Steven Pressfield Online

A MESSAGE FROM STEVE

Steven Pressfield

Please join the discussion below. If you have served in Iraq or Afghanistan or are serving now, your contribution is especially valuable. Feel free to post anonymously or to hold back unit designations or locations. Tell it like it is!

-Steven Pressfield

VIDEO BLOG

VIDEO BLOG

Video Blog

Episode 1: “It’s the Tribes, Stupid”

The real force in Afghanistan isn’t Islamism or jihadism. It’s tribalism. Mr. Pressfield compares Alexander the Great’s Afghan campaign (330-327 BC) to our own wars today.

View the credits and transcript for Episode 1.


Comments closed.

72 Responses to “Episode 1: “It’s the Tribes, Stupid””

  1. June 8, 2009 at 4:51 am

    Steven, I think you are spot on. And I appreciate very much that you would invest time and money to put this message out. Keep up the good work my friend.

  2. John Serkin
    June 8, 2009 at 7:03 am

    How right you are that the cast of characters hasn’t changed in two thousand years! Your extraction of tribalism as the central problem is thought-provoking. I’m eager to watch the remaining four installments.

  3. Kevin
    June 8, 2009 at 11:48 am

    Great stuff Steven…incredibly thought provoking. I really think you are on to something significant. When I read The Afghan Campaign, all I could think about was how incredibly similar my experience in Afghanistan was to the Macedonians’ experience…thanks for the great work you’re doing.

  4. June 8, 2009 at 12:47 pm

    Stretch,
    You are right on point! I can’t wait to see the rest of the tapes. I hope that you hit the importance of patriarchy in maintaining the tribal mentality. It’s all about might making right, and the alpha males dominating the rest of the culture. They get the chicks, the land, the spoils–not because of a moral imperative–or a religious one–but because they are simply stronger and can dominate either an opposing tribe, or through coalitions and alliances, opposing tribes.

    As they have no ethical ideological grounding (except power) they switch sides at any time–depending upon the benefit to their tribe, clan or family. What we call ethical is completely situational to them.

    That being said, since most of these tribes are either poor or nomadic (that is they have few possessions), the code of Honor is their most valuable possession. They don’t have “things” but they can have their reputaions. They can’t be disrespected, or humiliated without retaliating. Respect is the key word. They keep their word (as long as it benefits them) and–again due to necessity–have complex codes of hospitality. Hosts have duties to protect their guests at all costs, while they are under their jurisdiction. That adds an interesting element to the making and breaking of alliances of convenience.

    Can’t wait to see the other videos.

    Go Bears,
    Jeffrey

  5. June 8, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Outstanding, and thanks for producing such a quality product on the subject. I just did a promotion of this site over at my blog Feral Jundi. Semper Fi. -matt

  6. June 9, 2009 at 9:52 am

    For starters, let’s work on being able to tell the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan. Once you get that down, then we can work on whether or not comparing Ancient Bactria to the Taliban is even remotely appropriate for a serious person.

  7. June 9, 2009 at 1:36 pm

    @Jeff, @ John, thanks, you guys, for logging on and chipping in. One point I’m getting taken to task for in various e-mails and correspondence is probably my fault for being unclear. It’s the distinction between tribes literally and the tribal mind-set. Let me see if I can make clear what I’m trying to say.

    I don’t mean to suggest that tribes literally are the enemy. (In fact, I’m convinced they can be our friends if approached and communicated with in the proper way). The point I’m hoping to make is that our antagonists in much of the East share the tribal mind-set–hostility to outsiders, a code of honor rather than a system of laws, respect for elders, adherence to the traditional ways, the obligation of revenge, etc. And that even though they may express their hostility in religious terms (or in modern or post-modern terms), the underlying psychic dynamic is tribal. At the level of the brain stem, that’s where it’s coming from. In my opinion, we need to recognize that reality and recognize the intractability and unchanging nature of that reality. We’re not going to change it. Western forces have been trying to do that for 2500 years. It’s not going to happen. So, if we hope to succeed at all in that part of the world whose emotional and psychological basis is largely tribal, we need to work with the tribal mind-set or work around it. Where our troops have done that successfully, as in al-Anbar province with the Sunni Awakening, things have actually changed for the good. (And Alexander did this too.) Anyway, that’s my rant for today.

    • June 11, 2009 at 1:32 pm

      Stretch,
      I wasn’t taking you to task. I think you articulated it well. It is the Tribal mind-set. What
      I didn’t articulate well is that without Patriarchy, the tribal mind set collapses. Therefore, if we abolish the patriarchlal aspect of any society, the tribal-mind set collapses, almost by definition. That’s why I fundamentally disagree with your thought that we cannot change them or defeat them.
      We can–but we don’t have the will. How? By playing their game–that is by using force. Now I know we do not have the stomach for this, but if we, in Afghanistan or Iraq, went in with the same mindset that Macarther used in Japan, we could develope over time a democracy. But it takes police to do it.
      Send women to school, break up the clans (by force), insist on free elections, allow for changes in styles and dress, bring in modern technologies and sure enough their worst nightmares would come true–freedom of the individual and a desire for liberal democracy would grab hold–eventually.
      Remember, all kids like drugs, sex and rock and roll. Bring in good music, mini skirts, levis and hot cars, and you’ll see the new generation toss of the old in a nano second.
      I’m not sure that makes it a better world or a better culture, but it is what would defeat tribalism.
      It’s certainly what brought down the Berlin Wall. People can only be subjugated as long as they assume that they don’t have any other choices.
      The Montegues and the Capulets would be feuding today if not for the fact that Romeo was able to get a little from Juliet. Youngsters will through off the old, if they can.
      Tribes prevent this through brutal force–and that’s the only thing that can defeat it.
      So there’s my rant.
      Can’t wait for tape #5.
      Go Macedonians,
      Jeff

  8. Roger
    June 9, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    We do have tribes here in the west. The United States government calls them outlaw motorcycle gangs. Although they are a small, fringe element of our society, they do nonetheless exist.

