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

Philip Bobbitt Allen Lane, Uk; Penguin,Canada.

By Peter Nicholls (reviewer) | 2002-10-01 12:00:00

According to Homer, Patroclus went into battle using Achilles' armor, attempting to rally the Greek troops while Achilles sulked in his tent. He failed. After Patroclus's death Achilles therefore needed a new shield; his mother Thetis placed an order with the armorer Hephaestus and the resulting replacement was an engraver's magical masterpiece, with only a few images of war itself but many of agriculture, commerce and dancing.

Heraclitus explains all this to us:

"War is father of all. Homer was wrong to say: 'would that strife might perish'... were his prayer heard, all things would pass away."

Bobbitt's widely reviewed new book is a gloss on Heraclitus's maxim, extended to 922 pages and with a 21st century American slant. It should be required reading for peace activists, not because we shall agree with Bobbitt (or Heraclitus), but because we must know the strength of the opposition.

Wars, says Bobbitt, have consequences. There are links between Hiroshima and the world-wide web through nuclear weapons, US military planning, and military computer networking. Bobbitt rarely addresses the difference between what is inevitable and what is justified, But he claims that wars and post-war peace treaties define the very natures of national states. He goes beyond Augustinian "just war" theory; he defends the Vietnam War as worth fighting, even though it was lost (fighting a losing war may sometimes be the best option available).

Wars and peace treaties Bobbitt sees as driving constitutional change. Political structures have indeed changed and the modifications do indeed sometimes seem to coincide with wars and their endings, but we do not know what changes would have occurred in their absence. Bobbitt considers states not only as legitimizing war but as being legitimized by war. Nineteenth and early 20th century nations depended upon conflict, if only economic, with other nation states. He actually looks forward to a decline in the usefulness of existing international law as the market-state becomes dominant.

He also sees nuclear weapons, a topic on which he has both lectured and written, almost solely from the standpoint of deterrence theory. "Security" is seen in nuclear weapon and US terms.

In an interesting reevaluation of 20th century history he treats the period from 1914 to 1990 as a period of the "Long War" conflating the WWI, WWII and the Cold War triad into a single sequence of military events from which we have only recently emerged. I find this thesis persuasive. Current thinking surely joins World War One (WWI) with World War Two (WWII); the Cold War sprang directly out of WWII. Britain, the United States, and France have consistently been allied against the middle European and Eastern powers.

The state, in its early 20th century manifestation as a "nation-state," is about to give way to what Bobbitt calls the "market-state," where cross-border corporations and their activities drive the system, sometimes in peace-positive ways. Thus at one point he sees nuclear weapon use by market states as next to impossible for market-driven reasons (I am less confident of this).

The transition from nation-state to market-state is driven by the ending of the "Long War" of the 20th century, and is associated with the existence of nuclear weapons, computers and rapid long-range communication, with the local breakdown wars in the Balkans.

Reviewed by Peter Nicholls, a professor at the University of Essex and former president of Science for Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2002

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2002, page 30. Some rights reserved.

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