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Into the mind of a conqueror
Steven Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance, has won international success with his well-researched novels set in ancient Greece. His fifth book, The Virtues of War, presents Alexander the Great's autobiography, which the general delivers orally to his young brother-in-law. Alexander's conquests have almost reached their extremity and his army is showing signs of psychological as well as physical exhaustion. By recounting his experiences, Alexander, who became king at age 19 and fought his greatest battles before the age of 25, can privately take stock of his achievements, refocus his sense of purpose and regain his own dynamis, or martial spirit.
At the time, Alexander faced much the same conundrum that the American political and military leadership is currently confronting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Overwhelming force of arms is the quickest means to victory, but if it is not used with great discrimination, the conqueror cannot win the "hearts and minds" of the conquered. Alexander was a savvy politician, and the novel makes it clear that it is easier to replace one despot with another than to transform a state ruled by tyranny to one committed to representative governance.
The Virtues of War will be compared to the summer blockbuster Troy and to Alexander, this month's Oliver Stone film with Colin Farrell in the title role. But while Alexander's amazing accomplishments may echo those of the mythological heroes of the Iliad, the novel seems instead to synthesize the salient features of Braveheart and Patton. It gives equal attention to the leader's extraordinary capacity to inspire men to plunge into horrible combat and to the emotionally isolating effects of Alexander's own sense of destiny.
Perhaps Pressfield's deepest insights focus on Alexander's awareness that his persona as "Alexander the Great," his daimon (genius or destiny), has become something distinguishable from his personal identity. Not simply a role that he has assumed, it is a part of him that answers first to history and will not be constrained. It is what makes Alexander both beautiful and terrible to contemplate.
Martin Kich is a professor of English at Wright State University.