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Armour-plated History

by Robert Allen

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

For those who have always wondered exactly what the 20th century with its empire-building, world wars, nation-forming, societal upheaval, corporate hegemony and constitutional change was all about, this is the book to read, albeit with some caution, writes ROBERT ALLEN.

The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History Philip Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History is a fascinating book, written from a perspective that would surely unnerve anyone without as much knowledge of the way the world has been shaped since the late 15th century as the author, a man with a long CV and a larger background as a member of the ruling elites of the USA. An academic by trade, having studied law and history at Yale and Oxford, he teaches law and gave advice to the White House, the Senate and the State Department and held posts at the National Security Council. Political leaders have made it known that they have read and understand what he is saying in The Shield of Achilles.

This law professor is a man who came out fully formed by the American Dream, all the way back to the original plantations. He is a descendant of William Bobbitt, a planter in Virginia in the 17th century; since then his predecessors have been steeped in American political life, including Lyndon Baines Johnson, US President from 1963 to 1969; Philip Bobbitt is a nephew and grew up living in the White House during his teenage summers. This is a man who studied brutal war, societal change and nation forming, not a man who was compelled by his background to do the fighting and the changing; Bobbitt positions himself on the high moral ground of the elites and this is what makes The Shield of Achilles an informative and entertaining book, believable and plausible in a way that many histories are not.

Bobbitt has been able to place himself in the minds of those who made the decisions that brought change, particularly in Europe, where he discusses the actions and events that took the people of the continent through Princely States (1494-1648) to Kingly and Territorial States (1648-1776) to State-Nations and Nation-States (1776-1914), the Struggle between Fascism, Communism and Parliamentarianism (1914-1919) and the Long War (1919-1990).

When he writes about Niccolò Machiavelli, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Robert Stewart (aka Viscount Castlereagh), Helmut von Moltke, Otto von Bismarck, and, to an extent, Adolf Hitler, the reader gets the feeling that the author is inside the head of Machiavelli when he proposed an interdependent legal and strategic organisation on behalf of Florence; ‘there must be good laws where there are good arms,’ Machiavelli wrote, ‘and where there are good arms there must be good laws’: or Frederick the Great when the Prussian ruler required the peasantry ‘to make the State, rather than the person of the king, the object of constitutional and strategic concern without permitting the people to claim the State as their own’: or Bismarck when he manipulated Austria and brought about the unification of the German city-states and regions.

The book is divided into two books, State of War and States of Peace, each subdivided into three parts. The genres are history and law, the academic disciplines the author studed; his focus in book one is war, in book two it is the peace but on each page is the voice of the lawman or peacemaker. The theses of the book, in Bobbitt’s words, are easy to understand, especially if the reader can get to the end of the 827 pages with a clear knowledge of the content, what the author is attempting to achieve. ‘Neither innovation in warfare nor constitutional transformation can be properly understood in isolation from each other.’ And, ‘By prosecuting one kind of war we can avoid others, and bring about a particular kind of peace.’

War, in Bobbitt’s words, is a necessary evil, peace is the consequence and rule by constitutional and international law is the desired status quo; Bobbitt believes that the world must be made of law, a state of play virtually everyone would agree with if they could agree on who makes the laws because, surely, it cannot always be the victor turned peacemaker? Bobbitt attempts to answer this question in the manner of a law rather than a history professor and, if the chapters on the wars between the late 15th and late 20th centuries, are fascinating, his chapters on the peace, particularly his discussions of the major interpretations (Augsburg-1555, Westphalia-1648, Utrecht-1713, Vienna-1815, Versailles-1919 and Paris-1990), are intriguing because he introduces the reader to the international lawyer, starting with Francisco de Vitoria in the 15th century. For example, Bobbitt quotes Myres McDougal and Harold Lasswell: ‘Decisions are not law unless they possess both authority–“the participation in decision in accordance with community perspectives about who is to make what decisions with what criteria”–and control–defined as “effective participation in [decision making] and execution. When decisions are authoritative but not controlling, they are not law but pretense; when decisions are controlling but not authoritative, they are not law but naked power.”’ This was called ‘legal realism’, one of six schools of international law (which all track the six modalities of US constitutional law) Bobbitt discusses, concluding that a new inquiry is necessary for the 21st century.