  9. June 9, 2009 at 9:51 pm

    @ Steve, Could you please elaborate on your comment? How does this match your October 2006 essay (posted at DNI) and the first tape? It seems contradictory (which means I don’t understand). Also, here are two minor details in reply.

    (1) I assume the following is a metaphor, but it evokes unpleasant historical echos of people assuming others are fundamentally — even biologically — different: “At the level of the brain stem, that’s where it’s coming from.”

    (2) Your analogy with al-Anbar shows the tribes commonality with us! We bought (more accurately, leased) the Sunni Arab’s support, just as we did when helping the Northern Alliance initially. That’s commerce. It works alike for tribes and 21st century techocultures, showing that successful deals can be built on our similarities. Which seems to blur the strong citizen-tribal duality your describe.

  10. June 9, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Here is a review of your 2006 essay and the first video: “Advice about our long war – ‘It’s the tribes, stupid’”, posted at the Fabius Maximus website. Rather than discuss the nature of tribalism or the Pressfield’s tactical recommendations, it considers the broader context of his theory.

    Excerpt:

    Economist and businesspeople discuss the Competitive Advantage of Nations (as in Michael Porter’s 1990 book of that title). Social scientists and geopolitical experts discuss Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations theory. But Pressfield goes beyond these. In effect he calls for a long war. War running until one side is exterminated or conquered.

    Using Alexander’s invasion of Afghanistan as a paradigm raises as many questions than it answers. What were Alexander’s reasons for invading Afghanistan? Nothing rational, little more than love of war, power, and loot. Do we have such aggressive motives? Or do we fight legally under the international laws we both promulgated and signed, which means acting only in defense?

    Answering that requires a clear statement of the threat the tribes of Afghanistan pose to us. Victory is impossible without a clear understanding of the threat and our goals. How can the tribes be enemies without a strong understanding of this?

    It is the missing link of the war, as I have not found anything like this from someone with actual area expertise (not just by COIN or geopolitical gurus). The closest I have seen is Pakistan on the Brink by Ahmed Rashid (a Pakistani journalist) in the 11 June 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books, many of whose assertions are contradicted by other experts on the subject.

    (I don’t post excerpts on other folks sites, but Callie Rucker Oettinger said it was OK to do so)

  11. June 9, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    The link was not accepted in the above post. Here it is:
    Advice about our long war – ‘It’s the tribes, stupid’”

  12. June 10, 2009 at 3:34 am

    Steven, here’s the problem with how you’re defining “tribalism” — it doesn’t exclude non-tribal societies, and it doesn’t accurately describe the “tribal” societies we’re “fighting.”

    Why all the scare quotes? Well, the Taliban is not tribal. In fact, it is explicitly NON-TRIBAL, and explicitly pan-Islamist. They fight for their version of Islam, to convert Afghanistan into a Islamist state. Ditto al Qaeda: their ultimate ideology isn’t some animalistic sense of tribalism the way you describe it, but pan-Islamism. When the wars the U.S. is fighting are against enemies who have organized and recruited using religion, you have to do more than a shallow tribal stereotype to argue that it’s not religion.

    Then there is your actual definition of “tribal”:

    The point I’m hoping to make is that our antagonists in much of the East share the tribal mind-set–hostility to outsiders, a code of honor rather than a system of laws, respect for elders, adherence to the traditional ways, the obligation of revenge, etc.

    If you replace “rather than” with “in addition to,” you’ve described Normal Mailer-esque small town America. At least, you’ve described a stereotype from the Coasts for which there are so many exceptions it is practically meaningless. Respect for elders? Adherence to tradition? Fighting an entire war with “Remember [the Alamo, Pearl Harbor]?” Having a code of honor? Good grief.

    That doesn’t even describe Afghanistan, either. A code of honor IS a law, and in the west this was true in a midieval sense. Pashtunwali, the code of honor among Pashtuns (only 35% of Afghanistan) is not just a system for how to revenge killings—that is an ignorant thing to say. It is an entire system of conduct, with almost as much richness if not complexity as a western system of laws, with rulings enforced by a jury of elders and community-wide expectations adherence. It is nothing like how you describe it, which sounds more like a pack of dogs than a ancient and frankly successful social system.

    Lastly, there’s your argument that the “tribal mindset” or whatever is fundamentally unchageable and intractable. Again: that is simply ignorance. Afghanistan has undergone substantial, fundamental social and political change over the past 30 years. It is that change that is making the fight there so difficult. I highly suggest reading The Fragmentation of Afghanistan by Barnett Rubin and anything by M. Nazif Shahrani.

    And it’s still not appropriate to be discussing Iraq and Afghanistan in one breath while comparing both to Alexander’s campaign in Afghanistan. Again: that is simply not an informed thing to do. Not only are Iraq and Afghanistan different now, they were VERY different campaigns in 300 BC, and Alexander’s entire conquest of Persia was not a single story that can be transferred and limited to a single mountain range in the east.

