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Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

Killer Scenes, Part Four

By Steven Pressfield
Published: February 25, 2015

In last week’s post we were examining the idea that from a single modest fragment—a scene, or even a couple of lines of text—we as writers can extrapolate a big bite of the global work. Let’s keep biting.

Jared Leto as Hephaestion in Oliver Stone's "Alexander"

Here, to refresh our memories, are the two lines that popped into my head one day about ten years ago and that I knew at once were the opening sentences of a book (though I had no idea what book, or what that book would be about):

I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life.

Last week we unpacked from these lines our protagonist, our narrator, our point of view, theme, about two hundred pages of text, and our interior villain. Let’s keep going. What else is implied by these two lines?

First, an identifiable emotion. Pride. When our narrator and protagonist Alexander says, “I have always been a soldier,” he is clearly not ashamed of this. He’s not ambivalent. He is proud.

So we know this book is not going to be Dr. Strangelove or Oh, What A Lovely War.” It’s going to be the unapologetic testament of a warrior and a conqueror. He’s going to depict the soldier’s craft as a noble calling, the “profession of arms.” And since we know from history that Alexander indeed conquered the world, we can imagine that he will be writing in praise of material ambition, in praise of military victory, and that he will be citing, as the foundation of these, the virtues of a soldier.

What are the virtues of a soldier?

Courage, patience, self-command, the willing endurance of adversity, love of honor, love of one’s comrades, contempt for death, etc.

I wound up titling this book The Virtues of War. It was divided into nine books. Each one was titled after a specific virtue.

Both these came, again, from those first two sentences.

So now we’ve added our title and our division of structure. There’s more. Let’s go back to the first two sentences.

Alexander in real life was a warrior, a king, and a conqueror. Yet he doesn’t use any of those words in his first two self-descriptive sentences. The word he uses is “soldier.”

What does he mean? Soldier is a humble word. A soldier tramps through the muck, he sleeps in the dirt, he lives in the weather. “Soldier” doesn’t imply anything lofty. A soldier is not necessarily issuing orders; more likely he’s obeying them.

Yet Alexander picked this word to describe himself, and to describe himself with pride.

Clearly the qualities that make a warrior are to him humble, simple, and basic.

When I was ten I begged Telamon [a mercenary and tutor of Alexander] to teach me what it meant to be a soldier. He would not respond in words. Rather he packed Hephaestion [Alexander's boyhood friend] and me three days into the winter mountains. We could not get him to speak. “Is this what being a soldier means, traveling in silence?” At night we nearly froze. “Is this what it means, enduring hardship?”

At the third dusk we chanced upon a pack of wolves chasing a stag onto a frozen lake. Telamon spurred onto the ice at the gallop. In the purple light we watched the pack fan out in its pursuit, turning the prey first one way, then another, always farther from the treeline and the shore. Wolf after wolf made its run at the fast-fatiguing buck. At last one caught him by the hamstring. The stag crashed to the ice; in an instant the pack was on him. Before Hephaestion and I could even draw rein, the wolves had torn his throat out and were already at their feed.

“That,” Telamon declared, “is a soldier.”


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ADDITIONAL READING » WARFARE: ANCIENT AND MODERN

Additional Reading: Ancient and Modern Warfare

Accidental Guerilla, The

by Kilcullen, David

Alamein to Zem Zem

by Douglas, Keith

Douglas was a poet fresh out of Oxford who served (and was killed) with the armoured forces under Montgomery, when the British finally overcame Rommel after years of being out-ranged, out-gunned and out-generaled. Douglas’ keen and jaundiced eye misses little. This isn’t the most polished book, but it is immediate and authentic as hell.

Art of War, The

by Sun Tzu

Attacks

by Rommel, Erwin

This is from the Desert Fox—before he became the Desert Fox. Rommel recounts his experiences as a young infantry officer in World War I. Studied to this day by our Army and Marines, this book gives new meaning to the phrase “balls of steel.”

Best and the Brightest, The

by Halberstam, David

Blood Stripes

by Danelo, David

Blood Stripes is Danelo’s account of infantry actions fought by Marines in Fallujah and Husaybah in 2004, recounted from the point of view of NCOs he knew and fought alongside. Great stuff!

Boyd: the Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War

by Coram, Robert

Fascinating true saga of the misunderstood genius who introduced the concept of Maneuver Warfare to the contemporary armed services—and paid the price.

Bravo Two Zero

by McNab, Andy

Ripping, high-testosterone (and true) yarn of a British SAS patrol dropped behind the lines during the first Gulf War. Told by its leader, the most-decorated soldier in the British Army, as of his discharge in 1993.

