The Virtues of War: Review

It’s hot. The sun is in your face, and you’re encumbered by 60 pounds of gear. Dust blows into your eyes as you stand-fast, eighteen foot pike facing forward, staring down (barely), the charge of the Persian scythed chariots. Your heart rate picks up, and your helmet, fit snugly over your ears, makes it so that you can hear barely anything at all besides the hot blood rapidly pumping into your brain through your neck. You look to your right and you can just barely make out the silhouette of your king, his helmet’s plume flailing in the wind (though it’s white color is certainly concealed by the blowing grains of sand). He rides off on his horse, Bucephalus, along with his companions, on the right of your line, leading himself and you with him toward destiny.

You’ve often seen me talk about Steven Pressfield’s The Virtues of War on the Masculine Epic. I also quote it quite it a bit in Stumped’s chapters on frame and strategy. This is because Steven Pressfield gives the reader about as close to a manual on strategy from the mind of Alexander the Great as we can hope to get. Though the Macedonian king didn’t leave any written manuscript behind, unfortunately, The Virtues of War is almost personal diary and war manual written by Alexander himself, and it is a testament to Steven Pressfield’s talents as a writer and his historical research into Alexander the Great’s campaigns that he managed to produce a work of this quality. The reader can also feel himself walking in the footsteps of Alexander, being part of his army, experiencing the action up-close and conversing with the great king on leadership and mindset. The Virtues of War brings history to life like few other works of historical fiction I’ve ever read.

Alexander on Going Full Shitlord:

When I was eighteen, after the victory of Chaeronea, my father sent me with Antipater to Athens. We brought the ashes of those Athenians fallen in the battle and proffered the return without ransom of their prisoners – a noble gesture on Philip’s part, whose intent was to disarm both Athens’ terror and her antipathy. It worked. I became its beneficiary. I confess the celebrity went a little to my head. Then one night at a banquet, I overheard a remark accusing me of succeeding only by birth and luck. This sent my humor spiraling. Antipater saw and drew me aside.

“It seems to me, little old nephew” – he employed the Macedonian phrase of affection – “that you have elevated these Athenians as arbiters of your virtue. When in fact they are arbiters of nothing; they are just another petty state, consulting its own advantage. In the end, Alexander, your character and works will be judged not by Athenians, however illustrious their city may once have been, or by any of your contemporaries, but by history, which is to say by impartial, objective truth.”

Antipater was right.

From that day, I vowed never to squander a moment’s care over the good opinion of others. May they rot in hell. You have heard of my abstemiousness in matters of food and sex. Here is why: I punished myself. If I caught my thoughts straying to another’s opinion of me, I sent myself to bed without supper. As for women, I likewise permitted myself none. I missed no few meals, no small pleasure, before I brought this vice under control – or believed I had. (pg. 174-5)

Alexander knew, and Steven Pressfield captures it, that great men make history and live on. Mediocre men simply gossip and lay judgment on others, getting outraged at or flattering to death their natural superiors. In the end, the ones who truly achieve kleos will produce works so great that the petty squabbling of inferiors and gossip mongers won’t be able to obscure their brilliance (even if those superiors have to learn the art of self-promotion), just as the clouds can’t obscure the sun forever and must give way.

This is why we go full shitlord. Should you achieve truly great things, you’ll have naysayers and critics, lesser people chastising you because it’s the easy thing to do. At the end of the day however, you’ll be remembered. The people who pretend to be the arbiters of your virtue will not.

Alexander the Great mindset

The Task of a Leader

A decision must be made on which route to take to Babylon. Shall we march south, directly down the Euphrates, or cross east to the Tigris and turn south from there? I call a council.

The foe’s vast numbers dominate all talk. The army prattles of nothing else, and even my generals are spooked and anxious. Old feuds surface. Tempers grow short; mates snap testily at one another.

How is one to command? By consensus of his subordinates? Listen indeed. Weigh and evaluate. Then decide yourself. Are you stumped at the crossroads? Pick one way and don’t look back. Nothing is worse than indecision. Be wrong, but be wrong decisively. Can you please your constituents? Never let me hear that word! The men are never happy with anything. The march is always too long, the way always too rough. What works with them? Hardship. Give your men something that can’t be done, not something that can. Then place yourself at first hazard. The Spartan commander Lysander made the distinction between boldness and courage. We must have both. The audacity to conceive the strike and the belly to carry it out.

