria, Chaldea, Babylonia, and Persia. It has been ruled by Semiramis, Sargon, Sennacherib, Hammurabi, and Nebuchadnezzar, Ashurbanipal, Cyrus the Great, Xerxes, and Darius, not to mention Tamerlane, the Mongol hordes, Turks and Ottomans, British, French, Germans, and Russians.

But the most famous conqueror of all was a twenty-five-year-old king of Macedonia, who subdued Iraq in 331 B.C. and died there eight years later, a few months shy of his thirty-third birthday.

We know him as Alexander the Great.

How did Alexander overcome Iraq? What can we learn from his campaigns and his victories? Are there parallels between the challenges he faced in his era and those the U.S. and its allies confront today?

I've been working for the past two and a half years on a novel about Alexander. By no means can I claim to be an expert. I'm not a classicist or professor or historian. I'm just a writer of historical fiction, a Marine who never rose above the rank of E-3. But, if you'll take the following as simply one man's perspective, maybe it will provoke a little thought.

WHO WAS ALEXANDER? WHAT WAS IRAQ?

Alexander became king of Macedon at twenty and had won his greatest victories by the age of twenty-five. His era ran between the Golden Age of Greece and the rise of Rome. He led his army against the empire of Persia, earth's mightiest, and destroyed it within four years, despite being outnumbered in the field, often by as many as five to one.



He commanded at four monumental battles -- the Granicus River, Issus, Gaugamela, and the Hydaspes River -- in addition to prosecuting numerous sieges, desert and mountain campaigns, and a three-year counter-guerrilla war in Afghanistan. He fought summer and winter for eleven years, advancing east as far as India. He was never beaten.

What was Iraq? The land between the Tigris and Euphrates was not called by that name then. It was Mesopotamia. Its southern half was the kingdom of Babylonia; the north was called Mesopotamian Syria. Neither was independent. Both were provinces, or satrapies, of the empire of Persia.

In other words, Iraq was not an autonomous nation, it was two conquered kingdoms. That's the first big difference between Alexander's challenge and ours.

NO OIL AND NO ISLAM

Islam did not exist in Alexander's day. The Prophet would not be born for 900 years. Nor had Jesus yet walked upon the earth. That would wait another three centuries. Alexander's Macedonians worshipped Zeus and the Olympian gods; the Persians were Zoroastrians. In Babylon, the chief divinity was Baal.

Nor was Alexander after oil. Horsepower was truly horse power in his day. The object of controlling a vital strategic commodity was not part of Alexander's agenda.

HOW DID ALEXANDER CONQUER IRAQ?

Alexander had already been at war with the Persian empire for three years when he entered Iraq. He had won the great battles of the Granicus River and Issus (in modern Turkey) and had conquered all of what is today Turkey, Syria, Israel, Egypt, and part of Arabia. He had been wounded in action numerous times, including having his helmet hacked through by a cavalry saber, being shot in the chest by a catapult bolt, and brained by a heavy stone. He had faced Darius III in person at the battle of Issus, annihilated his army, and driven him in flight from the field.

The year was 332. Alexander controlled the Mediterranean seaboard; Darius held Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and the interior all the way to what is today Tajikistan. Alexander waited. He gave his rival time to raise a second army. Alexander wished, above all, to avoid a scorched-earth guerrilla-type resistance. He wanted a straight-up clash that would settle things once and for all.

In the spring of 331, he set out from Tyre on the seacoast, marching inland via Damascus and Aleppo. He entered Iraq from the northwest, bridging the Euphrates in what today is Syria, on his way to the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. His goal was the city of Babylon, 400 miles south. Darius was waiting for him there with an army of one million men (if we credit the ancient historians). Alexander had about 50,000. Babylon was on the Euphrates, about sixty miles south of contemporary Baghdad.

After a campaign of maneuver that lasted all summer, the two forces met east of the Tigris, on a plain called Gaugamela. In a monumental battle, Alexander's Macedonians routed the Persian host. Estimates of enemy dead (always dubious in ancient accounts) range from 50,000 to 200,000. Darius fled east into Iran. The second army of the empire scattered.

