Pride and Prejudice - The STORY GRID edition - Annotated by SHAWN COYNE

Writing Wednesdays

Writing Wednesdays

The Villain is Not Always a Person

By Steven Pressfield
Published: December 13, 2017


Or even a creature.

Julianne Moore in "Far From Heaven"

Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ “Far From Heaven”

Sometimes the villain is entirely inside the characters’ (almost always the protagonist’s) head.

The villain can be a fear, an obsession, a desire, a dream, a conception of reality, an idea of what “the truth” really is.

The villain in Blade Runner 1978 would seem at first glance to be the replicants, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) and his team of Leon (Brion James) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), who have escaped off-world and come to Earth sowing destruction. But the real villain is an idea—the conception of creating faux-human slave labor.

The replicants are actually the innocent victims of this idea, which in fact has been deemed by the world to be brilliant, epochal, even salvational, and whose progenitor, Eldon Tyrell of the Tyrell Corporation, is universally lauded for his genius in conceiving such a notion.

But a slave by another name is still a slave, and the idea of creating soul-less, expendable creatures whose only purpose is to do the dirty work of the greater society (no matter how exceptional or beautiful these creatures may be) is still evil.

This is the same villain, by the way, as in Birth of a Nation (2016), Twelve Years A Slave, and The Help.

The villain in Blade Runner 2049 is another idea—the idea of the willing acceptance of one’s role as a soul-less cog in a greater machine.

Often these “idea villains” are embodied and personified by human or creature antagonists who have actual physical being in the story. In David O. Russell’s The Fighter, the idea-villain—the self-sabotage of the individual of talent and destiny (in this case Mark Wahlberg’s character of Micky Ward, “the fighter”—is personified by his family of mother, brother, and seven sisters. They’re undermining him and sabotaging his career at every turn.

But the deep villain resides in Mark’s own head, as it does in K’s (Ryan Gosling) in Blade Runner 2049 and in Nat Turner’s (Nate Parker) in Birth of a Nation.

In other words the villain in these stories is not sabotage, but self-sabotage.

The hero is enslaving himself by his own belief.

The turning point in all such stories is the moment when the protagonist snaps out of it and says to him or herself, “I am in control of my own destiny. I will no longer believe the lies that others have told me about myself and that I have abetted by repeating them and believing them in my own heart.”

In Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, the villain is 1950s suburban-American conformity. The hero is Cathy Whitaker (Julianne Moore) who believes at the story’s start that she is one of the lucky ones, blessed with a handsome, successful husband whom she loves and who loves her, a beautiful family, wonderful friends, and a perfect, secure life in a prosperous, upwardly mobile community.

Suburban conformity is a great villain, not only because it is internal—existing entirely, as it does, in our heroine’s psyche as well as within the community—but also because it’s invisible. Julianne has no idea that this idea is evil. She believes in it like Stalinists believed in the Workers’ Paradise. To her it is the universally-desired state of being, i.e., what every human on Earth would aspire to if they had the chance. In Julianne’s mind, at the story’s start, she is living the American dream, and her family embodies this fantasy perfectly.

By movie’s end of course Julianne will have lost husband, friends, community, as well as her self-conception and self-assurance as a secure, happy wife and mother. The movie’s final image is Julianne with young kids in tow, driving off in her station wagon into a totally unknown (and probably for quite a while desperate) future.

This is a happy ending. Why? Because Julianne has emancipated herself, however excruciatingly, from this villain that is only an idea.

She has seen it for what it is and seen through it.

This act puts Julianne light-years ahead of her self-enslaved neighbors/replicants/Stepford wives in Suburban Hell who are still “living the dream.”

We said in an earlier chapter that


Every villain is a metaphor for Resistance.


What this means is that the ultimate antagonist is not a man-eating shark or a monster from space. It is an idea carried in our own heads (we’re the heroes, remember, of our own lives) and as invisible to us as Julianne’s and K’s and Nat Turner’s self-enslavement was to them before they woke up.

The turning point for us too comes when we see through the Wizard’s curtain and reject this idea once and for all.


