The entire article is well worth a full read; the below pull quote gets the mood right.
Major Portis is a practitioner, a man valued in military culture for his experience, but he came back to West Point to teach because he so forcefully believes in the necessity of studying with depth and care the stories of others to fill in the inevitable gaps in our experience. One of my students told him that the visit had given him some new perspective on the literature we were reading, but at the same time that literature was now helping the major to understand his war. Major Portis alluded to several things he wished he’d known before deploying.
Had he read accounts of Alexander’s march over the narrow passes of the Hindu Kush, he might have had an even richer appreciation for the challenges of operating in these mountains, especially in the winter. Had he read Babur’s 16th-century description of the region’s silver and lapis lazuli in “Baburnama,” he might have understood more readily the predicament of the Afghan miners who arrived at Keating attempting to sell stones for a song when the bottom fell out of the gem market. Had he read from the “Shahnameh,” he might have been more fully prepared for the diversity of religious rituals and cultural practices that characterizes this region.
AMERICANS love to start over. Those old epics Horace described, which begin in medias res, are not for us. An enthusiasm for fresh starts and opening gambits is elemental to our sense of ourselves as exceptional: the authors of an entirely new book. We are, perhaps constitutionally, ill prepared whenever we find ourselves in the middle of someone else’s story and more than a little reluctant to admit the ways in which an encounter with that story potentially works changes in us. Yet when we cannot “make it new,” we are forced to determine more precisely what compromise we can achieve, what price we are willing to pay for it, and what constitutes an end.
Alexander’s conquest looms large in the “Shahnameh.” Alexander is sufficiently self-aware to understand the vanity of his quest but unable to turn back: “I see that I’m to be / Hurried about the world perpetually, / And that I’ll never know another fate. / Than this incessant, wandering, restless state!” Asked repeatedly by the rival rulers he encounters what he wants in the end, Alexander finds it increasingly difficult to come up with an answer. There’s an insight here into the psychology of long campaigns, which tend to exhaust our ability to make sense of them.
As Major Portis circulated green tea and almonds around the seminar table, just as his Afghan hosts had done for him in Nuristan five years before, I began to think that the first step toward seeing the end is to come to terms with what it means to be right in the middle.