In the Persian camp, Alexander's forces captured Darius's wife, the Queen of Persia, and his young son and mother. (The Persian king went to war accompanied by his family.) Alexander treated them with respect, insisting that they be accorded no less honor in captivity than they had been in freedom.

ALEXANDER TAKES BABYLON

The city of Babylon was the greatest in the world. Its walls were 150 feet high and forty miles in circuit. It had been designed with so much open land inside that the city could grow crops and withstand a siege indefinitely. Alexander's army advanced south from Irbil, past Kirkuk, via Tikrit.

He was already near Babylon, and was leading his army in battle order, when the Babylonians came to meet him in mass, with their priests and rulers ... bringing gifts and offering surrender of the city, the citadel and the treasure.1

Alexander entered Babylon on October 25, 331, a little over three weeks after the battle of Gaugamela. He was now in possession of the equivalent of modern Baghdad.

PACIFYING THE POPULATION

Alexander had a number of advantages that our contemporary coalition does not. For one, he was not conquering a sovereign nation. He was overthrowing an imperial power (Persia) that had held that nation (Babylonia) in subjection.

In other words, Alexander could legitimately pose as a liberator. There's a telling phrase in Curtius' History of Alexander, describing the conqueror's entrance into the city:
A great part of the Babylonians had taken their places on the walls in their eagerness to become acquainted with their new king ...2
Their new king. In Alexander's day, the people of Iraq/Babylonia were so accustomed to being ruled by foreign powers that it meant very little to them when one alien monarch, Darius of Persia, was kicked out and another, Alexander of Macedon, came in. It was "meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Except Alexander was canny enough not to portray himself as the old boss.

STEP ONE: RELIGION

When the Persians ruled Babylon, they had destroyed the great temple of Baal, the holiest site of Babylonian religion. Alexander, almost as soon as he entered the city,
directed the Babylonians [at his own expense] to rebuild the temples [that Xerxes of Persia] had destroyed, and especially the temple of Baal, whom the Babylonians honor more than any other god.3
Alexander restored the ancient religion and went out of his way to show respect for it.

Of course this was not an option for our contemporary commanders, who were regarded as infidels by the indigenous population and would not have been permitted to set foot on holy soil even if they had wanted to.

It may be (I'm speculating) that polytheistic creeds like Alexander's are more tolerant of other people's beliefs than our own monotheistic religions, Islam, Christianity, Judaism. Certainly Alexander was able to perceive his own god, Zeus, under different names in other religions and so to embrace them. This scored him big points wherever he went.

STEP TWO: CIVIL ADMINISTRATION

Having conquered Iraq, Alexander did not dismiss the local officials and magistrates. He kept them in their jobs. He kept the governor and the treasurer. He dined with them and made them his companions. He let the populace know that order would be maintained and that life would go on without any cataclysmic upheavals.

Of course Alexander didn't do this because he was a nice guy. His object was to pacify the place quickly, so he could move on.

ALEXANDER'S GOAL WAS DIFFERENT FROM OURS

Alexander's ultimate aim was not Iraq/Babylon. Iraq was just a theater of war on his march east to Persia. Alexander's goal was the conquest of the Persian empire. It was expedient for him to leave in place in Babylonia many of the governors and magistrates who had ruled under Darius, so that the continuity of daily life would be maintained -- and he would not find himself confronted by an insurrection in his rear.

Clearly this policy was not an option for our American commanders. Their mission was regime change. They could not leave Saddam and his party in power; the whole purpose of the invasion was to unseat them. That the coalition is now re-examing its mandate of de-Baathification and considering bringing back Baathist administrative and technical personnel demonstrates, perhaps tardily, the triumph of practicality over ideology.

PERSONAL LEGITIMACY

Alexander had other assets that we don't in terms of ability to affect events and influence the behavior of a vanquished people.

