Friday, September 04, 2009

The Shield of Achilles!

Our book today is Philip Bobbitt's incredibly jam-packed 2002 masterwork, The Shield of Achilles (taking as its title that hoary ur-text of ideological manipulators and bloviators, Homer's long description of the ornamentation Vulcan puts on Achilles' shield in Book XVIII of the Iliad). This is a big fat book, a study of warfare and nationhood in human history. It's endlessly learned and dartingly allusive, and it will fill you up like a fifteen-course meal.

Bobbitt throws around grand, complex ideas like party favors, but he isn't showing off (well, he isn't only showing off): his goal is to put forward an ambitious new conception of Western history from the Peace of Westphalia to the morning of 9/11 - the book has an epilogue applying his ideas to the destruction of the World Trade Center - a conception in which rival ruling ideologies culminate in what he refers to as the Long War (his term for all the major wars of the 20th century, which he sees as iterations of the same ongoing conflict).

He goes through Grotius, Metternich, Talleyrand, and a cast of thousands, and everywhere his prose is almost magisterial enough to be infuriating. In virtually every subject area he enters, he both provokes and fascinates:

Although one could say with much justification that our current strategy owes more to General Ulysses S. Grant than to General Colin Powell, let's go back and look at the Viet Nam and Gulf War conflicts that were so fruitful for current doctrine. I propose that the "lesson" of Viet Nam was not that the war effort was insufficiently supported, used too modest means, etc., but that the United States had difficulty fighting an opponent who was hard to isolate from the civilian population and therefore difficult to target and track, whose shoestring logistics were hard to inderdict, and whose political elites were far more disciplined than our own (perhaps owing to the greater centrality of the conflict for them than for us). Suppose that is the lesson of Viet Nam.

And through it all there's big-picture philosophizing of a kind the vast majority of historians wouldn't even attempt - and couldn't managed if they did:

The State is born in violence: only when it has achieved a legitimate monopoly on violence can it promulgate law; only when it is free of the coercive violence of other states can it pursue strategy. This history provides the reason why warfare - like law - is a key to understanding the development of the State for it connects the ever-present intrusion of international pressures (the outer) to the political anatomy of the State (the inner).

It's true that the book can at times be a bit pompous, but that's surely among the forgivable faults (!), although it's tough to forgive a Dedication as smugly self-righteous as the one that starts this book: "To those by whose love God's grace was first made known to me
and to those whose loving-kindness has ever since sustained me in His care." Yeesh.

But the thing I like most about The Shield of Achilles is its boundless enthusiasm. Bobbitt takes self-evident joy in what he's doing, and that extra element always guarantees my delight (Tacitus, Gibbon, Carlyle, Parkman, Morison ... you'll find it in virtually all my favorite historians). Take his requisite little shot at JFK:

It is a common error to say that the imperial states defied nationalism. On the contrary, these states exalted nationalism and claimed it for themselves. Imperialism, in the words of one of its greatest historians, William Langer, was "a projection of nationalism beyond the boundaries of Europe." It was the co-opting of nationalism by the state-nation that so infuriated Nietzsche: the state-nation had subordinated the nation to itself. "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country" might well have been spoken by the leader of a state-nation.

By contrast, the nation-state replies, "Go ahead: ask! Let's see what we can do for you!"

The footnote to this, at the bottom of the page, adds:

And the market-state says: "Don't bother asking. You're on your own."


I can't recommend The Shield of Achilles warmly enough, and I'm of course happy to send copies to any interested potential readers ...


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