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The Virtues of War

Books | Steven Pressfield's novel tells a different story of Alexander the Great

Issue: "Iraq: Unity in adversity," Feb. 12, 2005

Director Oliver Stone spoiled the public's knowledge of the Kennedy assassination with his made-up docudrama JFK. It would be a shame if his awful Alexander-nominated for six "Razzies" for worst picture, actor, actress, supporting actor, screenplay, and director-tarnished the image of Alexander the Great. To cleanse your imagination of Mr. Stone's portrayal of the young conqueror of the known world as a swishy homosexual, read Steven Pressfield's novel The Virtues of War.

Mr. Pressfield specializes in depictions of the ancient Greeks, using fictional techniques to put the reader inside a scrupulously researched historical time. He recreated the Battle of Thermopylae in Gates of Fire and portrayed another brilliant but morally flawed leader, Alcibiades, in Tides of War.

In his portrait of Alexander, Mr. Pressfield has the conqueror explaining his accomplishments to his young brother-in-law as part of his military education. The story is organized around the "virtues of war" (the will to fight; love of glory; self-command; shame at failure; contempt for death; patience; an instinct for the kill; love for one's comrades; love for one's enemy).

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Alexander recounts his exploits in vivid descriptions of his battles and tactics. But we also see the complex character-both generous and cruel, a philosopher and a megalomaniac-that has so intrigued historians. Alexander here describes his life as a conflict between his human soul and his daimon, the spirit that Greeks believed guides one's destiny, in his case a demon-like genius that at times turns him into a monster.

This ancient history resonates today. Alexander's powerful armies alone cannot subdue Afghanistan. "To say one fights guerrillas is inexact," he says. "One hunts them, as he would jackals or wild boars." The parallels to our own war on terrorism can only make us squirm: "The language they understand is terror. To prevail, one must be more terrible than they."

Without the sensationalism of sex and revisionism, Mr. Pressfield's novel tells a story of Alexander that also yields insights into leadership, warfare, and the sinful human condition.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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