Observer Review: The Shield Of Achilles By Philip Bobbitt Essay, Research Paper
Achilles’s last standThe Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of HistoryPhilip BobbittPenguin ?25, pp993The shield of Achilles was hammered and forged into shape, according to The Iliad, by Hephaestus, who inscribed on it the history of its own making, a tormented saga of unremitting strife, havoc and death. The Marxist critic Georg Lukacs turned the shield into an emblem of epic: a story which must not only describe society but analyse the way it works, making clear the dependence of culture on power and violent expropriation. Epic is a song of force, a hymn of praise to the arms – a simple shield or the fighter jets and smart bombs deployed by modern warriors – that embellish and embolden man.Though Philip Bobbitt is a highly placed policy wonk, who served as President Clinton’s National Security Council director of intelligence, he clearly intends this ponderous, onerous, deeply depressing book to be an epic of a kind. Its subtitle swallows the title of Tolstoy’s novel about Napoleon’s war with Russia.It also begins with a long citation of Homer’s fable and is interspersed with poems, runes and prayers. They are a relief, fortunately, from the repetitive expository manner of Bobbitt himself, whose epic poem is written in stolid prose, and from his diagrams illustrating constitutional orders and their bases for legitimacy.But they also serve a more alarming purpose – to glorify and ennoble war and to establish its heroic centrality to civilisation. The epic poet for Bobbitt is a wheeling, predatory hawk who calls for military, not moral, rearmament. Significantly, one of the poems quoted is Larkin’s grumpy elegy, ‘Homage to a Government’, with its lament for an unimperial Britain that cannot afford an army.Michael Howard, in a characteristically wise and witty introduction, likens Bobbitt’s book to Spengler’s apocalyptic romance The Decline of the West (which, as Howard at once adds, is ‘now deservedly forgotten’). Bobbitt lacks Spengler’s cloudy Wagnerian rhetoric and he writes scholarly history rather than Spenglerian myth. But he, too, prophesies doom and announces a twilight of the gods or, rather, an Indian summer (as he calls it) of peaceful complacency, abruptly halted on 11 September.Bobbitt’s thesis is simple and hardly requires the near thousand pages he takes to elaborate and hectoringly reinforce it. Adapting Eric Hobsbawm’s notion of the Short Century, Bobbitt argues that the twentieth century consisted of a single, epochal Long War. We should not have expected anything else: the state, after all, is ‘a warmaking institution’. But during those decades of conflict, the state’s conception of its responsibility stealthily changed.Nation states in the past promised to look after the material welfare of their citizens, which is why they felt entitled to mobilise those citizens as a mass to fight wars. By contrast, the modern state, born from the marriage of minds between Thatcher and Reagan, defers to the market and contents itself with maximising opportunities for its citizens.So who will defend those citizens when they are terrorised by representatives of other, indefinable, ‘virtual’ states like al-Qaeda? The politicians retire to their own secure bunkers and behave as if the task is beyond them. Bobbitt dismayingly concludes by quoting the ineffectual piety of a constitutional monarch, exempted from taking part in the fight. His postscript, written after 11 September, sonorously transcribes a broadcast made by George VI in 1940, in which he appealed to God’s ‘Almighty Hand to guide and uphold us all’. Is that the best we can hope for?Towards the end, the book speculatively extends into the future to play war games. In a sequence of science-fiction plots, Bobbitt experimentally conjures up a variety of ‘possible worlds’, all of which implode as we watch. The Channel Tunnel will be bombed; so will the cathedral at Chartres. A Concorde will crash and burn as it takes off from Charles de Gaulle. (Doesn’t Bobbitt know this has already happened? Or does he know more than we do about that incident?)Saddam Hussein will be removed in 2004, but replaced by a worse fanatic. The postponed Y2K crisis will finally occur on New Year’s Day 2005, occasioning a global recession. At least we are promised that ‘terrorism on a catastrophic scale will finally abate in 2015′, thanks to ‘technological breakthroughs in nanosensors’. We should live so long, as they say in New York.Meanwhile, history has already started to catch up with these oracular forecasts. ‘India,’ Philip Bobbitt comments with inadvertent prescience, ‘is a nuclear power with a high potential for dissolution and thus a domestic appetite for international adventure.’Imagining a hail of bombs and a fog of poison gas and viral infections, while batteries of laptop computers foment anarchy and finally bring about the breakdown of civil and economic order, Bobbitt rouses us to defend ourselves or at least to enjoy the fiery spectacle of our own extinction. ‘War,’ he says, ‘is a creative act of civilised man.’For a more soberly tragic summation, you need to consult one of Bobbitt’s poets. It was Auden’s poem about September 1939 that people emailed to each other in New York last autumn; here it is his reflection on the Homeric shield that Bobbitt quotes before writing his postscript about America’s ‘historic wound’.Auden describes ‘a voice without a face’ which ‘proves by statistics that some cause was just’ and starts a war. Hephaestus the armourer manufactures the shield and bestows it on ‘the strong/ Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles’. And in a brief, final line, the poem casually predicts that, even helped by that shining skin of metal, the hero will not live long.
The following apology was printed in the Observer’s For the record column, Sunday June 30 2002
This review of Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History misrepresented the views of Sir Michael Howard, author of the book’s introduction. We said: ‘Michael Howard… likens Bobbitt’s book to Spengler’s apocalyptic romance The Decline of the West (which, as Howard at once adds, is “now deservedly forgotten”).’ We omitted Sir Michael’s next sentence, in which he writes: ‘Such a fate is unlikely to befall this volume.’ Our apologies.