  13. June 10, 2009 at 10:19 am

    “(In beginning) In sum, soldiers and warriors are not the same. They come from different traditions, fight with different tactics, see the role of combat through different eyes, are driven by different motivations, and measure defeat and victory by different yardsticks… (in closing) If we fail to take these key principles of warfare into consideration and grasp their importance when fighting armed groups in tradtional societies – the warriors of contemporary combat – we will encounter bloody suprises and make deadly miscalculations.” – from ‘Insurgents, Terrorists and Militias; The warriors of Contemporary Combat’ by Richard Shultz Jr. director of the International Securities Studies Program at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, and research associate Andrea Drew.

    Published in 2006, I found it a major eye opener in an area of investigation even the “out-of-the box” 4GW writers had not touched on. More recently, David Killcullen’s new book ‘The Accidental Guerrilla” also discusses the major impact “tribal” has on both Afghanistan and Iraq, specifically addressing the fact that while a major context, it is distinctly different in the two environments and must therefore be addressed in country context.

    Problems are hard to solve unless one understands both surface and subsurface context. Before writing off operations as “buying off the tribes” (as in al Anbar Awakening) one should read Killcullen’s tribal context in Chapter 3. So good on you Mr. Pressfield for stirring the pot.

  14. Roger
    June 10, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    Ed Beakley says: “soldiers and warriors are not the same”

    No, they are not. The main difference being that warriors care about and believe in the cause they are fighting for, whereas soldiers are often mercenaries or conscripts who do not give a flip about the cause they are fighting for.

    • June 10, 2009 at 8:20 pm

      Roger, I believe you miss the context and point of my comment. “Soldiers” here is used in the sense of soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines as uniformed members of a state’s armed services. They are bound by rules- the Uniformed Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention. “Warriors” – despite our use of the word to indicate bravery, manly code of conduct, etc – are in the sense of the writers I quoted, tribal fighters with different sets of drivers/motivations and rules.

      Mercenaries are an entirely different and given your “logo” I will add that my ancestors – Confererate Soldiers – would take offense.

      • Roger
        June 11, 2009 at 10:01 am

        From 1861 to 1865 most Southerners’ primary loyalty was to their individual state, not to the Confederate States of America. The Confederate States of America was an alliance of convenience. Confederate nationalism, if it existed at all, was weak and insignificant. My ancestors also fought in the Confederate States Army. But they considered themselves to be Georgians and Alabamans, not Confederates.

  15. Pete
    June 11, 2009 at 12:16 am

    Mr. Pressfield: You make the point that the tribe is the basic unit of social organziation in the ancient societies of much of the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, while the nation is the basic unit of organization of the modern western peoples. Even assuming this formulation is true, the nation-state itself is under assault from the forces of globalism, modernism, technology and more, at least according to Martin Van Creveld. As the state loses influence in the lives of many of its citizens, they will trasnfer their loyalties elsewhere, to whatever gives them meaning, and fills the vacuum left by the departted nation-state. One would imagine this would include tribes.

    Thus the question: Is the way to fight tribes to become more tribal again ourselves?

  16. June 11, 2009 at 1:08 am

    For the most part I agree totally with what Mr. Pressfield states, except for the part where he defines Hamas and Hezbollah as “tribal” movements/organizations. I believe these two groups are more political in nature and have a level of political sophistication that don’t necessarily allow them to fall under the tribal umbrella.

  17. Asadullah Noorzay
    June 13, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    As a pashtoon tribel man i would like to say that i agree with Mr pressfiled. almost 7 years ago on 17 october 2002 i started worke as a linguist for US Armed forces in Afghnistan. at that time i strongly belived that the people who are fighting against the US were Al qeda and religious Taliban. but later and later that was changing pretty quick.
    i saw people that were even not able to read the Holy Quran and i found him fighting against the the US . the only reasone for that i found was BADAL not Islam .
    iam sure if Mr pressfiled work with the leadership of the US Armed forces in Afghnistan and the people who make the stretegy for the war in Afghanistsan , the US will win the war
    the only reasone that the Taliban are getting stronger and stronger is that the Taliban are working with the Tribes. according to the DOD only in the past one week US and Afghans forces were attacked 400 times which have never been so high.
    i wana finished this with ” who ever win the hearts of the pashtoon Tribes , win the war “

  18. June 15, 2009 at 5:00 pm

    First, I’d like to pick a nit about the US “sacking” Afghan cities like the ancient Greeks. Loot was the primary motivator of the ancient Greek warriors, not modern US GIs. I’m not buying that GIs looted Afghan cities. My guess is that if you put that to a GI who served in Afghanistan, he’d say, “Loot what?”

    Your thesis that we’re fighting tribalism rather than Islam has been made in another context, the Muslim immigration into Europe and the problems that come with it, specifically the epidemic of rape by Muslim immigrants in the Scandinavian countries. Most of the rapists locked up in countries like Denmark and Sweden are Muslim immigrants, who claim it was their right to rape unaccompanied women weary scanty clothes. One argument being made is that this criminality is not so much an expression of Islam but rather the tribal culture of North African villages.

    Nicholas Wade argues in “Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors” that religion was an evolutionary advantage for early humans engaged in continual raiding and ambushing because it allowed them to organize themselves in groups larger than blood kinship groups. Islam certainly springs from these conditions and is clearly a fighting religion. Perhaps Pushtunwali can be seen as a sort of religion which confers the same advantage in a hostile environment.

