The Magazine

War Matters

Philip Bobbitt's big book.

Aug 26, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 47 • By FRED SIEGEL
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The Shield of Achilles
War, Peace, and the Course of History
by Philip Bobbitt
Knopf, 919 pp., $40

A FEW YEARS AGO there was hue and cry over the loss of academic interest in the subject of war. The complaints were premature. Philip Bobbitt's "The Shield of Achilles" will see to that. It's a book so ambitious, and so often interesting, that those who make it through the more than nine hundred pages are likely to forgive its failings. Expansively subtitled "War, Peace, and the Course of History," it opens with Muslim cannons breaching the once impregnable walls of Constantinople in 1453 and ends with a series of scenarios for a twenty-first century haunted by nuclear proliferation and asymmetrical warfare.

The title--derived from the "Iliad"'s description of the scenes of war and peace embossed on Achilles' shield--is intended to suggest an intimate link between war and culture. Bobbitt describes war as a "creative act of civilized man." Through a foreword, a prologue, two introductions, an epilogue, a postscript, and three appendices (not to mention the actual body of the text), Bobbitt argues that the changing forms of the modern state are primarily a reflection of military innovations--and that, in turn, the internal ordering of the leading states are inevitably reflected in the international structures they help create.

In the foreword, the eminent military historian Michael Howard, moved by the scope of "The Shield of Achilles" as well as its pessimism about the unavoidability of war, compares the book to Oswald Spengler's "The Decline of the West." Spengler saw history as an inexorable process whose outcomes were independent of political choices. But Bobbitt, who worked for the Carter, Reagan (briefly), Bush, and Clinton administrations as legal counselor and adviser on strategic planning, sees a variety of choices ahead. Howard is right, however, that these choices do not involve whether we will be entangled in future wars. They are rather choices over how we will fight them.

War, says Bobbitt, now a professor at the University of Texas law school, is the primary engine of history. To make his case he takes the reader through the template of what Max Weber first described as the military revolution in early modern Europe. It began in 1494 when the French King Charles VIII invaded Italy, and his mercenary soldiers, deploying relatively lightweight bronze cannons, easily breached the defenses of the Italian city-states.

Before this, wars were long, drawn out sieges conducted under knightly rules. In response to the new weaponry, the Italian city-states literally reconstituted themselves. They hired mercenaries, and in order to pay for them they created the beginning of a modern state which could collect taxes on a regular basis. The changes, noted Machiavelli, meant that the principalities could no longer rely on medieval relationships but had to win the loyalty of the population. "There must be good laws where there are good arms," explained Machiavelli, "and where there are good arms there must be good laws." Generalizing, Bobbitt asserts that "every change in the constitutional arrangements of the State will have strategic consequences, and also the other way around."

Building on this initial example, Bobbitt argues that the modern world was shaped by five subsequent "epochal wars" (defined as wars "that challenge and change the basic constitutional structure of the State by linking strategic to constitutional innovations"). In each case, the conflict produced a new state form: first the princely state, then the kingly state, then the territorial state, the state-nation, and the nation-state. "The princely state," Bobbitt explains, "promised external security, . . . the Kingly state added the promise of internal stability, . . . the territorial state added the promise of expanding material wealth to which the state-nation added the civil and political rights of popular sovereignty, . . . the nation-state added economic security."

Bobbitt, in one of his best sections, argues that the two World Wars and the Cold War of the twentieth century should be seen as part of one "Long War." It was, he says, a protracted three-cornered conflict in which communism, fascism, and parliamentarianism fought to see which version of the "nation-state" could impose its internal and thus external vision on the others. But now, he asserts, with the Peace of Paris in 1990 recognizing German reunification and the American victory in the Cold War, "a new constitutional order--the market state which reduces the states' responsibilities--is about to emerge."