For those who have always wondered exactly what the 20th century with its empire building, world wars, nation forming, societal upheaval, corporate hegemony and constitutional change was all about, Bobbitt’s is the book to start with, although Murray Bookchin’s series The Third Revolution should be the follow-up to get an idea what it was like to be the human sacrifices in these and earlier dramas, along with Theodore Zeldin’s Intimate History of Humanity to hear how people react to the world around them and Manuel Castells’ 2009 book Communication Power to see what the 21st century holds. Anyone living in any part of Europe with a knowledge of their own history should be able to apply Bobbitt’s thesis and the book’s histories, theories, philosophies and visions to their birthplace and be able to see clearly where they have come from, and, if they are lucky to be living in a progressive state, to see where they and their children and grandchildren might be going.

Take the island of Ireland for example; unlawfully partitioned after the War of Independence from Britain in 1922 when it was divided in two, it is neither one thing nor the other; it comprises a nation (the 26 counties known as the Republic of Ireland, largely defined by its Roman Catholicism and a mixture of old-style liberalism and neo-conservatism) and a statelet (the six counties known as Northern Ireland, full of Christians of various faiths and their moral dogmas) that is part of the economic and legal system of the so-called United Kingdom with a limited bureaucratic and political autonomy, yet culturally both parts of the island are attached to each other; peculiarly Irish in a way that is definitely not British, despite the loyalty shown by some to the English crown. And while the economy of the 26 counties suffers to an extent from its proximity to its British neighbour, it is the economy of the six counties that is in dire straits, being pulled into purgatory by 'broken' Britain, a country that is no longer a united kingdom, with Wales tied to England by a bureaucratic system of government and Scotland devolved to control its own economic destiny. The power, however, still resides in Westminster and among hierarchies in a society that is the most class-ridden in Europe.

But it is Ireland that we should content ourselves with here, in the context of Bobbitt's book, and only from a contemporary rather than a historical perspective (because I am Irish and can only write authoritatively about the place where I was born and have lived mostly for over 50 years, apart from some time in England and Switzerland). Millions of words have been wasted by authors and academics determined to explain the war, peace and the course of history in Ireland, leaving us here at the beginning of the 21st century still in limbo, an island divided into two distinct economic zones, ruled by selfish elites who work feverishly hard to prevent the future taking hold, who are desperate to prevent new ideas by wielding their control of media and politics, in other words a place that is trapped in a time warp and afraid to face or allow others to shape a new world that benefits all its inhabitants.

While the entire continent of Europe and Switzerland in particular moves gradually towards a world that embraces innovation and technology with the ultimate goal of providing each nation's citizenry with safe egalitarian futures based on liberty, fraternity and ethnicity on firm economic, political and social ground, Ireland is stuck in the misty bog, dominated and dictated to by the Americans and the British; the part that is the 26 counties has attempted to follow Europe even though, in the words of the former Progressive Democrats leader Mary Harney, Ireland is closer to Boston than Berlin, a remark that reveals some of the 26-county state’s problems with the models of social welfare, family law and mental health legislation and enforcement. But if the Ireland of the 26 counties is seen as upwardly mobile, not least the arrogant thrusts from the children of the burgeoning middle-classes, the six counties part is backward, sharing in common with the urban areas of the east and south the emergence of an underclass that still might threaten the integrity of the so-called 'peace process' in the north and the ‘Welcome Ireland’ image of the tourist boards.

Northern Ireland, once apparently divided by its organized Christian religions, is being splintered into pieces that reveal other divides; with the state unable to inject investment into the economy and the state educational and commerce sectors lost for ideas, a growing population of under-educated, long-term unemployed is becoming a threat that will not be controlled by policing or any kind of enforcement, because the system for low-income families is rotten to the core, especially in the schools, which breed ignorance, apathy and conflict.

Having one economy based on the euro, which was relatively stable through its first decade, and one on sterling, a currency that may yet be isolated, most businesses on the island (along with people whose work takes them all over the 32 counties) operate accounts in both currencies; some savvy retail businesses, keen not to lose any custom, accept both with competitive and fair prices. Such ingenuity simply allows for the flow of money, it doesn't solve the real problem; earnings and disposable income are so low that the majority of the population is once again struggling to survive, pushing personal debt to unsustainable levels.

It is Bobbitt's argument, shared by many – especially Manuel Castells, that the world being shaped by the evolving information technology will have a profound impact on every society on the planet. This new world, according to Bobbitt, will see the remnants of the old nation-state, so deeply defined by nationalism, fascism, communism, racism, religion, border policing and custom/emigration security throughout the 20th century, blown away and replaced by market-states functioning through information sharing, market cooperation, open borders, freedom of trade, welfare reforms, political accountability, individual autonomy or choice, and much more that reduces the control and power of the nation-state and increases the power of corporates and the dependence of the individual on consumer culture.