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Posted in Writing Wednesdays

The Afghan Campaign

No one writes better historical fiction than Steven Pressfield. The Afghan War that was waged by Alexander the Great 2000 years ago is eerily similar to the one that's being fought today. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to better understand what American and Coalition forces are up against in one of history's most tribal and troubled regions.
—Vince Flynn
. . . Steven Pressfield is the finest military writer alive, bar none. I cannot recommend him too highly.
—Stephen Coonts
BUY THE BOOK: Hardcover | Paperback | eBook

The Afghan Campaign re-creates Alexander the Great's invasion of the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C., a campaign that eerily foreshadows the tactics, terrors and frustrations of contemporary conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here the foe does not meet us in pitched battle, as other armies we have dueled in the past. . . . Even when we defeat him, he will not accept our dominion. He comes back again and again. He hates us with a passion whose depth is exceeded only by his patience and his capacity for suffering.

In words that might have been ripped from today's combat dispatches, The Afghan Campaign brings to life the confrontation between an invading Western army and fierce Eastern warriors determined at all costs to defend their homeland. Narrated by Matthias, an infantryman in Alexander's army, The Afghan Campaign explores the challenges, both military and moral, that Alexander and his soldiers face as they embark on a new type of war and are forced to adapt to the methods of a ruthless foe that employs terror and insurgent tactics, conceals itself among the civilian populace, and recruits women and boys as combatants. As Matthias relates the brutal day-to-day encounters between the two sides, he exposes the human cost borne by a company of men whose code is humanist and secular when they seek to impose their will on a people of deep religiosity, insularity, unbending pride, and a passionate readiness to die for their cause.

The following excerpt is the opening of the book -- the quote at the very start and then the first chapter. We hope to add a few more chapters from the body of the book as the publishing date approaches.


"Do you believe that so many nations accustomed to the name and rule of another, united with us neither by religion, nor customs, nor community of language, have been subdued in the same battle in which they were overcome? It is by your arms alone that they are restrained, not by their dispositions, and those who fear us when we are present, in our absence will be enemies. We are dealing with savage beasts, which lapse of time only can tame, when they are caught and caged, because their own nature cannot tame them ... Accordingly, we must either give up what we have taken, or we must seize what we do not yet hold."

Alexander addressing his troops on the approach
to Afghanistan; Quintus Curtius, History of Alexander

A Wedding in Asia

The war is over. Or it will be by sundown tonight, when our lord Alexander takes to wife the Afghan princess Roxane.

Across the Plain of Sorrows, so named for the multitude of its burial grounds, the camps of the Macedonians sprawl flank-by-flank alongside those of the enemy. There must be half a thousand of the latter, those bivouacs the Afghans call tafiran ("circles"), each housing between fifty and five hundred men. Every tribe and clan from Artacoana to the Jaxartes has trekked in for the celebration, along with vendors and whores in thousands, tailors, seamstresses, acrobats, musicians, fortune tellers. The whole Mack expeditionary force is here, including foreign units, horse and foot. Every captain and corporal parades in his finery, eager for the festivities. Except me and my mates Flag, Boxer, and Little Red. We've still got work to do.

Give Alexander credit. By taking to wife the Afghan princess, he turns his most formidable foe, the warlord Oxyartes, into his father-in-law. No other stunt could have produced victory in this war--or that state of affairs that can plausibly be passed off as victory.

So we shall have peace. I doubt that any cessation of hostilities has been longed for more ardently than this. A campaign that was supposed to take three months has dragged on with unbroken terror and brutality for almost three years. Those of us who came out from home as boys have become first men and then something closer to beasts or devils. The Afghans have suffered worse. Two hundred thousand dead, that's the figure you hear. I believe it. Hardly a village remains in this country that our troops haven't leveled, or a city that we haven't taken apart stone by stone.

So this wedding is much looked forward to. The deal between Alexander and Oxyartes is this: the warlord gives away his daughter and accepts our king as his sovereign. In return Alexander appoints him governor, to rule the country in Alexander's name. This makes Oxyartes the biggest mackerel in Asia, second only to our lord himself. Then we Macks pack up and leave. I don't know who's happier--us to get out or the Afghans to see us go.

I'm getting married tonight myself. Fourteen hundred Macks will be linking with Afghan girls in one collective ceremony. My bride's name is Shinar. It's a long story; I'll tell it as we go along.

My mate Flag dismounts now outside the tent, as I finish arming. He's about forty and the hardest knot I know. He has taught me everything. I would march into hell at his side.

He enters dressed in formal military kit, for the wedding. I indicate his cloak.

"You'll be roasting in that thing."

Flag tugs back one wing. Beneath his left arm, a xiphos sword is strapped to his ribs. He's got an Afghan long-knife lashed along one thigh and throwing-daggers inside both boots. He carries two more weapons in plain view, a ceremonial sword on a baldric and a nine-foot half-pike. These are for show. To give Baz (the name Macks employ for all Afghans) something to fix his eyes on.