First, he was a legitimate conqueror, present on-site in the flesh. To get to Iraq, Alexander had fought three monumental battles (not to mention two major sieges and innumerable lesser scrapes) in which he rode at the head of his Companion Cavalry, leading in person from the front. He bled; he risked his life.
"Come then," [Alexander later confronted his soldiers, on an occasion when victory had made them arrogant] "let any of you strip and display his own wounds, and I will display mine in turn. In my case, there is no part of my body, or none in front [where wounds of honor were received], that has been left unwounded, and there is no weapon of close combat, no missile whose scars I do not bear on my person, but I have been wounded by the sword hand to hand, shot by arrows and struck by a catapult, [all] for your interest, your glory, and your enrichment ... "4
In other words, Alexander was the Man and everybody knew it.

His enemies might have hated him and wished not to find themselves under his thumb, but they had to admit that he had won the day fair and square and had hazarded his own life over and over to do so. He possessed immense prestige because of this and could convert this to political capital.

Part of the coalition's trouble in contemporary Iraq stems, I suspect, from the fact that its forces are led by no recognizable fighting general. Of how much value to their armies were Napoleon or Patton (or Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf), just by their presences alone?

THE ROLE OF TECHNOLOGY

Another factor that reinforced Alexander's legitimacy in the eyes of the conquered people was that he had defeated them without any advantage in technology. The Macedonians beat their enemy, spear against spear, man against man. If anything, Darius of Persia had the tech edge, with his scythed chariots, war elephants, and his massed formations of armored horsemen.

What Alexander and his troops had won, they had won the old-fashioned way -- on skill and guts and generalship -- and the enemy knew it.

The stubbornness of today's Iraqi insurgency is fueled in no small part, I suspect, by the insurgents' belief that they were beaten in the initial invasion by technology. Smart bombs beat them, laser gunsights beat them. This may not be true, but they believe it. Man for man, they believe they're as good as we are. They have not been subdued morally and psychologically, as Alexander's enemies were.

Today's Iraqis have been humiliated but not defeated, shamed but not beaten.

WAS GOD ON ALEXANDER'S SIDE?

In ancient, pre-scientific times, it was not difficult for a population, observing his victories, to believe that Alexander had been annointed by some form of Divine Will. Otherwise why did he keep winning? And, believing that it was heaven's wish that Alexander conquer, such populations might be more ready to accept his rule.

Alexander's presence appeared so superhuman in those days that he wound up in the Bible (the Book of Daniel, where he's the apocalyptic "third Beast"). He's in the Koran too, as the "Two-Horned One," which meant, to Greek and Egyptian hearers, the son of Ammon, i.e. the Almighty. This is an image George W. Bush cannot call upon, however useful it might be if he could.

A CAMPAIGN OF INSURGENCY

Alexander had the edge on us here too. Urban guerrilla resistance was of limited usefulness in the days before explosives. The best an insurgent militia could do was attack the Macedonians spear-against-spear, and that was a definite non-starter.

The conquered populace didn't have AK-47s under their mattresses or caches of C-4 in their backyards. They didn't have militant clerics to fire them up or Al Jazeera to supply video coverage of their resistance. They were unarmed and untrained. Their king and his army had scattered to the hills. The people's fondest wish was simply for a return to normalcy, so they could raise their kids and bring in the harvest. Alexander understood this. Winning hearts and minds was on his list, but it wasn't priority Number One. He just wanted the gold in the Royal Treasury and whatever tribute the province had formerly delivered to Persia, so he could pay his army and keep moving east.

BY RIGHT OF CONQUEST

There's a very interesting quote from Xenophon's Education of Cyrus.
He ruled over these nations, even though they did not speak the same language as he, nor one nation the same as another; for all that, he was able to cover so vast a region with the fear which he inspired, that he struck all men with terror and no one tried to withstand him; and he was able to awaken in all so lively a desire to please him, that they always wished to be guided by his will.5
The key correlation is between "being able to inspire fear" and "awakening a desire to please him ... to be guided by his will."