  19. Apollo
    June 15, 2009 at 6:37 pm

    I have to say that your focus is too narrow here, tribalism, im sure, is a factor in the particular situations we have in Iraq and Afghanistan(tactical level), but not on the broad Grand strategic level. On the highest level,it is basically an idealogical war, secular western values of reason, a fundamental orientation to reality, INDIVIDUALISM, freedom, rights,capitalism VS. faith, an orientation on another higher “better world” TRIBALISM(collectivism) and theocracy.

    Also, I don’t agree that we have the same goals as Alexander had in Afghanistan, what the US is trying to do is fundamentally altruistic endeavor to somehow gring democracy to these backward savages. Bush had a false notion that all people are fundamentally the same and that they all want freedomwhich is false. Bush completly ignored the realm of ideas and culture. Imagine if we could go back in time to Europe during the dark ages and tried to bring them a secular constitutional republic based on individual rights….They would reject it and fight us off just as visiously as the arabs do today except that they would do it int he name of Christ.

    Instead of being altruistic christians, we should have been selfish individualist and after 9/11we should have bombed ALL major population centers, bombed every mosque in the country, killed all the leaders, and declaredour absolute right to defend ourselves and the superiority of western values over religious values and then we should have LEFT, and not rebuilt that stupid worthless country.

  20. Andrey
    June 18, 2009 at 7:14 am

    The US Army is just an invader trying to grab at something that does not belong to the US; and the people of the land (you can call them tribes or any other thing) are just doing their best to kick the invader’s ass and throw it out of the land. That simple. The US is fighting it own lust of power. Good luck, guys…

  21. Rob
    June 20, 2009 at 8:13 am

    How profound Andrey. Now could you comment on what the man is saying?

  22. July 3, 2009 at 3:46 pm

    Steve:

    You nailed it! Can Obama marry the daughetrs of a few Afghan tribal leaders? Maybe he could marry of his daughters?

  23. John
    July 3, 2009 at 4:51 pm

    “A continual state of feud and strife prevails throughout the land. Tribe wars with tribe. The people of one valley fight with those of the next. To the quarrels of communities are added the combats of the individuals…Every man’s hand is against the other, and all against the stranger.”
    -Winston Churchill, 1897

  24. Sean Valdrow
    July 3, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    I wish we could have had this kind of insightful advice before I was shipped off to Somalia all those years ago. The same tribalism governs much of Africa, and explains a great deal about both why African ‘nations’ do what they do, and why so many colonial powers had the troubles they did. And it goes on to explain well why we seem to have so much trouble with powers like Iran…

  25. scott haig
    July 3, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Agree with my favorite historical novelist!

    Anybody have any ideas about leads a people out of tribalism into citizenry? All I can come up with is kings and emperors, major conquests and plagues.

    • Victoria
      July 5, 2009 at 10:14 pm

      Nothing beats good old capitalism or free enterprise to lead people to citizenry. Economics is often the root of problems or cultural conditions, and even revolutions (such as our own in many ways). If we/they can just figure out a way to really make money with their own natural resources and talents – other than contributing to the supply of illegal substances here – Pandora’s box will fly open, and citizenry may lie along side the hope that resides within it. Funding infrastructure, etc. and buying alliances are immediate postitives, but ideally, we must find a way for these efforts to be sustanable for the future.

  26. Nancey Tresler
    July 3, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    If those leading the war in Afganistan will only listen to people like Steven Pressfield and Greg Mortensen ( Three Cups of Tea) we may actually be able to walk away from this conflict with every objective met and the loss of life held to a minimum. However, who gets to marry the Bactrian girl?? Obama?? Biden??

    • July 4, 2009 at 12:34 pm

      Who should marry the Bactrian Princess? This could be Bill Clinton’s great contribution to Western Civilization. I’m sure Hilary would be willing to make the sacrifice.

  27. Rex McCoy
    July 4, 2009 at 5:43 am

    I think that a significant, though not very influential, portion of Americans kinda get tribalism. A significant proportion of immigrants to America were the Scots, Irish, and “Scots-Irish” who arrived here while their cultures were still tribal. (I’m from the McCoy clan which had that feud with the Hatfields. How tribal is that!) Though that tribalism has eased into citizenry over time, many, particularly rural, areas of the country still are at some vague point on the tribal-citizen spectrum. That’s probably at least partially why a significant portion of US combat troops hail from such a background. That background could be leveraged when dealing with tribal societies by training the troops with the people skills to deal with local tribesmen. I’ll bet they will pick up on the idea quickly and instinctively. I think that many already have.

  28. July 4, 2009 at 8:21 am

    Tribalism is alive and well in all human and some nonhuman communities. Like many attributes it is neither good nor bad per se. The context drives whether it is beneficial or not. The USA is not exempt. Good examples of tribalism are the immediate responses of commumities to misfortune, something that occurs more readily in America than in any other country I have lived in. Even the selfserving actions of the bigger businesses smacks of a potentially negative form of tribalism (IBM “uniforms”, the GM “culture”). The working parts of the military, guys with weapons, immediately identify with tribalism because unit coherence is built on it. That may be why soldiers make better diplomats in places like Afghanistan than do diplomats – who belong to a different kind of tribe.