Boxer and Little Red have reined outside. In a few moments we'll make our way across the plain to the camp of the Aletai Pactyans. There, I will meet the brother of my bride and pay him off, an indemnity of honor, so he won't murder me and his sister. The price is four years' wages and my best horse.

Such is Afghanistan. Only out here do you have to bribe a brother not to slaughter his own sister. Her crime: being with me.

Of course I suspect treachery. That's what the weapons are for. In a way I'm hoping for it. Otherwise, our own Mack code of philoxenia ("love for the stranger") forbids me to take the life of one of the family I marry into. I'm an idiot for still buying it, but there it is.

Atop the citadel, the crier calls. Two hours past noon. The Persian day starts at sundown. That's when the wedding will take place. Lesser ceremonies have been going on all day. Late afternoon will be the military tattoo. The whole Mack army and all the Afghan clans and tribes will pass in review before Alexander, Roxane and the dignitaries. The big wedding, the royal one, will take place in Chorienes' palace atop the fortress of Bal Teghrib, "Stone Mountain." The mass ceremony, the one where Shinar and I will get tied, takes place outdoors in the new stadium at the foot of the hill. When the weddings are over, the celebrations begin.

"All right," says Flag. "Let's go over this one more time."

Flag is by far our senior. His rank is Flag Sergeant. He has a personal name but I've never heard anyone use it. We just call him by his rank.

He rehearses us in blocking moves. What's critical is that Shinar's brother and his two cousins not escape. They can't be allowed to break away or survive with wounds. Our blows must be fatal. These three are Shinar's last male kin. No others stand under the obligation of nangwali, the Afghan code of honor, to see that "justice" is done. Brother and cousins slain, we can buy our way out of the crime. Money will patch it up. But these three must go down.

I am grateful to my comrades. This is serious peril that they undergo for my sake. I'd do the same for them, and they know it. They'll be embarrassed if I express gratitude overtly. When it's over, if we're all alive, I'll get each of them a woman or a horse.

"All I can say," says Little Red as we finish our preparations, "is this is a hell of a way to warm up for a wedding."

As my mates and I cinch up, my bride appears in the portal. She will bathe now and, assisted by her bridesmaids, perform the karahal, the Pactyan purification rite. No male may witness this. She meets my eye. "When will you go, Matthias?"


A groom brings my horse. My mates have already mounted.

The Afghan farewell is tel badir, "With God's care." Shinar signs this to me. I sign back. Flag's heels tap his pony. "Now or never."

We're off. To perform, if we must, one final murder; then get the hell out of this country.

"No one writes better historical fiction than Steven Pressfield. The Afghan War that was waged by Alexander the Great 2000 years ago is eerily similar to the one that's being fought today. This book should be required reading for anyone who wants to better understand what American and Coalition forces are up against in one of history's most tribal and troubled regions."
—Vince Flynn
" . . . Steven Pressfield is the finest military writer alive, bar none. I cannot recommend him too highly."
—Stephen Coonts
" . . . gripping . . . a vivid, compelling tale . . . superbly constructed, briskly paced, and dramatically engaging. [The] possibility of retaining one's inner innocence while surrounded by horror may explain the enormous popularity of Pressfield's work among the rank-and-file soldiers of the American military. Matthias [the infantryman-protagonist of The Afghan Campaign] holds out to the reader the central promise that every soldier wants to believe: not only will you survive and grow in the crucible of the battlefield, you will emerge with your peacetime decency and goodness intact."
—Claremont Review of Books

A Random House Interview with the Author

RH: Why this subject? What hooked you about this particular war and these particular combatants?
SP: The book I wrote before this was The Virtues of War, about Alexander the Great. There's a chapter called "Badlands" that describes the campaign in Afghanistan. As I was researching it, it hit me with tremendous force: this war is exactly like the war our troops are fighting today in Iraq. Same tactics, same pattern of conflict, same West versus East dynamics.

I said to myself, This is the next book. I gotta expand this to book length.

RH: In other words, it was the contemporary parallels that hooked you.
SP: Historical fiction is a funny animal. Because it's set in the past, it seems to be about another era. (Same with science fiction, which is set in the future.) But you can get at issues in historical fiction and sci-fi -- and hit the reader with greater power -- than you can using a contemporary or topical approach.

