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AFGHANISTAN: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Present by Stephen Tanner

Jacket: Paperback
Pages: 124 pages
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Genre: Military
ISBN: 0306811642

Comments about the author: Stephen Tanner is a military historian and free-lance writer. His previous works include Epic Retreats: From 1776 to the Evacuation of Saigon and Refuge from the Reich: American Airmen and Switzerland During WWII. He lives in Long Island, New York.

Review: For two and a half millennia, Afghanistan has been a centerpiece for imperial ambitions. Its strategic location in Asia has made this an important crossroad for trade and conquest. Throughout the centuries the Afghanis have developed a warrior class with nearly unparalleled fighting skills and instincts. Time and again, this people has done whatever necessary to win battle after battle against invading and occupying forces, with little or no consideration for what we in the West would call appropriate rules of play. What we might call treachery, to the Afghani warrior is simply another strategy to be deployed on a fluid battlefield in a war that must be won. Switching sides during a pitched battle is not extraordinary --- nor would it be out of the ordinary to switch sides twice during a battle. In fact, looking over two-and-a-half thousand years of recorded military history, one would find this a commonplace strategy.

Prior to September 11th, many Americans may have had only the vaguest of notions about Afghanistan. Some will have known the piercing gaze of a beautiful young Afghani girl staring out from the cover of an old National Geographic magazine. Others may remember the epic occupation and eventual defeat of the Soviets in the 1980s. Fewer still will know that Iran and the Russians have a long military history intertwined with the Afghanis or that the British fought two massive campaigns in this country and were soundly defeated in both. And perhaps only a small number of erudite readers and scholars know that Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan both moved through this region wreaking havoc and subjugating the population. Today, in the post 9-11 world, we can't help but be acutely aware of Afghanistan's Bhurka clad women, the Taliban, and the US led struggle to terminate terrorism as it springs from the terrorist training bases and ancient caves that pepper the countryside.

For those of us with this most cursory of knowledge, Steven Tanner's new book AFGHANISTAN: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Present lays out the country's long history through a lens of military conflict, starting with Alexander the Great's march through the region (prior to its becoming known as a country) and ending with the American and coalition response to the events of September 11. Tanner takes his readers on a remarkable trip through an Afghanistan mostly forgotten, or unknown, by most of today's people. For instance, the British defeat after their colonial conquests is strikingly retold using primary source literature: letters from soldiers, commanders, and families on the ground during the conflicts. During the Second Anglo-Afghan war, Captain Julius Blackhouse noted in his journal a grim passage about the fate of British troopers who tangled with the Afghanis earlier in the year:

"The sight of the remains of the unfortunate Kabul force in this pass was fearfully heartrending. They lay in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades. At almost every yard for three, four or five miles; indeed the whole of the marches from Gandamak to Kabul, a distance of about seventy miles, may be said to have been over the bodies of the massacred army."

All told, Steven Tanner has put together a well-documented and very readable military history of this strategically important land. If there were any drawbacks to the book it might have to do with the fact that I was reviewing uncorrected page proofs: The final version may be a bit different. What distracted me throughout the work was Tanner's method of citing reference works used. The author's method makes cross-referencing citations to the bibliography problematic for the trained reader and far too difficult for those not used to reading works of scholarly merit. The manuscript could also benefit from the use of more objective language in the latter part of the composition where American involvement is detailed. The author's tone toward the Americans seems just a bit too heavy-handed. No doubt though, the final work will be a thoroughly informative and enjoyable history of Afghanistan's military past.

— Reviewed by: Timothy E. McMahon, M.S.


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