The Shield of Achilles War
Peace and the Course of History

Author: Philip Bobbitt

Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 919 pages

Philip Bobbitt has a doctorate in law and another in history from Oxford University. He is a professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Texas and has served the federal government regarding intelligence and national security issues. In his book The Shield of Achilles Bobbitt describes the coming together of revolutions in warfare and revolutions in government – a "global dynamic" from the Middle Ages into the twenty-first century. And, he has said, the book, is about "preparing for an uncertain future."

Bobbitt writes of families in the late 1400s trying to enhance their authority and security, promising those living under their authority security from an attack from outside forces. Constantinople fell to Islam in 1453 after its wall was broken by projectile-firing cannon. Nicolo Machiavelli, Italian diplomat and political philosopher, wrote  in 1519 that "No wall exists, however thick, that artillery cannot destroy in a few days."

Europe was changing. The expansion of a money economy was breaking down the old agricultural feudalism and a new order of legitimacy was needed. Italian cities were the great money powers of the time and had come to rely on professional soldiers. Ruling families were creating a political entity called the "princely state."

Machiavelli wrote of walls, towers and moats having become obsolete and of princely states needing an alternative form of security. For his city of Florence he believed there should be a conscripted militia. A princely state, he believed, needed  a professional armed force rather than seasonal mobilizations by medieval knights. 

A prince, wrote Machiavelli, should act in the interest not just of himself but in the interest of the state. He wrote that a prince should create institutions that serve and evoke loyalty from his subjects, and that the state should maintain permanent embassies in other lands and diplomacy based on good information. Machiavelli, writes Bobbitt, was "intertwining ... constitutional and strategic capabilities." It was a move away from a prince ruling merely by decree. It was a move from private authority to the formation of public authority. In other words, a prince should be a servant of the state. 

The state, writes Bobbitt, exists to master violence. The state began with the establishment of a monopoly on violence within the homeland.  A state that does not protect its citizens from violent crime and does not protect the homeland from attack by other states "would have ceased to fulfill its most basic reason for being."

With weapons development and the organization of greater bodies of troops for warfare, the "kingly state" arose – a larger entity than the princely state. As had a prince in a princely state, a king, writes Bobbitt, promised his subjects security from attack from without, and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, "ratified the role of the kingly state as the dominant legitimate form of government in Western Europe." The modern secular state was beginning and wars of religion were at an end. Kingly states were territorial powers and developed some rivalry with the Roman Catholic Church, whose powers spanned individual states.

What Bobbitt calls the kingly state was "a domain of absolute authority that made the king the personification of the State," and kingly states took on the "added promise of internal stability." They had large professional armies that were great investments, and large-scale pitched battles "were seldom risked." Bobbitt describes Frederick the Great as a typical ruler of such a state.

In the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, kingly states that survived developed into state-nations. Nations are societies (older than civilization), and state-nations are states that provide its people" civil and political rights of popular sovereignty." Britain was one such  state-nation. The French Revolution transformed France from a kingly state to a state-nation. A state-nation was a state that was mobilized as a nation. It was "a national, ethnocultural group." The state-nation did not take direction from common people – in other words, the nation. "The state-nation, writes Bobbitt, "was not responsible to the nation; rather it was responsible for the nation." But the state-nation trusts the common people enough to arm them. It was the state-nation that brought about the great military conscriptions – which Napoleon exploited.

Add democracy to the state-nation and you have the nation-state.

This brings us to the twentieth century. In 1914 the age of total war combined with ideology began. Bobbitt ties together conflict and a struggle for legitimacy between the Great War in 1914 and the fall of Communism in 1990, which he calls the Long War. During World War I, Bolshevism gained strength in the Russian Empire and fascism developed in Italy. And in the wake of the Great War, Bolshevism solidified its power, fascist states arose, first in Italy and then in Germany – and a military regime in sympathy with fascism arose in Japan. Fascism lost in World War II. The Soviet Union continued to declare its brand of government as the legitimate form of government – superior to other forms of government – in the era known as the Cold War. The Cold war ended in 1990. The authoritarian rule of the German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies had vanished, as had the rule of the Japanese militarists. The Soviet Union had collapsed. What was left after 1990 was a predominant recognition of liberal democracy as the legitimate form of government.

Bobbitt has a chapter devoted to what he calls the Market State, which he describes as superseding the nation-state in the wake of the Long War. He writes:

Whereas the nation-state, with its mass free public education, universal franchise, and social security policies, promised to guarantee the welfare of the nation, the market-state promises instead to maximize the opportunity of the people and thus tends to privatize many state activities and to make voting and representative government less influential and more responsive to the market.

In the post Cold War period, we have had the war in Bosnia. Bobbitt has a chapter titled "The Kitty Genovese Incident and the War in Bosnia. Kitty (Catherine) Genovese was murdered outside her home in Queens, New York, in 1964. No one responded to her screams, giving her murderer plenty of time to kill her. And there were similar incidents of public passivity." Bobbitt writes of a four-year study done by two psychologists, John Darley and Bibb Latane, that refuted the common interpretation of public apathy as responsible for the passivity. Bystanders were distressed but felt too ill-equipped to respond, and there was, hypothesized the two psychologists, an insufficiency in assigning responsibility – a "diffusion of responsibility."  Bobbitt describes the breakup of Yugoslavia, the war in Bosnia and, in Bosnia, the worst atrocities Europe had witnessed since the Holocaust. He writes of the dithering of the United Nations and by President Clinton. Members of the U.N. Security Council were introducing ambiguities into their debate, countering calls by people who wanted a more serious intervention in Bosnia for the sake of peace there. And Clinton was reluctant to act because he believed there was not public support for such a move. Bobbitt describes the conflict in great detail. Bobbitt describes the problem as 1) notice, 2) definition, or recognition of emergency, 3) deciding to act.

Bobbitt writes of the failure of the United Nations as an instrument of warfare. The U.N. came into being with articles 42 and 43 of its charter authorizing the Security Council to use armed forces to maintain international peace and security. In 1950, the Security Council mobilized an international military force when the Soviet Union blundered and walked out rather than vetoing the nominal U.N. name under which the war in Korea was fought on the side opposite North Korea. Other than this, the position of the U.N. Security Council has been, writes Bobbitt, "to ensure international tranquility at all costs." Bobbitt writes of the United Nations having been discredited because of an inability "to organize timely resistance even against so minor a state as Serbia when Serbia threatened the rules and legitimacy of that society." The result was a prolongation of that war, more deaths and the massacre at Srebrenica.

Bobbitt wrote The Shield of Achilles before 9/11. He writes a four-page postscript dated December 13, 2001 in which he describes 9/11 as an opportunity "to organize a grand coalition" with states that differ on various issues other than terrorism.

Bobbitt sees some states as not yet having created nations and as barely able to function as states.

In an interview with his publisher, sometime in 2002, probably mid-year (people are often not dating such things on the internet), Bobbitt spoke of "the Wag the Dog idea," the distrust that Americans had for their president in the form of "the notion that there was no significant terrorist threat to the United States, and that the president was responding with force only to distract the public from his domestic political problems" as irresponsible. "This," he wrote " had the effect of raising the bar for actions against terrorism."

Also he said at this time:

I believe the Iraqi people are suffering and that Saddam must go in order to relieve that suffering. I am amazed at the number of people who believe in peace at any price and that grabbing Iraqi oil is the hidden motive of Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair. The US and UK are increasingly being cast as aggressors and warmongers.