RH: Why?
SP: Because the reader gets to participate. He gets to make the connections himself. Can I cite an example from my own stuff?

RH: Please do.
SP: My first historical novel was Gates of Fire, about the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae. When I was writing it, I thought to myself: Nobody's gonna be interested in this except me and a few historians and scholars; mainstream readers won't even be able to pronounce the name, let alone care about this obscure battle fought between nations that no longer even exist.

To my amazement, when the book came out, I started getting letters from Marines in Iraq, from Special Ops guys in Afghanistan, from cops and firefighters and hostage-rescue guys. Passionate letters, saying these warriors, the Spartans, are just like us! In other words, these contemporary readers made all the connections effortlessly and automatically. They could relate completely to the warrior ethos of the Spartans. The book went straight onto the Commandant's Reading List; it became part of the course work at Annapolis and West Point; the Marine Corps included it in various curriculums. 2nd Bn, Sixth Marines even calls themselves "the Spartans." When I speak at military bases, at West Point or Quantico or Lejeune or Pendleton, these contemporary warriors read themselves into the past absolutely. And it's even more powerful because it's a metaphor. That was a real lesson to me.

RH: What are the contemporary parallels in The Afghan Campaign?
SP: It's an absolute prototype for the wars we're fighting today in the Middle East -- and for the conflicts we're likely to get involved in, in other places, for the rest of this century.

RH: Can you elaborate?
SP: When Alexander invaded the Afghan kingdoms in 330 B.C., his army was the lone superpower of its day, fresh from the conquest of the Persian Empire, the mightiest in history. Alexander was the consummate Westerner. His tutor was Aristotle, literally, which is about as Western as it gets. And he was at the peak of his power and self-confidence. Just like us before we invaded Iraq. Alexander believed he'd pacify this primitive place, this motley collection of tribes, in one summer. Instead he was stuck there for three long, brutal years. Longer in combat time than it took him to knock off the entire Persian empire.

RH: He underestimated how hard it would be.
SP: Exactly! He had a huge technological edge. His guys were the toughest, best-trained, best-equipped fighters the world had ever seen. He thought they'd be greeted like liberators. And they were, for about two minutes. Then the enemy found a new way to fight. More massacres of Macedonian troops happened in those three years than in all of Alexander and his father's Philip's other campaigns combined. Alexander simply didn't have an answer for the enemy's tactics. His guys were getting killed in greater numbers even than in huge conventional battles of the past, and he -- the supreme military genius in history, with unlimited wealth and arms at his disposal -- couldn't figure out how to overcome it.

RH: What was the problem?
SP: His army, just like ours, was designed to fight stand-up, head-banging conventional battles. And it was invincible at that. But the enemy in this new campaign wouldn't face him in a straight-up fight. They used guerrilla tactics, insurgency tactics. They used terror. Massacres. Their combatants hid among the civilian population. They used villages and tribal communities to conceal themselves; they got supplied and protected by civilians. They employed cross-border sanctuaries. Fighters flooded in from adjacent territories. They dispersed their forces across the entire region and wouldn't let Alexander come to grips with them. Wherever Alexander wasn't, that's where they'd hit. And they had a spectacular guerrilla commander, named Spitamenes, who fought Alexander to a standstill.

RH: Was this Islamic?
SP: That's the fascinating thing: it was pre-Islamic and pre-Christian. Yet the dynamics of the clash were exactly like what we see today. I mean the "feel" of it. You could beam one of Alexander's infantrymen into the present and he'd say, "Holy shit, nothing's changed! This is just the way it was!" The same essence of East versus West. Rational versus emotional. Technological versus primitive.

And most important of all, "national" versus tribal.

RH: I know you have a theory about Islam and tribalism.
SP: I do. I think the genius of Islam is that it incorporates tribalism and gives it a medium in which to flourish in the contemporary world.

And I believe that the essence of the enemy we're fighting today is not religious but tribal. It's tribalism expressed in religious terms. But underneath it all, it's tribalism.

RH: What is tribalism? And what does it mean for our guys today fighting it?
SP: That's what The Afghan Campaign is trying to get at. This interview has been a little misleading so far, in that it sounds like Alexander is the primary character in this book. He isn't. The book is told from the point of view of a young infantryman in Alexander's army. It's an on-the-ground perspective, as this young guy arrives in the war and starts to realize what he's gotten himself into. He relates to the enemy -- civilians and combatants -- as individuals. He has to because he deals with them every day, up-close and personal. And the primary characteristic that they possess (and that makes them so alien and hard to understand) is that they're tribal. They see the world through tribal eyes. They fight like tribesmen have always fought. And they're as stubborn and defiant and implacable and cunning and duplicitous and cruel and formidable as tribal fighters have always been.