In other words, in Alexander's day the conqueror possessed legitimacy simply because he had conquered. Conquest was legitimate. The vanquished people accepted it. They accepted that that was the way the world worked; always had and always would.

Such acquiescence doesn't exist today. U.S. forces may hold the power in Iraq, but the population cedes them no legitimacy. The Americans are there, in the Iraqi view, in violation of international law (and no doubt, in their view, of divine law as well). The fact that the Yanks possess superior military force cuts no ice in Iraqi eyes; it only proves that we're usurpers and illegitimate invaders.

Such a concept was inconceivable in Alexander's day. If Alexander was in your backyard with his army, that was it. He was the boss. There was no appeal to "world opinion" or "international law." Alexander was world opinion; he was international law.

WORLD OPINION

Actually world opinion did exist in Alexander's day (and Alexander did cater to it, particularly to Athenian opinion) but it was so weak and so distant as to be effectively negligible. No CNN, no satellite phones, no Jacques Chirac. It took months for people in Athens even to learn of the fall of Babylon, let alone to be able to do anything about it, which they couldn't anyway, because Alexander had conquered them too and held them, gently but firmly, beneath a garrison force in Greece equal in size to the army he had with him in Iraq.

But Alexander had another tremendous advantage that our contemporary coalition can't match: he had the Big Stick and everyone knew he would use it.

THE USE OF UNLIMITED FORCE

A number of factors prevent the U.S. and its allies from employing against the Iraqi insurgents the vast muscle they possess. First, the fact that our declared object is to help. Our mission is to bring freedom, not to lay the place waste. Nor would we be good at it, even if we tried. Our moral self-conception prevents "American boys" from acting like, say, the Nazis in Poland or the Russians in Chechnya. Our own officers and men would revolt if so ordered, as would our civilian populace at home -- as they should.

Of course Iraq's contemporary insurgents know this, and it emboldens them to strike and provoke a response. They know that news footage of "collateral damage" is as good as victory in the field, and that video of Iraqi innocents maimed by another errant U.S. bomb is worth its weight in regiments.

Like us, Alexander restrained his use of force in Iraq. But there was a crucial difference. Alexander's enemies knew not only that he and his army possessed unlimited force, but that they would use it. "Macedonian boys" had burned the Greek city of Thebes to the ground, massacred its male population and sold its women and children into slavery. When the Phoenician city of Tyre fell after defying him, Alexander crucified 2000 along the road out of town.

Those in Iraq who would resist Alexander knew, too, that he had not come to "establish security" or "rebuild infrastructure." He had come to conquer. He was there to break his enemies' will to resist -- and he would do whatever it took to achieve this.

Babylon opened her gates to Alexander, indeed. But we may be sure (even though the ancient histories remain mute on the subject) that the same diplomatic intrigues preceded this coup as our contemporary coalition hoped to effect in its initial move into Baghdad. Babylon was surrendered to Alexander by its Persian governor, Mazaeus, who had fought with tremendous courage against Alexander at Gaugamela just three weeks earlier. What threats and promises flew first beneath the camps? Surely Alexander's envoys made it clear: Give up and we'll spare the city and retain you in power; resist us and suffer the worst.

Alexander could use the velvet glove because he had the credible iron fist. We don't -- and we shouldn't. That's not how Americans should fight or could. But the price is paid by our officers and men on the ground, gamely doubling (without preparation or training) as school-builders and unofficial mayors, peacekeepers and public administrators.

Will it work? Can our troops be warriors and nice guys at the same time? Will the people of Iraq respect us or despise us?

WHAT DOES THE COALITION WANT?

Over a year after the invasion, the allies' aims in Iraq remain unclear. Was our objective to seek and destroy WMD? To oust Saddam Hussein? To secure the oilfields? Did we invade to fight terrorism? Establish democracy? Secure the blessings of freedom? Or was it just an excuse to sit down 130,000 Yanks on the doorsteps of Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia? Is the war just a boondoggle to funnel cash to Halliburton and other crony contractors? Is it presidential payback for the frustrations of Gulf War I?