Anyone with genuine knowledge of what is going on in modern Europe might well agree with him, but the people of the island of Ireland have not learned how to shed their own brand of religious fascism; its ideological nationalism (Irish and British) is there to be seen, albeit more visible in Loyalist enclaves. To be fair some people and many of the younger generation (those in their teens, twenties and thirties) during the 2000s have moved away from sectarianism and nationalism, preferring multicultural identities to political and religious dogma, and are tolerant of outsider ethnicity and the reality of multiracial and multi-religious society, choosing not to judge, to live and let live.

But technologically the island is as remote as the place itself on the north Atlantic seaboard; in the six counties communication and transport technology is a fantasy world waiting to be discovered and optic fibres are science fiction; mobile phones don't function in the valleys, mountains and coastal areas throughout the whole island. The death toll on Irish roads reads daily like statistics from a war zone, with the total since 1959 approaching 30,000. While in 1905 the majority of the island's population was within five Irish miles of a railway halt, in 2005 only those who live on the urban east coast can be sure they will see a train or a tram; without private buses the hinterlands would be unreachable by public transport. Movement, spatial or virtual, is not easy in Ireland.

And despite the presence of parliamentary democracies and an open media, the voices of many are not heard. Politics is controlled by parties that are either neo-conservative (in the 26 counties), nationalist or Loyalist/Unionist, Catholic or Protestant, or a combination of both (in the six counties); there is no room on the political stage for anyone who cannot be placed in one of these boxes. If you don’t inhabit the period since the mid-17th century with the necessary belief systems, reactionary politics and innovative ideas are events that happen elsewhere in the world. The media is also controlled by the same people, and it is shut to anyone with different politics, different views, different lifestyles, different beliefs, in fact anyone who is different or wants to be different. If you happen to be a Celtic pagan (and there are a few) you will be cast out. You are better off admitting that you are a Confucian or a Buddhist or a Muslim, and contend with the prejudices that go with these religions. If you happen to understand quantum physics and are able to take it to its limit, then you'd better leave, because this island is god-fearing. You can take a life and console yourself in your prison cell that your god will forgive you. And all the while the State, in each part of the island, protects its own, with rare exceptions. Meanwhile the media is more interested in the celebrities it creates.

All this is a snapshot of a changing culture being shaped by communication power; Bobbitt attempts to describe the workings of the market-state, why it is creating consumers of us all, as if we don’t already know, why corporations have more control over the marketplace, again a progression that has long been known to those watching these developments. When Bobbitt says the market-state is ‘above all a mechanism for enhancing opportunity for creating something–possibilities– commensurate with our imaginations’ he is immediately overlooking what he already knows about this new world, that some people will have fewer chances and choices than others. He writes: ‘If it is more efficient to have large bodies of persons unemployed, because it would cost more to the society to train them and put them to work at tasks for which the market has little demand, then the society will simply have to accept large unemployment figures.’ And, although he has reservations about it, the plebiscite, the initiative and the referendum is a tactic the market-state and its politicians will have to utilise. The real worry, in the new world of the market-state, will be the State’s approach to the basic issues that affect everyone, especially those dependent on the state for assistance or guidance on employment, health care, child care, education, housing, heating, diet and old-age security.

Bobbitt hardly mentions Ireland in his book, yet everything that happened in western and northern Europe from the 1600s to the closing decade of the 20th century impacted on and sometimes spilled over into Ireland. During the middle years of the 19th century many of those escaping religious persecution in western and northern Europe fled to Ireland. In Belfast and Ballymacarrett in 1871 there were 51 different denominations or beliefs listed in the population census. The majority were either Presbyterian (60,249), Roman Catholic (55,575) or Episcopalian (46,423), but Independents (904) were in there as well along with Quakers, Mormons, Lutherans, Moravians, Freethinkers, Christian Israelites, Non-Sectarians, Anabaptists, Confucians, Prussian Protestants and Swiss Protestants, to name some of the minority. It wasn’t long before the persecution was revisited on new generations.