  29. Joe Jones
    July 4, 2009 at 8:35 am

    This is illuminating stuff. It has the quality of pointing out what is right in front of us, which is what we have been unable to see due to our varied lenses and provincialities. But I must offer a criticism. You do not seem to be fully and consistently applying your insights. Your story about Jim Gant, Michael Harrison, and Noorafzhal in Konar province, Afghanistan, is a story of a wiley tribal leader incorporating the American military into his defenses and the power of his tribe. Tribal people are not stupid in any way. They understand the psychological depth of family and personal relationships. They will adopt a soldier, who is a normal but lost person in their worldview, believing they are offering him what he lacks, which is a group which will lend meaning to his bravery and risk in the battle against the enemy. That battle is the world to the tribal leader: his valley, his people. Now the soldier has become a “blood” brother and will help defend all that is meaningful in the world to this leader and his tribe. You suggest we should use these relationships to try to “win” a war against the “supertribe” of fundamentalist Muslims. This buys into the tribal mindset and values. Afghan tribal warriors are not citizen soldiers. War is a permanent feature of the world for them and they would not change that. They believe there will always be warriors. They want their children to be great warriors for “the people,” which is always and only the tribe. This mindset justifies all of the oppression of women that is included in their permanent emergency lives. Perhaps our last citizen soldiers were discharged after WWII, or after the draft and Vietnam. I wonder if your professional warriors are not finding kindred spirits among the tribal warriors and losing the idea of global citizenship altogether. It seems to me that if you are going to make the beginning you have achieved useful in the long run, you will need to say just what it is about global citizenship and the lives of people who can become global citizens that is superior to the lives of warriors, tribal or otherwise. There is, at the very least, a huge difference between a tribal, permanent warrior and a citizen soldier.

  30. forest hunter
    July 4, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    Let me start off by saying thanks and I’ll end with the same……(those who’s tendency to skip to the end can now go to the next comment [;^)] ….found guilty, he raises his hand)

    You have done an excellent job of laying out the issues. Having read/perused all of the comments (save one lost child), the common thread in what some have objected to as I see it, where some are/have been taking you to task, is primarily verbiage and translations of what was once considered logic/common sense in our western terms and understanding. My impression is that IF those who take exception the fine particulates in the gravel bar might also wish to take care and not get it stuck in their jock strap, they would tend to be less annoyed at your words, for this is a long hump.

    The candling of light you provide exposes much what IS and allows the reader to determine what is *there*. (No reference to a former CIC) History, imagination, reality and what’s been *Hammer and Tonged* into the DNA over centuries, no matter how obscured the clarity appears, is as far as this formerly uniformed jarhead, becomes as clear as the thin shelled egg and whether a rooster was involved , surrogate or otherwise.

    Carry on and keep up the good work, sir!

    Fi,
    forest hunter

  31. forest hunter
    July 4, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    Forgot to wish those stateside a happy fourth!………knowing what it means and having an inkling of what it meant, for those who sacrificed so much for (our) tribe, in this moment in time!

  32. Victoria
    July 5, 2009 at 9:39 pm

    It is your destiny as a great historian to teach us how to learn from the past, and God bless you for your ardent efforts. The gift of your considerable knowledge in this area makes you the right man at the right time to help us – this is not an accident. I am a Social Studies teacher, and will show at least several of these episodes to my high school classes as we study Alexander the Great. Of course, current events are always topics for discussion, and what a wonderful vehicle your site is for us all to link to discussions and information concerning the heroic service of our soldiers in Afghanistan. To all, thank you and keep up the good work!
    (Looking forward to the Leonidas Expedition too!)

  33. Alan Catovic
    July 5, 2009 at 11:15 pm

    Mr. Pressfield,

    That is about the same I was thinking when looking at this war in Afganistan. After reading “Afgain campaign” I was sure that nothing can submit these tribal people, and sooner USA realize that – the better.
    A wish you succes and cordial regards from hilly Balcans :) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

    Alan

  34. July 7, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    Steve,

    What a profound revelation – we’re fighting tribalism. I sincerely hope the top brass who make relevant decisions heed your advice.

    You are a God send Steve, thank you!

    Linda

  35. July 7, 2009 at 11:04 pm

    Quick note of appreciation not only for your words, Steven, but to everyone who -like me, is sharing this blog with others.
    Truly, when our global community achieves clarity and respect for what the reality is with boots on the ground instead of theorizing from offices, classrooms or cafes -then we will be empowered to advance mankind!
    A close and respected friend established the Hostage Rescue Coordination position in Baghdad. He was as hungry as any American soldier for a solution considering he saw as many as 1-hostage situation per day.
    From a very educated stance he asked about the elephant in the room: what if we worked within their tribal history instead of “civilizing” the populace?

    Steven, common sense isn’t so common today.
    Perhaps the perspective you lay out will inspire an increase of common sense and a subsequent increase in individuals, teams and communities fighting “resistance” (as you so aptly name our internal /external opponent.)

    Wishing all the best to everyone of us!
    MindofaSEAL

  36. Vassilis
    July 8, 2009 at 2:40 am

    Just to focus on some details that might be the differences between win (Alexander the Great) and so far nearly defeat (USA).

    1) The reaction time of Alexander was quite fast(1-2 years) in adopting changes to his approach, army etc. and these changes did not stop happening till the end. Almost 2500 years ago and the reaction time was faster and better than now.