RH: When you say "tribe" and "tribal," I'm not sure what you mean. Can you give me an example?
SP: Think Geronimo. These guys are Apaches, in the past and the present. The enemy that Alexander was fighting (and that our guys are fighting today) has more in common with the Sicilian Mafia or with a prison gang of Bloods or Crips than with a conventional enemy like the Russians or any "national" foe.

RH: Tell us about nangwali.
SP: Nangwali is an Afghan tribal code of honor. Its tenets are nang, pride; badal: revenge, and melmastia, hospitality. But it could be any tribal code from any era of history. They all share those precepts, whether it's the Lakota Sioux or a tribe of head-hunters from the Amazon. You can't fight a tribe like you fight a nation.

RH: What's the difference?
SP: The tribe is primitive. It has evolved out of the hunting band mentality. Its fundamental imperative is survival. The tribe's mindset is that of warrior pride. That's why the tribe subjugates women and limits their role to physical labor and child-bearing. In the tribe, women are nothing. Warrior pride is all. The tribe has an admirable sense of justice within the tribe, but none at all outside. Non-tribesmen are infidels, gentiles, devils. Tribes are notoriously and hideously cruel to captives. Beheadings on video ... that's nothing compared to what tribes all over the world have always done. The tribe values cohesiveness far above individual freedom. It despises individual freedom. The tribe picks a leader and follows him no matter what. That's its code. That's how it survives. The tribe respects power. Saddam Hussein understood this.

RH: What about democracy and freedom? What are their chances in contemporary Iraq?
SP: In my view, zero. The tribe will never accept individual freedom. The only way Western-style democracy will take root in the Middle East, in my opinion, is if societies are broken down to absolute zero and built up from scratch, and even then it won't work. It'll never happen. The tribal memory is thousands of years. It's ineradicable. When you see photos on the news of Iraqi or Afghan men and women showing off their ink-stained fingers from the voting booth, that's not democracy. Their tribal leader told them how to vote and that's what they've done.

RH: If this is true, if we really are fighting a predominantly tribal enemy today, what can we learn from Alexander? How did Alexander overcome them?
SP: If we could beam Alexander into this room and ask him that question, I think he would laugh. He would say, "Beat them? I barely got out of there in one piece -- and I had to use every trick in the book to do it!"

RH: What tricks did he use?
SP: First, he pounded the hell out of the enemy militarily. Worse than anything a contemporary army would dare. He leveled cities, depopulated entire regions. And it still didn't work. Tribal fighters are united on the deepest levels to the land. They would rather die than yield. Still, Alexander softened them up a little by wiping out so many of them. He at least made their lives so miserable that they were, on some level, amenable to an understanding.

Second, he denied them sanctuary. He closed the borders. He burned out all their regions of supply. He established strong garrison towns. And he used his vast wealth (gained from acquiring the treasury of the Persian empire) to enlist many of them in his own army for pay. In other words, he bought the country. In the end, he even killed his rival, Spitamenes. And the amazing thing is this still didn't win the war for him.

RH: What did?
SP: Alexander's supreme stroke was political: he married the daughter of his worst enemy.

RH: Roxane.
SP: She was the daughter of Oxyartes, the most powerful warlord of the foe. The key to fighting tribal enemies is their warrior pride. Imagine you're facing Geronimo or Crazy Horse and you want to reach an accommodation. You have to show tremendous respect, you have to understand the passion and implacability of tribal pride. It's not one aspect, it's everything. You have to give the enemy a credible way to convince his people that he won, that he beat you. Otherwise his own people will eat him alive.

That's what Alexander did. He brought in Oxyartes and treated him with great honor. What could be more honorable, after all, than joining the families in marriage? Oxyartes was no longer Alexander's enemy, he was his father-in-law. He sat next to him at the seat of honor and rode at his side in public before the troops. His grandchildren, when they came, would be of Alexander's blood and, as his heirs, would one day rule the world. That was a deal Oxyartes' pride could accept--and that his people could accept.

It worked. Alexander and Roxane were married in a spectacular ceremonial wedding, to which all combatants of both sides were invited and feted with great gifts and clemency. Then Alexander packed up and got the hell out of there.

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