A Homer who's not a Simpson for George

The Shield of Achilles
September 27, 2002

It is told in The Iliad that the shield of Achilles, forged by Hephaestus, armourer of the gods, depicted Strife, Havoc and violent Death (naturally) but also fallow fields, reaping-rows, vineyards, cattle, frisking, singing, dancing and harvest feasting. The shield was a world. This panorama took in Everything.

And so with this eponymous epic, composed by Philipus, counsellor to the gods, former director of intelligence, critical infrastructure, strategic planning at the National Security Council in the White House, home of long-eared warriors called George. Philipus, however, is a scholar, too, of might and right, altercation and constitution. This scholar-counsellor's opus heroicus is at once disquisition and intervention, pitched high, wide and handsome at the power-brokers on the Potomac and the whisperers in those ears, a shameless bid for the top shelves in an age of infotainment, a long treatise athwart the short attention span, a blockbuster-in-waiting.

The Shield of Achilles has the boldness of bigness, and a certain messianism. "There are times when the present breaks the shackles of the past to create the future - the Long War of the 20th century, now past, was one of those. But there are also times, such as the Renaissance - when the first modern states emerged - and our own coming 21st century, when it is the past that creates the future, by breaking the shackles of the present."

It is not all as thumping as this, but Philip Bobbitt does thumpingness, as he does the dependent clause, too well. "War is not a pathology that, with proper hygiene and treatment, can be wholly prevented. War is a natural condition of the State, which was organized in order to be an effective instrument of violence on behalf of society. Wars are like deaths, which, while they can be postponed, will come when they will come and cannot be finally avoided."

Bobbitt has a propensity for classification, or reclassification, and designation of new concepts - or old concepts reframed - such as the "long war", used here to designate an "epochal" conflict (1914-90), subsuming all wars hot and cold in between, fought to decide the character of the nation-state (communist, fascist or parliamentary). The long war is coterminous with the "short century", an idea popularised by Eric Hobsbawm. Terminologically at least, it is in flat contradiction to the "long peace" (post-1945), a designation associated with John Lewis Gaddis. The thinking behind it is somewhat similar to the brilliant account of Europe's "dark continent", offered recently by Mark Mazower. Like the larger scheme in which it is embedded, this long war has a teleological cast to it which makes it hard to swallow - ideology and contingency are better matched in Mazower - but the thesis is advanced with brio, trailing Thucydides in its wake.

The temptations of teleology, and futurology, are held in check by another characteristic, perhaps more surprising. Along with the history lessons, the "scenario suites" and the policy menu choices, Bobbitt exhibits a chronic weakness for humane learning. The exhibition is dazzling. Not only does the book begin with five straight pages of Homer, it is studded with a prodigious range of literary reference, such that the poems of Czeslaw Milosz or the stories of Boccaccio's Decameron find their place alongside the opinions of the National Security Law report or the data from the CIA World Factbook (a remarkable concept in itself).

These elements in action and reaction together lend the work its solemn yet slightly zany distinction. Bobbitt argues that, after princely states, kingly states, territorial states, state-nations and nation-states, we are now entering the era of market-states, whose priority is maximising the opportunity of the individual citizen rather than improving the material well-being of the nation. But how? The society of market-states faces a triple challenge: the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the globalisation of communications, and the international integration of finance and trade. Each challenge confronts the market-state with a triple choice as to its approach - in the Bobbitt world things come in threes - characterised as entrepreneurial, managerial and mercantile. While some states may mix and match, Bobbitt believes that these patterns or models of behaviour will out, because they reflect different views of state sovereignty. A state that supports pre-emptive action to thwart nuclear proliferation is likely to favour international transparency with regard to human rights, and to be more interested in increasing the absolute wealth of the society of states as a whole than in the distributional effects (how exactly this squares with maximising individual opportunity is not completely clear).

Bobbitt's next trick is a masterly one. "Which model of the market-state is best? I would answer by recalling the moving scene in Act III of Gotthold Lessing's dramatic poem, Nathan the Wise .... Nathan, a Jew, is summoned before Saladin, the great Muslim warrior. Saladin asks him which religion is the true one - Islam, Christianity or Judaism - hoping to trap Nathan into either denying his own faith or insulting Islam by implication, in which case his property will be confiscated. In reply, Nathan narrates the parable of the Three Rings. A wise king possessed a ring, the wearer of which was said to be beloved of God and man. He had three sons, to each of whom he promised the ring. When the king died, each heir was given a ring, and all three rings appeared to be identical to that of the old king. When the sons went to the royal judge and demanded to know which ring was the real one, the judge said to them: Wear your rings. Do your best to be beloved of God and man. Let your rings descend to your heirs. Then someday, some future judge will assess your work and know whether you had the right ring."

Thus the wise counsellor. So it is with states, and scribes, and shields.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History

Author - Philip Bobbitt
ISBN - 0 7139 9616 1
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 922

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