    2) the above reason brings me to say that is almost an insult to History to compare the great Greek with todays leadership of any level (political or military). the skills, the minds, the differences are huge.That is why he was and still is Great. So todays leadership must find through team work ways to close this gap.Difficult but not impossible.

    3) Vietnam, Colombia, Iraq, Afganistan etc even Europe in WW2 did not teach tribalism to USA? Well someone as it seems has not done his homework.sad but true.

    nice effort from you Steven and many thanks for this good work. Happy “bloging”!!! You ring the bell.is anyone out there to listen to it?

  37. Hans Kruip
    July 9, 2009 at 12:09 am

    Today I listened to Steven Pressfield on the Hugh Hewitt radio program today and I was intrigued with the discussion so I followed up and viewed the videos you spoke of on your website. Many of the points you make echo an outstanding lecture series that I’m familiar with entitled;
    The Wisdom of History by Professor Rufus J. Fears on the Great Courses Series. No I’m not connected to him, the University of Oklahoma or the series, catelog etc., though some of Professor Fears main points are “filled in” by your excellent research and conclusions.
    Consider the 10 Key Points made by Fears in his 36 lesson lecture;

    1. We (Man in general, and nations of the 20th & 21st Century)do not learn from history.
    2. Science and technology do not make us immune to the laws of history.
    3. Freedom is not a universal value.
    4. Power is a universal value.
    5.The Middle East is the crucible of conflict and the graveyard of empires.
    6. The U.S. shares the destinies of the great democracies, the republics and the super powers of the
    past.
    7. Along with the lust for power, religion and spirituality are are the most profound motivators in
    human history.
    8. Great nations rise and fall because of human decisions made by individual leaders.
    9. The Statesman is distinguished from a mere politician by four qualities: (Sir Winston Churchill
    was the prime example)
    a. A bedrock of principles
    b. A moral compass
    c. A vision
    d. An ability to create a consensus to achieve that vision
    10. Throughout its history, the United States has charted a unique role in history.

    Steven, you have helped me to better understand “why” the middle east has been the graveyard of empires. Understanding the western threat of “liberty” to Tribalism makes sense as you’ve explained it. I’m still not sure how it will all play out, but applying a better understanding of the middle eastern mindset can only help us to make better decisions for future peace and security. Let’s hope that this is a mutual goal and remain prepared if ultimately it’s not.

  38. Henry
    July 9, 2009 at 10:57 am

    What good information. When I studied international economics the first half of the course was on world religions. My professor explained that if one does not understand the religion of a country one cannot understand the economics. The same holds true of the social aspect. Over the course of my lifetime I have seen our State Dept. and military fail again and again trying to apply western theory and social norms to gain the advantage and victory. They just don’t get it, and they never will. Insights like the ones we see here will always fall short at State and the Pentagon.

  39. Pat
    July 9, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Please note – the “Mission Accomplished” on the aircraft carrier was for the crew of the Navy vessels that made up that carrier group. Since they were the first to come back from Iraq, a big deal was made of it and a “Mission Accomplished” was put up to raise spirits.

    I will agree that it was a bit of a blunder and didn’t come across as very smooth, but the media enjoyed turning it into an all encompassing “Mission Accomplished” in order to make Bush look bad, as they continuously attempted for 8 years, hoping that the public wouldn’t figure it out.

    The US isn’t building an empire, either. We aren’t taxing the people of those countries for our wars or spending, and they are not citizens of our country (or “Empire”).

    Other than those small piece, great video and interesting insights.

  40. Raymond A DeLeal
    July 10, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    I learned this in 1967 as a Corporal. Speaking French gor me to Vietnamese language school. I learned to integrate with the locals. I knew I had made it when the village elder invited me to eat with him. Sucking eyeballs out of fish took more fortitude than being shot at. A number of people were kept alive by my interaction. My superiors didn’t think much of it. Numerous times in the bush we were stopped by locals and warned against goin a certain way. We got these people building materials, food and medical attention. Why is this such a hard concept for the Generals to embrace? If a kid like me could figure it out it doesn’t seem that complicated. We become one of them, not them one of us.

  41. NORMAN STAHL
    July 13, 2009 at 9:00 am

    DEAR STEVE:

    MASTERPIECE, BRILLIANT BLOGSITE. CLEAR, BRAINY , PUNCHY, AUTHORITATIVE, PERSONABLE, UNPREACY, BEAUTIFULLY PRODUCED (AND ACTED). I PREDICT THAT THIS WILL CARRY FURTHER IN THE NATIONAL EYE THAN YOU COULD POSSIBLY ANTICIPATE. GET SOME MOMENTUM TO PUBLICIZING THIS BRILLIANT BLOG, E-MAILING THE STUFF TO MAJOR MEDIA SEPARATE FROM THE BLOG. SUPER TIE-IN WITH YOUR BOOKS AND RESEARCH. ALL THE CUSTOMARY ENERGY FROM SUPER STEVE.
    I WANT YOU FOR PRESIDENT, AND I WANT YOU NOW! LOVE, NORM

  42. Jane Crawford
    July 15, 2009 at 2:16 pm

    Is there a good reason why these videos won’t play for me? Do I need to have my own website to view them? When I click on them it takes me immediately to the blog for comments.

  43. Justin Sowa
    July 16, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Steven, I am in awe of the clarity with which you write. The blog is so important today. The MSM does not know this type of history and will never put it on the air. I have viewed only the first of the Episodes, but I will finished them today. Well done. I have rarely seen such thoughtful and articulate comments by readers. This should be noted because so often the comments are nothing but name calling with little or no value. Your readers are smart people that appreciate the knowledge that you have given them.
    Good luck and God Bless the USA.

