WARS always hurry their participants, as the Roman poet Horace once wrote of the epics that recount them, “into the middle of things, as if they were already known.” Wars plunge us violently and deeply into other people’s histories, myths and legends. Perhaps few know this better than one of my West Point colleagues, a major who recently visited my class, full of future Army officers, to discuss his deployment to the Afghan province of Nuristan, high and remote in the Hindu Kush, where ancient legacies coexist with modern war.
The end of American combat operations in Afghanistan has finally come into view. According to the plan President Obama announced in May, the approximately 24,000 troops there now will be reduced to 9,800 by 2015, and troop withdrawals will be complete by the end of 2016. This slow fade to arguably the longest war in American history presents citizens and soldiers alike with an opportunity to consider, after 13 years at war, what it means to stop. This subject preoccupies me because I have been watching my former students shuttle back and forth to the war since it began.
This fall, I tried in my small way to seize the chance to explore the culture of long campaigns and to examine the particular difficulty of recognizing the end. The context is a course on world literature. My students, juniors and seniors at the Military Academy, are perhaps more keenly interested than most in the mythologies of long wars. As they contemplate their military careers, they also need to know what it means to serve in the wake of a war. Together we have been following Alexander the Great’s line of march. This long campaign effectively began at the same time as Alexander’s succession to the Macedonian throne of his father, Philip, in 336 B.C., when he crushed a Greek revolt, and ended only with his death 13 years later in 323 B.C., at age 32.
Our armchair travels along his path have taken us from ancient Greece to North Africa, across the Persian Empire (including modern-day Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan) and east to India. We have even been to China, which Alexander never actually reached. Such was the impact of the Macedonian’s conquest in Asia that Abolqasem Ferdowsi, the author of the 11th-century Persian epic “Shahnameh,” imagines Alexander at the Chinese emperor’s court.
As they read accounts of Alexander’s career by Ferdowsi, Arrian, Plutarch, the 20th-century travel writer Freya Stark and others, my students, conditioned to understand war as a series of 12-month rotations, have been forced to contemplate the mind-set of a soldier on a 10-year deployment. Alexander’s most loyal and experienced troops, the elite Macedonian Companions, never stopped campaigning; some had fought alongside Alexander’s father.
KNOWING when — and how — to stop is a problem as old as war itself. Ascertaining the logical limits of a campaign presents not merely a strategic but a psychological challenge to its architects and its participants. The longer an expedition’s duration, the harder it becomes to know precisely what constitutes the end, as our wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate. But campaigners with a shifting purpose can derail even a comparatively short war. Disagreement over the conflict’s proper scope led to the breach between President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur over Korea. Truman fired the popular general, a decision for which he was initially vilified, to prevent a limited war from becoming a third world war.
“Now, many persons, even some who applauded our decision to defend Korea, have forgotten the basic reason for our action,” the president explained in April 1951. Truman “considered it essential to relieve General MacArthur so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.”
In 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld used different language to address essentially the same problem when he asked, “Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror?” in a memo in October of that year. “Today, we lack metrics to know.” The metrics of 2014 are hardly more definitive.
Americans are uncomfortable with the prospect of an endless war yet deeply uncertain about the natural scope of the campaigns launched by the Authorization for Use of Military Force, signed into law by President George W. Bush on Sept. 18, 2001, against those responsible for the terrorist attacks a week before. This uneasiness and confusion have dominated the new century. Afghanistan was eclipsed by Iraq, Iraq by Afghanistan, and then the entire effort by what we have taken to calling war weariness on the part of a spectating public. A periodic revival of interest in Libya, Syria and elsewhere notwithstanding, much of that public long ago wearied even of watching, while a small percentage of Americans have been commuting to the wars.
After so many long conversations about ancient warriors, the cadets and I were primed to hear from a modern one the day Maj. Stoney Portis visited. A veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Major Portis first discovered the importance of communicating across cultures as a West Point cadet during an exchange visit to Bolivia. He earned a master’s degree from Dartmouth, where he concentrated in cultural studies, and is now on a two-year assignment teaching literature at the Military Academy. Major Portis is an engaging storyteller, but he’s also a careful listener and observer — tools that have served him well on reconnaissance missions as a cavalry scout in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In 2009 and 2010, he was deployed to Kunar and Nuristan Provinces in northeast Afghanistan, where local tribesmen recounted to him legends of Alexander and his army, which had fought in the very same place. “The blond and redheaded Nuristanis who dotted the mountainsides,” he told me, “took pride in the idea that they descended from Alexander’s Greeks and outlasted conquerors for millennia.” This wasn’t the first time he and Alexander had crossed paths: Deployed near the Tigris River from 2006 to 2008, Major Portis operated, although he didn’t think much about it at the time, in the same region where Alexander defeated the Persian army, back when that old campaign was young and full of promise.
In their 10th year on the march the Macedonians told Alexander they would go no farther. They had conquered Persia, endured three years of enervating guerrilla warfare in the mountainous terrain of northern Afghanistan and Iran, crossed the Hindu Kush, and reached the banks of the Beas River, in the Punjab. The campaign’s sense of purpose had begun to drift. The army’s march had taken it off the map into territory heretofore known to the Greek world only through rumor and legend.