All that being said, how does one make decisions? By rationality? My tutor Aristotle could classify the world, but couldn’t find his way to the village square. One must dive deeper than reason. The Thracians of Bithynia trust no decision unless they make it drunk. They know something we don’t. A lion never makes a bad decision. Is he guided by reason? Is an eagle “rational?”

Rationality is superstition by another name.

Go deep, my friend. Touch the daimon. Do I believe in signs and omens? I believe in the Unseen. I believe in the Unmanifest, the Yet To Be. Great commanders do not temper their measures to What Is; they bring forth What May Be. (pg. 201)

I won’t elaborate any further. Print this one out and put it in your pocket. Read it every day.

Alexander the Great leadership mindset

Direct and Misdirect

It wouldn’t be a book about Alexander the Great if it didn’t include some military strategy, now would it?

When I was a boy, Memnon taught me two principles. Cover and uncover. Direct and misdirect.

My scheme is as follows:

I have set at our right extremity a formidable assault force, the whole of the Companion Cavalry, reinforced by our Cretan archers and javelineers of Agriania. Memnon sees this clearly. It is directly across from him. And he sees me transiting toward it, bringing the Royal Squadron. This is misdirection.

What I’m hoping he doesn’t see (direction) is another force, in-board of this wing, concealed as part of the broader battle line. This force consists of Socrates’ Redbeard’s squadron of Companions, reinforced by two companies of light infantry under Ptolemy, son of Philip (called “Stinger” because at home he keeps bees). Stinger’s is a picked outfit of two hundred, all volunteers, receiving double pay and made up of the youngest and fastest troops of the army. They have been trained to operate on foot with cavalry, against cavalry. They wear no armor, depending for protection on speed, their light but strong pelta shields, and their array within the ranks of attacking horsemen. Their weapons are the twelve-foot lance and the long thrusting sword. I have never used this company except in the mountains against wild tribes. They can keep pace with cavalry for a short distance, as here at the Granicus, and will work tremendous execution, I believe, within the melee that is certain to develop in the riverbed and on the bluffs beyond. In addition to Redbeard’s Companions and Ptolemy Philip’s light-armed, the attack group will have the superb infantry of the Royal Brigade of Guardsmen, under Attalus, Ptolemy’s brother, the Paeonian Light Horse under Ariston, and the Royal Lancers in four squadrons under Amyntas Arrhibaeus, commanding the overall.

My design is to draw the enemy’s eye, by the extravagance of my movement, farther and farther onto the wing. I want him to grid for an attack by me. I want him to pull out from his center more and more squadrons to mirror my lateral transit. But the initial attack will come not from me. It will come from Redbeard.

Direct and misdirect is a fancy name for a feint. Will Memnon see it? Will he be able to convince his Persian masters? Give me thirty seconds of indecision and it will be too late for him. (pg. 98-99)

The Virtues of War is filled with such strategies and tactics, and has a chapter devoted entirely to maxims of warfare that Steven Pressfield’s meticulous research obviously found Alexander the Great to have followed (and which was quoted in Stumped).

Alexander the Great military strategy and tactics

Conclusion

The Virtues of War is at once a book that gives you what seems to be an eyewitness account of Alexander the Great’s campaigns and battles, a first-hand look into his strategy and leadership, and a deep dive into his mindset. It was motivated by one thing and one thing only – kleos:

Do we march for punder, brothers? Is gold our aim, like merchants? By Zeus, I will cut my own throat if you tell me you believe that. Is it enough to rout the foe, to prove ourselves the greater brutes? Then build my pyre. I will kindle it myself before yielding to such want of imagination and such deficit of desire.

Fame imperishable and glory that will never die – that is what we march for! To light that flame that death itself cannot quench. That I will achieve, and by the sword of Almighty Zeus, you will work it with me, every one of you! (pg. 156)

This is the mindset of the masculine man, of “he who is worthy.” Our culture is degenerate and mediocre primarily because it has turned its back on it.

The Virtues of War Review Steven Pressfield
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