  44. Hugh F.
    August 18, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Great stuff Steve!!! I just finished a book called ” Kill Bin Laden” by Dalton Fury. A really interesting read. It may have already been covered here. If so, pardon the note. Hope to catch up soon.

    Be well.

    Hugh

  45. Jimmy J.
    September 30, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    I have for a long time been of the opinion that the path of humankind has been from tribalism (The way we lived and governed ourselves for 100,000s of years.) to individualism. 7000 years ago agriculture and villages led to cities and specialization of labor. That led to sovereign nations and more sophisticated forms of government. The drive away from tribal values and customs accelerated in the British Isles with the Magna Carta, the separation of church and state, the acceptance of science as a method of improving our lives, Adam Smith’s views of commerce and other advances. This led to the industrial revolution which has in turn led to the information age. As all this happened the human condition has improved, but we still carry in our genes the instincts for the tribal way of life. We’ve only had 7000 years to transition from the way we lived for 100,000s of years. And many on this planet are still living as we all did more than 7000 years ago. IMO, it is hard for humans who resist change to make that big leap in such a short span of time. I believe (probably mistakenly) that the urge for socialism and communism is a yearning for the old way when the tribe (state) was more important than the individual and when the tribe (state) took care of its own.

    In the tribe the group was always more important than the individual. Being cast out of the tribe was a death sentence and tribal members were kept in line through shame and honor. There was a pecking order, but normally the wealth and means for living were more evenly shared than is customary in a free enterprise system. Outsiders were always viewed as a threat, but if they were diferent looking, or practiced a strange religion, or ate different foods, etc. they were even more distrusted or hated. For hunter-gatherer tribes life was always a zero sum game. They could not and cannot envision a world where wealth can be created by human ingenuity. Today’s tribal societies have not progressed much beyond that view and it is extremely hard for them to grasp the realities of the situation.

    Well, that’s my thesis. How does it relate to our situation in Iraq and Afghanistan? We have to recognize how foreign our ideas are to these people. Throw in a bit of Islamic fundamentalism and it becomes that much worse. Unfortunately, we are in a bit of a quandry. These Islamic fundamentalists want to attack us and they have been able to use our own technology because they understand fighting and will use anything that helps them fight better. How do we deter them? How do we try to bring them into the 21st century? How do we do this without shedding blood unnecessarily? COIN seems to be the answer. The problem is that it is both labor and capital intensive. Less than 5% of the population knows anything about the issues today. Even if 80% understood COIN, how many would be willing to spend the next 10-15 years with our dollars and blood being shed on the project? I see this as a conundrum in search of a leader with a solution.

    Found your blog from your interview with Glen Reynolds. I’ll be a frequent reader.

  46. Matt McKe
    October 1, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    Mr. Pressfield, you are spot-on. While it’s always problematic to equate one war with another that may have different context, objectives, or strategy, I agree that radical Islam is not what makes our job so difficult in Iraq and Afghanistan (can only speak about Iraq from personal experience). In many places, especially away from the cities, tribalism perplexes our Western minds and we tend to require constant re-education from our local counterparts about its permeation into every aspect of indigenous behavior. I can only imagine how much more difficult Afghanistan is given that it less developed, more geographically predisposed to tribalism, and rich with a history of “throwing the rascals out.” I look forward to your future segments on this issue and will be sure to share them with my Lieutenants as we prepare for our next deployment.

  47. Pete
    October 2, 2009 at 10:52 am

    I’m a special forces officer with varying experiences in Afghanistan. After reading some of your readers’ comments, I’d like to offer my own opinion on the matter. Tribalism didn’t give way to individualism… but rather the value of individual freedom and independence leads to the tribe. The tribe is a way to self govern. Democracy descended as an evolutionary step from kings and the perversion of kings… tyrants. Tribalism descended from the love of individual freedom and the realization that there is power in numbers.

    The same holds true for the difference between Arabs with historical Bedouin values versus Muslims. Tribalism doesn’t aid the enemy so much as we allow it to hinder us. The enemy is merely a competitor seeking to occupy the power vacuum. We handicap ourselves by modeling the ANA into a western organized fighting force rather than allowing them to fight as they have for thousands of years… by replicating mature democratic institutions and forcing them upon a society which has no experience with them, inviting corruption and fraud.

    America is more collectivist than Afghanistan. That collectivism is most inherent in our conventional army. For all the strides they’ve made in deciphering COIN and seeking to negotiate a successful close to this front, to be blunt they got lucky in Iraq. They didn’t win the support of people with the sons of Iraq, so much as Al Queda lost it. We just happened to surge at the right time and thankfully maintain an open hand to those willing to help. In that particular case we were simply offering a “less bad” government and way of life than the enemy was. They’re faced with several severe obstacles in Afghanistan. The conventional army is not designed to be flexible, adaptable, or trained to it’s lowest levels to be analytical in problem solving. They are risk averse and addicted to conventional drugs like helicopters, artillery, and armor which cannot reach far enough away from the FOBs to allow the soldiers to live among the villages of the people they’re trying to protect. More importantly, we suffer from a porous border where a significant source of training, men, and money enjoy sanctuary. And no matter what we do… if our competitor government is corrupt, fraudulent, and worse incompetent at providing basic services, security, and economic opportunity than those offered by another faction, organization, or tribe, then we fail.