This market-state will be a looser, more libertarian arrangement. But, Bobbitt goes on, the nuclear innovations of the Long War and the borderless world of markets will make it increasingly difficult for the market-state to fulfill its responsibilities. That, he insists, will produce a crisis of legitimation, and he lays out a series of scenarios as to how this crisis will play out. "If the pattern of earlier eras is to be repeated," Bobbitt warns, "then we await a new, epochal war with state-shattering consequences."

In the course of making his case, Bobbitt delivers fascinating mini-chapters. There's one, for instance, on Castlereagh, the Napoleonic-era British foreign minister who "sought to introduce a benign, shared hegemony based on a mutual recognition of rights underpinned by law."

But for all its virtues, the book is wildly repetitive. Where was Bobbitt's editor at Knopf? The first half of "The Shield of Achilles" treats epochal wars, the second, the epochal peace agreements that ended those wars--which means Bobbitt goes over the same ground twice. The book is so sprawling that what's said in one section is contradicted in another. Early on, for instance, Bobbitt insists, consistent with his larger argument, that the revival of German militarism after 1919 wasn't a failure of treaty-making so much as an expression of unresolved German aspirations for power and domination. But six hundred pages down the road, he adopts the conventional notion that the problem was in the treaty itself. Bobbitt sometimes gets tangled up in his own categories, which require him to turn Bismarck into a fascist and Lenin into the leader of a nation-state while conflating the nationalism of Lincoln and Louis Napoleon.

"The Shield of Achilles" was largely written before September 11, and, despite some efforts to include Islamic fascism in closing sections, the treatment of the Arab world is weak. He makes the mistake of seeing al Qaeda as a "virtual state" when it's an offshoot of both Muslim and communist "brotherhoods." Bobbitt's most convincingly plausible scenario deals with nuclear proliferation. He worries that nuclear competition on the Korean peninsula will first produce Japanese H-bombs, and then South Korean calls for an American nuclear guarantee against Japan, which the United States will be unwilling to provide. It's in this context that a Star Wars program becomes significant: Without it, the threat of American force loses its credibility, and regional conflicts in East Asia could easily spill over into a catastrophic war.

The problems Bobbitt identifies are real, but nuclear proliferation aside, his scenarios are questionable. Caught up in his own formula, he seeks to replicate the earlier conflict between communism, fascism, and parliamentarianism with a new three-cornered conflict between the Washington-entrepreneurial, Berlin-managerial, and Tokyo-mercantile models for the future. Oddly enough, he describes each as a version of the minimalist market-state potentially capable of imposing itself on the others. But this comes at a time when Europe prefers to import Islamic immigrant radicalism rather than modify its cradle-to-grave spending, and at a moment when Tokyo, rather than moving towards dominance, is so stagnant that it fears being overtaken economically by China within twenty years. Bobbitt similarly misses the vitality of the American nation-state. Europe may be post-heroic, Europe may want to share sovereignty, but the United States does not. And this transatlantic tension will only grow as Europe responds to further Islamic terror by paying more protection money.

Worse yet, Bobbitt misconceives the market-state. He argues both that the market-state "exists to maximize the opportunities enjoyed by all members of society" and that the tight relation between government and citizen characteristic of the nation-state will be loosened considerably.

But market matters dominate state policy only in the absence of war. Thus the long peace of the nineteenth century allowed the British to rule an empire with a limited government. But as Randolph Bourne noted, "war is the health of the state," so that both the class and national wars of the twentieth century generated vastly expanded government. If Bobbitt is right about the rosy future of war, there is little reason to think that the state will shrink profoundly in the coming years.

Nonetheless, the reader will come away from "The Shield of Achilles" with a heightened sense of how the modern state has been shaped by war, and how in turn what Bobbitt calls the "inner and outer faces" of a state relate to each other.

Bobbitt's book has evoked a bitterly hostile response from the bien pensants of academia, who brand him a warmonger. But flaws and all, this is a big book--in both senses of the term. "The Shield of Achilles" should become required reading not only in the academy but for the military and civilian decision-makers of the industrialized world.

Fred Siegel is a professor at the Cooper Union for Science and Art in New York.