In Alexander’s Footsteps

Review of Into the Land of Bones: Alexander the Great in Afghanistan by Frank L. Holt


If you are not familiar with Frank Holt, I’m not terribly surprised. In one sense he is an obscure academic working in an obscure corner of academia. Specifically, he is an expert in Central Asian numismatics—the study of coins. (If you struggle with insomnia, pick up virtually any academic book on numismatics and try to read more than a few pages.) And yet, in another sense he should be better known than he is, as he has written a number of highly readable (though still academically solid) works on a region of the world which should be of great interest to all Americans: Afghanistan. Into the Land of Bones is Dr. Holt’s survey of Alexander the Great’s conquest and occupation of the region that would become Afghanistan. 

In the book, Holt gives the broad outline of the “problem” of Afghanistan that every invader has had to confront. Prior to invading the region, Alexander had fought (and won) a few decisive battles against the mighty Persian army. The result was that Alexander was now the undisputed ruler of all of Persia:

The battles of the Granicus River (334 B.C.E.), Issus (333), and Gaugamela (331) [against the Persians] each had that quick, dramatic, conclusive quality that the Greeks so relished… In those campaigns, the veterans with Alexander had grown accustomed to a comforting expectation: when they fought someone, they absolutely prevailed; and the defeated enemy always stayed defeated. The arrogance of power, as so often since, lost its punch in Afghanistan. The place and its people took no heed of recent history, ignored the strength and sophisticated modernity of the invaders, and cared little for the time-honored conventions of treaties and truces. They fled like bandits if confronted with overwhelming force, then attacked if the odds were better. You could never tell if you were winning the war or not. Meanwhile, the casualties mounted and it became more and more obvious that even with a so-called victory, a substantial number of Greeks and a few Macedonians would have to stay behind in Bactria [Afghanistan] as a peacekeeping force. (76-77)

The problem with Afghanistan is that it is a region of the world that defies all regular Western conventions of warfare. In the end, Alexander did manage to subdue and occupy Afghanistan—he even set up a Western-style culture that seems to have held its influence until somewhere between 120 B.C. and 10 A.D. How did he achieve this, despite the “Afghan problem” described by Holt?

  • He staged a massive invasion of the region, exterminating in the process as much as 10% of the native population.
  • He deported another chunk of the population (perhaps again as much as 10%) and scattered them far and wide around the Middle East and Central Asia.
  • He built and settled Greek cities throughout the region (of the 20 he built from Egypt to India, at least five were in Afghanistan).
  • He appointed his senior tactical advisor to be the military governor.
  • He himself married the daughter of a local chieftain.

All of this bought a couple of hundred years of Western-style government in Afghanistan. After 10 A.D. (at the latest) all that remained of Alexander’s work was a collection of increasingly desolate ruins.

Obviously, Americans are (rightfully) unwilling to engage in this kind of warfare. Centuries of Christian influence has left us with a hefty belief in the doctrine of just war, and the idea of exterminating millions of people even in the name of victory is repellant to us. (Besides, I doubt many Americans are willing to move in droves to Afghanistan to settle new cities, and I really doubt President Obama is willing to marry one of his daughters to an Afghan tribal chieftain—perhaps he just doesn’t love America enough?)

So what lessons are we to learn from Alexander’s time in Afghanistan? Dr. Holt gives us a few things to keep in mind as we reflect on the issue:

  1. We see from Alexander’s time in Afghanistan that “war is an ugly business, one of the most repugnant actions to which we humans regularly resort en masse.” (16) That war is bad goes without saying, but add in the fact that war in Afghanistan means war in one of the most brutal corners of the earth, and the result will be nothing less than blood and death and destruction on a large scale. We need to think long and hard about whether or not our goals are worth the very high costs.
  2. “We must acknowledge that the wars waged in Afghanistan by Alexander, Britain, the Soviet Union, and now the United States share some salient features that may not bode well for our future. For example, all these invasions of Afghanistan went well at first, but so far no superpower has found a workable alternative to what might be called the recipe for ruin in Afghanistan.” (18) Simple power simply does not work in Afghanistan. This is, I think the major flaw in the Bush strategy (possibly the Obama one as well, though who can really say what his strategy is about anything?).The doctrine has been based on the idea that if only we scare them enough with our overwhelming firepower and ability, they’ll eventually stop fighting. But Afghanistan has traditionally been a place where overwhelming force seems not to subdue the people for any extended period of time. And if (or when) our situation becomes desperate in terms of dealing with local resistance fighters, we are either going to need the military genius of an Alexander (which we don’t have), some new way of engaging in the region (which we haven’t yet discovered), or the willingness to give up and leave (which we might be getting closer to).
  3. At the end of the day, there really is no such thing as “Afghanistan” in the first place, any more than there was such a place as a unified “Europe” during the Middle Ages. Trying to impose on code of laws or a cultural standard on a nation as culturally, ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse as Afghanistan (whether in Alexander’s time or our own) may be an exercise in futility.

Those, in broad strokes, are the key points out of Dr. Holt’s book on Afghanistan. There is much more to it, of course—including the whole history of Alexander’s dealings in the region and a fascinating interpretation of the subsequent history of Greeks in Afghanistan based not on written sources (of which we have exactly none from the time), but rather on coins. You’d think it would be boring to listen to a guy explain how he knows what happened based on an eroded piece of metal, but Frank Holt is a decent enough writer that he pulls it off well and keeps the reader’s interest all the way through.

So what does all of this mean for us as Christians? I confess I’m not entirely sure. Certainly America’s… involvement… in Afghanistan has meant an opportunity for missions work unsurpassed in the region’s history. (Not that the region is necessarily safe for missionaries, just that it’s safer than it has been in living memory.) So I guess that’s one thing to think about.

I also think that America’s invasion of Afghanistan is an opportunity for Christians to think carefully about the doctrine of just war (I’ll include a link or two below to help you do just that). And… that might be as far as I’m willing to go without a forum for a longer discussion. At the end of the day, I think that faithful Christians can probably disagree about the justice or injustice of the war in Afghanistan. What we cannot do is stop our self-analysis and reconsideration of the issues from the foundation of the Gospel. Our rebellion against God has been paid for on the cross, Jesus took the punishment we deserved when he bore the wrath of God in our place. This should make us hesitant to encourage our nation to pour out wrath on others and it should make us charitable towards others who hold differing opinions. Reading this book and thinking about the issues it raises is a useful aid to our thinking through these issues in a very practical way.

Recommended for those interested in foreign relations, just war, and history.

A good summary talk on just war from D.A. Carson is available here.

Likewise John Johnson has a short piece here.

Dr. Coyle Neal is nearly as old as Alexander the Great was when he died, but has not yet begun to conquer the known world.

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