    The tribe is little more than a large family… protect the women, the land, the animals, the homes, and their honor, respect, and sense of manliness. There is nothing difficult in understanding the Pashtun. Reconciling them with the Tajiks and Hazaras is another matter.

    Assuming our end goal in that country is to deny a safe haven for terrorist organizations to launch attacks against America from, then we need better ON THE GROUND access to Pakistan. Our fascination with cruise missiles, sig-int, satellites, predators, UAVs, and technology is no match whatsoever for a guy on the ground, talking to the people, developing the situation, personally observing the enemy, and executing surgical raids WITHOUT blowing the shit out of everything. The enemy is willing to kill himself to kill just a few of us. Without removing this crutch of “risk mitigation”, our Army literally handicaps itself.

    • JohnS
      December 17, 2009 at 10:59 am

      Pete,

      I am more interested in where the rubber meets the road in Afghanistan and Iraq instead of a highly theoretical conversation. Thanks for the practical comments. Maybe if enough people with experience and credibility speak up our leadership will tune in.

  48. October 3, 2009 at 9:12 am

    Steve,
    Your video was a very thoughtful and insightful comparison. I am an intelligence officer and served in Iraq. What concerns me most is that we have forgotten how to win wars. To be blunt, war requires that we eliminate the enemy—by killing them or through verifiable submission to our will. A country does not go to war to help people; a country goes to war to win the unconditional surrender to enemy forces that threaten our security. A country should go to war only when the will of the people demands security from those who threaten it.
    Before dismissing this statement as from some gun toting lunatic, consider the history of warfare—except for the last 50 years or so (from Vietnam forward). The Constitutional mandate for our military is to win wars; not manage them. War is not a management problem for the decades. When a hegemonic nation wages war, winning is the only option. The hegemony does not go to war for nine years. If a hegemonic nation is fighting for nine years without winning, that nation is no longer a hegemony. Soldiers do not go to war to “win hearts and minds.” Our military mission is to defeat the enemy forces or any force in order to create a secure environment for whatever government comes next. This requires killing those who threaten it.
    Some call this form of military occupation imperialism. They are correct. Imperialism isn’t a terrible means to an end. Consider successes in India, Germany, and Japan in the 20th Century. Even during our own Civil War the Union Army occupied the Confederacy for greater than 10 years. We occupied ourselves using an imperialist model! In Afghanistan or Iraq, if so much a hair is harmed on the head of an allied service person the consequences must be severe and deadly, so much so, that no tribal leader dare challenge the occupation. Like in America in the late 19th Century, the imperialist “guests” were benevolent to those who accepted it. Those who did not were killed or jailed. The Union Army enabled a relatively safe and secure atmosphere for a return to a true United States.
    Recently, NATO bombed a fuel truck that was hijacked by Taliban insurgents. Press reporting confirmed that 35 Taliban insurgents or supporters were killed. However, many of them apparently were “civilians.” How did NATO command respond? Commanders were apologetic and stated they were going the review criteria for striking such targets. What are we doing? This response is unfathomable. Commanders should have sent the message that it is un-Islamic to steal and NATO will bring Islamic principles back to truly good Muslims. NATO will kill anyone who steals or tolerates those who do. NATO needs to learn the value of strategic communication and establish a recipe for success. This type of strategy adopted by NATO suggests NATO is asking for Afghan cooperation. We are not (or should not be). We demand it.
    We must win all wars as quickly as possible with whatever means necessary. Such was the case with extinction of German Nazi’s and the Imperial Japanese regimes. For example, we used one atomic bomb against Nagasaki to destroy this Japanese city that had no military value. We firebombed Dresden, Germany that had very little, if any, military significance. Our mentality was to win at all costs using total war. I submit there is no other kind of war. Anything short of total war when the troops are called is meddling with disaster by political figures. While the President is the Commander-in-Chief, he should leave winning wars to military professionals. This is our job. His orders should only contain three letters: Win. From WWII and earlier, our way of life was secure because we chose to win using the most effective methods of killing possible to win at all costs.
    We have forgotten how to fight and win.

    • JohnS
      December 17, 2009 at 11:08 am

      CPT I assume. I hope you can develop quickly because until you break out of the conventional mindset paradimn you will not be much use to your commanders as an intelligence officer. There is a lot more to COIN than lethal targeting. I would recommend a book written by a career intelligence officer named Georg Allen called “None so Blind”.

  49. chris
    October 5, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    I agree that the situation is the same today. The biggest and probally most difficult difference is the opium trade. The only thing that will win this conflict will be money. Just like Alexander. But it will be alot more expensive today due to the drug market. I am a Marine and read the Afghan Campaign and loved it. Your books are among the most popular for the marines.

  50. Jamil
    November 20, 2009 at 9:55 am

    your entire argument is based on a big “if” that is unfounded even “if” Islam/Christianity didn’t exist then, it does now even though you choose to ignore that, AND, this war is not the West against Afghanistan (people or the tribes), it is against the Taliban and those who aid them

Sign up for first look access.

Enter your email to get free access to every new thing I do.

No spam, I promise!

Gates of Fire
The War of Art
Turning Pro
The Profession
The Warrior Ethos
Do The Work
Tides of War
The Afghan Campaign
The Virtues of War
Killing Rommel
Last of the Amazons
The Legend of Bagger Vance
Additional Reading
Video Blog