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."