Initially billing his campaign as one of Panhellenic vengeance against the Persians, Alexander united the Greek city-states, restored territories lost in the Greco-Persian Wars and liberated Greeks living under Persian control. By the time his army mutinied in India, however, this goal — only partly the stuff of spin — had been accomplished while the initial clarity of the campaign evaporated. As the second-century Greek chronicler Arrian reports, the Macedonians had wearied of watching Alexander perpetually “charging from labor to labor, danger to danger.” Faced with the prospect of an apparently endless quest, they turned their thoughts toward home.
Alexander had other ideas. Educated in Aristotle’s imperfect geography, he sought to reach the outer ocean, “the further limit of which,” Aristotle wrote, “is unknown to the dwellers in our world.”
Alexander informed his disgruntled troops, “As for a limit to one’s labors, I, for one, do not recognize any for a high-minded man, except that the labors themselves should lead to noble accomplishments.” He assured them that “those who labor and face dangers achieve noble deeds, and it is sweet to live bravely and die leaving behind an immortal fame.”
To which Coenus, reputedly one of the most faithful Macedonians, replied, “If there is one thing above all others a successful man should know, it is when to stop.” Persuaded to turn around despite his fury at the mutineers, Alexander meandered with his army through India’s Gedrosian Desert and Iran for another three years before dying of fever in Babylon.
Afghanistan, as Major Portis reminded my class, presented insurmountable obstacles even to Alexander’s juggernaut. As he projected pictures of the rugged, stunning terrain of the Hindu Kush, he asked us to imagine what it was like for Alexander and the Mughal conqueror Babur, for the British, the Soviets and now the Americans to operate in an area that had never seen the end of war. “No one goes to this part of the world by accident,” he pointed out. “Yet a steady stream of foreigners has flowed through Afghanistan for centuries. Each group sought to impose their will on a people who now seem more resolute than the immutable mountains they call home. I get the feeling they won’t change for us either.”
The villages through which Major Portis and his unit moved were so isolated — “10 miles becomes an eternity with a 12,000-foot mountain standing in your way” — that his five interpreters, who spoke nine languages among them, could not understand the dialect. Finally, an interpreter and an elderly villager — one trained as an imam and the other in Shariah law — found a way to communicate imperfectly by exchanging memorized passages of the Quran.
Through this strange linguistic filter, Major Portis worked to understand the nuances of the region in which history had placed him. As he enumerated for us certain characteristics of Afghan campaigns — from spiraling casualties to troop surges to counterinsurgency — he stopped to acknowledge that we might be momentarily confused about which experience he was speaking of, Alexander’s or his own.
Major Portis commanded a cavalry troop at Combat Outpost Keating, which was almost overrun in a Taliban attack in October 2009. This battle, chronicled by Jake Tapper in “The Outpost,” was one of the war’s deadliest for Americans, with eight soldiers killed and 22 wounded. Away from the outpost when the attack began, Major Portis landed on the mountain above with a quick-reaction force, which fought its way down to Keating. But he didn’t visit us to talk about that battle or about beginnings or ends. Instead, he illuminated something of what it means to work, live and fight in the middle of things — in the middle of a war in the middle of a long and convoluted history of wars, deep within the mountains.
Major Portis is a practitioner, a man valued in military culture for his experience, but he came back to West Point to teach because he so forcefully believes in the necessity of studying with depth and care the stories of others to fill in the inevitable gaps in our experience. One of my students told him that the visit had given him some new perspective on the literature we were reading, but at the same time that literature was now helping the major to understand his war. Major Portis alluded to several things he wished he’d known before deploying.
Had he read accounts of Alexander’s march over the narrow passes of the Hindu Kush, he might have had an even richer appreciation for the challenges of operating in these mountains, especially in the winter. Had he read Babur’s 16th-century description of the region’s silver and lapis lazuli in “Baburnama,” he might have understood more readily the predicament of the Afghan miners who arrived at Keating attempting to sell stones for a song when the bottom fell out of the gem market. Had he read from the “Shahnameh,” he might have been more fully prepared for the diversity of religious rituals and cultural practices that characterizes this region.
AMERICANS love to start over. Those old epics Horace described, which begin in medias res, are not for us. An enthusiasm for fresh starts and opening gambits is elemental to our sense of ourselves as exceptional: the authors of an entirely new book. We are, perhaps constitutionally, ill prepared whenever we find ourselves in the middle of someone else’s story and more than a little reluctant to admit the ways in which an encounter with that story potentially works changes in us. Yet when we cannot “make it new,” we are forced to determine more precisely what compromise we can achieve, what price we are willing to pay for it, and what constitutes an end.
Alexander’s conquest looms large in the “Shahnameh.” Alexander is sufficiently self-aware to understand the vanity of his quest but unable to turn back: “I see that I’m to be / Hurried about the world perpetually, / And that I’ll never know another fate. / Than this incessant, wandering, restless state!” Asked repeatedly by the rival rulers he encounters what he wants in the end, Alexander finds it increasingly difficult to come up with an answer. There’s an insight here into the psychology of long campaigns, which tend to exhaust our ability to make sense of them.
As Major Portis circulated green tea and almonds around the seminar table, just as his Afghan hosts had done for him in Nuristan five years before, I began to think that the first step toward seeing the end is to come to terms with what it means to be right in the middle.
When Is a War Over?