Alexander never labored under such diffusion of purpose. His goal was simple: he was out to conquer the Persian empire, and Iraq was a staging ground on the way.

With such a clear and simple object, Alexander was able to garrison the country, appropriate the treasury, give his men a holiday, and be back on the road in thirty-four days.

A HIGHER PURPOSE

There is one further and very interesting parallel between Alexander's incursion and our own. Beyond the obvious machtpolitik objectives, we both have a stated nobler purpose. The U.S. seeks to bring freedom and democracy; Alexander sought to establish "fusion."

Fusion was a blending of East and West, of Macedonian and Persian. Returning to Babylon from India in 321, Alexander celebrated a mass wedding. Ninety-two of his Macedonian Companions were wed to Persian brides. He himself took the hand of King Darius's daughter. He gave dowries to every soldier of Macedonia (10,000 in all, when they registered) who had taken a consort of the East.

Alexander (not unlike George W. Bush, as he stated in his prime-time press conference of April 13, 2004) sought nothing less than to remake the world. Alexander's goal was to fuse the warring races of East and West and create a new world harmony. To this end, he integrated Persian units into his army, brought in Iranian cavalry and Indian archers; he enlisted conquered nations beneath his banner and welcomed their princes as allies and friends.

Did it work? Oddly enough, resistance to Alexander's vision came not from the subject peoples (they were proud to call themselves Companions of so great a king) but from his own countrymen. Alexander's Macedonians grew jealous. They wanted their king all to themselves. When Alexander formed a unit of "Descendants" -- Persian youths who had been taught the Greek language and the use of Macedonian tactics and weaponry -- the Macedonians could not endure it. They mutinied at Opis on the Tigris.

Alexander called their bluff. He told them they were free to go home; he would continue without them. Then he withdrew to his quarters (a trick he had used with success before) to confer with his new foreign commanders. The Macedonians couldn't stand it.
... the mass [of soldiers] could no longer contain themselves but all ran together to the palace and, throwing down their arms there before the doors as signs of supplication to the king, they themselves stood shouting before the doors, begging to be let in. They said they... would not depart neither by day nor by night unless Alexander would have some pity on them. Alexander quickly came out, and seeing them so humble, and hearing most of them lamenting loudly, he too shed tears. [He forgave them, calling them his kinsmen. So Callines, one of the soldiers,] came forward and kissed him, and so did any other who wished. So they took up their arms again and returned to the camp shouting and singing their victory song.6
Alexander preserved his vision for the moment. But at the cost of his own immense prestige and the great love his countrymen had for him. He could not bluff them again.

THE END OF THE DREAM

Alexander's dream of remaking the world lasted only as long as he was present in the flesh to command it. When a sudden illness carried him off, at Babylon in 323 B.C., the ideal of "fusion" fell apart. In the end it had been held together only by Alexander's will. It possessed no natural constituency of its own.

Now our country, too, has brought its purpose to Iraq. We too have set a lofty goal for our enterprise: the establishment on alien soil of a free and democratic society. How long will this aim outlive our occupation and the imposition of our will by force? The answer, I suspect, like so much in this ancient and strife-torn land, will have its roots in history and be prefigured by the past.

Steven Pressfield is the author of "Gates of Fire" and the upcoming (October 2004) Virtues of War, a Novel of Alexander the Great.

Citations of quotes:

1. Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander, 3.16.3, Loeb Classical Library, translated by P.A. Brunt. [back to text]

2. Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander, 5.1.19, Loeb Classical Library, translated by John C. Rolfe. [back to text]

3. Arrian, Anabasis, 3.16.4. [back to text]

4. Ibid., 7.11.4-7. [back to text]

5. Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.1.5, Loeb Classical Library, translated by Walter Miller. [back to text]

6. Arrian, op. cit., 7.10.2. [back to text]


Copyright 2004 by Steven Pressfield. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.

 



 



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