Into The Land Of Bones: Alexander The Great In Afghanistan, by Frank L. Holt
This is a book I would have liked the chance to have reviewed academically, because I looked at a later book of his that dealt with the little-known history of the Hellenistic Greek rulers of Bactria, which includes the area of contemporary Afghanistan. The author does something here that is quite insightful, and precisely what we would expect a historian to do, and that is to take insight and knowledge about an area that provides a long historical perspective and apply it to the historical situation, in this case the American involvement in Afghanistan. The author points out that as far back as the time of Alexander the Great that the area was difficult to rule and impossible to keep unified for long, with its fractious political nature and its lack of a real core to unify its disparate parts. In fact, the author may not be going nearly far enough to seek the reason for Afghanistan’s status as such a difficult place to rule, which may go back to the destruction of the Bactrian civilization by the Aryans in the period around 2500 to 3000 BC, long before anyone bothered to write histories about the matter. by the time of Persia and Greece, though, we have history and it suggests common patterns that are worth knowing.
This book is a bit more than 150 pages, so it does not belabor its point, which is heavy-handed enough on its own. The book begins with a list of illustrations and a preface. After that the author gives an introduction that sets the context of the work in seeking to make a historical connection between America’s involvement in Afghanistan and the involvement of Alexander the Great there (1). After that comes a look at the hunting of the enemy in Alexander’s initial conquest (2), and the desperate struggle between the troops left behind and a rising guerrilla effort on the part of local warlords (3). After that the author discusses the hydra heads of numerous revolts that threatened the lives of Alexander’s troops (4) as well as Alexander’s use of tactics of love and war to attempt to encourage peace by an advantageous marriage on the one hand as well as brutal attacks on the other hand (5). After that the author discusses the dark shadows the region fell into after Alexander the Great that undermines expectations that things were peaceful (6), while also looking at the legacy of Greek control in Afghanistan and its fragility (7), as one can see by the record of archaeology. The book ends with a conclusion (8), as well as with appendices that discuss ancient sources, notes, a select bibliography, and an index.
This book is one of the few books that ends up being quite prophetic as a result of its sound historical analysis. Long before the long chain of problems in Afghanistan made itself clear, the author could tell not only from the Soviet and British experience in Afghanistan but also from Alexander’s experience, that the ways of Afghanistan have long been hostile to Westerners and the interaction between Western imperialists and locals has been consistent. There has been no shortage of common threads in these interactions. Locals have met overwhelming force with sullen and apparent obedience, and as soon as most of the troops have gone away guerrilla war and a sound knowledge of the land leads to bad blood, and atrocities, and even when peace has been declared, the local warlords only look for weakness to attack again, and again, and again, until the situation remains as it was before. This has been the way of Afghan history, and the author is wise to see it as a pattern that is not going to be stopped simply because a few thousand American troops with high technology as well as horses enter the scene.