Brazen Chariots

by Crisp, Robert

A bit hard to find, but worth it if you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to fight tank battles in the North African desert. Terrific first-person non-fiction, about the British Seventh Armoured Division dueling Rommel and the Afrika Korps in WWII. What I love about books like these is not just the “ripping yarn” aspect or the vivid details or the sense of absolute authenticity and authority, all of which are here in spades, but the feeling you get for the man himself. Both this book and the one by Cyril Joly (Crisp and Joly were friends) let you into the minds and hearts of these tremendously admirable, flesh-and-blood humans, with their senses of humor, despair—everything.

Desert War, The

by Moorehead, Alan

Simply indispensable. Classic stuff by the Aussie war correspondent who could scribble a note on a cocktail napkin and make it fascinating. See also his African Trilogy.

Eastern Approaches

by Maclean, Fitzroy

You would think, being a novelist, that I would like to read novels. But I much prefer memoirs. I love the characters of the writers, particularly when they’re not professionals. Fitzroy Maclean was stuck in the Foreign Service on the brink of WWII and wanted to go to war; the only way the government would let him was if he became a Member of Parliament. So he did. It gets better from there, including desert service with the SAS and all kinds of mad adventures in the Balkans, the Orient, Afghanistan.

Forgotten Soldier, The

by Sajer, Guy

Possibly the best book to come out of World War II. Horrific, ghastly, true-life memoir of a young German infantryman and his kamaraden as they fall back, back, back against the unstoppable tide of the Russian Army, from 1943–1945.

Lost Victories

by von Manstein, Field Marshal Erich

Another classic. The same story as told in The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer, but from the opposite end of the food chain: the supreme German brass. Von Manstein’s private confrontations with Hitler are alone worth the price of the book.

No True Glory

by West, Bing

On War

by von Clausewitz, Carl

One Bullet Away

by Fick, Nathaniel

The Iraq War by a Dartmouth-educated Recon Marine who was in the first wave into Baghdad. Lean, vivid, fair-minded, by a born writer from whom we will be hearing much more.

One Tribe at a Time

by Gant, Jim

The “One Tribe At A Time” series on “It’s the Tribes, Stupid” launched at the end of September 2009, with an excerpt from Major Jim Gant’s paper of the same name. In the following weeks, more excerpts were pulled and discussed, with Jim’s “One Tribe At A Time” released in full about four weeks later. The discussion of Jim’s paper spread from there, and went viral among the policy and military communities in particular.

Sand, Wind and War

by Bagnold, Ralph

The founder of WWII’s legendary Long Range Desert Group tells his life story, including all kinds of interesting and unexpected dimensions (his sister wrote National Velvet), including the tale of his landmark scientific paper, “The Physics of Blown Sand.”

Seven Pillars of Wisdom

by Lawrence, T.E.

Sling and the Stone, The

by Hammes, Thomas X.

Am I favoring Marines? Not without cause, with this outstanding contemporary introduction to the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare, the kind of post-guerrilla conflict our troops are fighting now—and are likely to keep fighting for decades to come.

Small Wars Journal

by Small Wars Foundation

Strongest Tribe, The

by West, Bing

Take These Men

by Joly, Lt. Col. Cyril

You’ll have to go way back in the stacks to find this one, but again, it’s worth the trip. Vividly told and superbly detailed account of the British in North Africa, from 1940 to 1942, fighting first the Italians and then Rommel and Panzerarmee Afrika. I love these self-effacing Englishmen, who in real-life performed prodigies of courage and endurance, and yet recount the tale with understated yet passionate brilliance. Like Brazen Chariots, you read this book and wish you could shake hands with the author and say, “Thank you.”

To War with Whitaker: Wartime Diaries of the Countess of Ranfurly, 1939–45

by Ranfurly, Hermione

When Lt. The Honourable Dan Ranfurly went off to war, his wife Hermione followed. (So did Whitaker, Dan’s faithful valet.) Young Lady Ranfurly, whose only marketable skill was a fair hand at the typewriter, talked her way into various clerical and embassy jobs in Cairo and the Middle East, while her young officer husband fought in the desert, got captured by the Afrika Korps, etc. There’s not a dollop of sex in this book, yet it remains one of the great documents of romance, just because of all the hell Hermione goes through to be within a hundred miles of her beloved Dan. When at last they rush into each other’s arms for a fleeting moment on a railway platform and she writes, “Happiness is being together,” there wasn’t a dry eye in my house.

Unforgiving Minute, The

by Mullaney, Craig

We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young

by Moore, Lt. Gen. Harold G. and Joseph Galloway

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