Despite the battles, skirmishes and wars of attrition and loss that finally led to the removal of the British in a constitutional sense in 1922, Ireland did not change, for example, in the way of Switzerland, with its 23 cantons (Jura being the latest to join the Confédération Helvétique in 1978 when its villages forced a breakaway from Bern), by learning how to operate a nation defined by a unique identity (Swiss in this scenario) with its different ideologies, religions and beliefs and a constitution, the Bundesverfassung, that is constantly changed, modified and updated. While the Swiss allow their citizens to hold referenda on everything, in Ireland you’d be better off trying to catch fish but be careful, you might get arrested if you break European Community directives that suit the 26-county state to enforce.

Bobbitt identifies three choices for the emerging market-state; mercantile, entrepreneurial and managerial. There are many in 26-county Ireland who will argue that, with the implementation of the Whittaker-Lemass programme for modern industrialisation in 1958, the process for a market-state applying all three of these elements to Irish society was attempted and to an extent successful, as the economy and the standard of living reached dizzy heights in the late 1990s. Membership of the European Economic Community followed in 1973. Together, they boosted the Irish economy; membership of the European Union created 700,000 jobs and gave Irish businesses access to the EU market of 490 million people; in turn EEC/EU membership attracted foreign investment, which went from €16m in 1972 to more than €30 billion in the first years of the 21st century; through the 1970s, 80s and 90s the country benefitted from €17 billion in EU Structural and Cohesion funds, which will rise to €20 billion by 2013. Irish farming took nearly €44 billion from the Common Agricultural Policy. Looking at these statistics it seems that the Whittaker-Lemass plan and membership of the EEC/EU worked, but there was a price to pay. Yes, 26-county Ireland is a mercantile state but the greater wealth goes out of the country, because the vast majority of producers are foreign-owned and they take their profits home with them; yes, 26-county Ireland is entrepreneurial but the political elites have made sure that only those with the correct credentials can play with money; and yes, 26-county Ireland has developed a managerial paradigm to suit its needs but the country is still poorly managed: there are reasons for this.

Ireland is totally dominated by the various strands of Christianity (particularly Catholicism) and by its political and moral neo-conservatism, and while the 26-county state is making a big effort to embrace change, the world that Bobbitt talks about in his book is not going to happen on the island until the economy is joined under one currency, the bureaucratic and political systems are merged, and, using the Swiss model of federal cantons, the entire island and all of its elements are put to work for the benefit of all of its citizens, without prejudice and division. At the moment it works for the elites and for the middle classes who still see land, property and wealth as the be-all and end-all and couldn’t care less about anything other than themselves. Such behaviour actually gets votes in national elections.

Political leaders in Ireland will not have concerned themselves either with books such as this one, though it wouldn’t surprise me if Mary Harney and Eamon Ó Cuív and some in Sinn Féin have read it. For Bobbitt, who clearly wrote the book with a specific audience in mind, this is not a concern: one, because his own nation doesn’t really need to worry about insignificant remote places like Ireland; two, because the shield of the title is also a metaphor for the world he wants to see, and three, because he is writing about US hegemony and he doesn’t disguise it.

He writes: ‘The central point in recognizing the emergence of the market-state is not simply to slough off the decayed nation-state. It is also to emphasize the importance of developing public goods–such as loyalty, civility, trust in authority, respect for family life, reverence for sacrifice, regard for privacy, admiration for political competence–that the market, unaided, is not well adapted to creating and maintaining. The market-state has to produce public goods because that is precisely what the market will not do. This need for qualities of reciprocity, solidarity, even decent manners, domestically, mirrors the need for collective goods, internationally, and thus represents not only a challenge but an opportunity for leadership.’

To make sure that the reader gets the message he emphasizes that ‘law and strategy will continue to be key instruments of the State’ and warns that unlike the past the future will not follow the trends of the past. ‘Now it happens that we are living in one of those relatively rare periods in which the future is unlikely to be very much like the past.’ The three certainties about national security ‘that it is national (not international), that it is public (not private), and that it seeks victory (and not stalemate)–these three lessons of the past are all about to be turned upside down by the new age of indeterminacy into which we are plunging.’

This is very much an American perspective and dangerous if not understood by political, military and business leaders, especially if they are not competent and honest (like many in Ireland who are dishonest, selfish and vainglorious). In Europe as a whole there is evidence that the leaders in society are learning from the past and adapting for the future. Certainly in Italy, where the Americans implicated in the kidnapping of the Egyptian imam Abu Omar were given prison sentences, the law that Bobbitt teaches has been applied with authority, because kidnapping in Italy is unlawful. In 26-county Ireland protest is lawful but the law can be manipulated by the state if it doesn’t agree with the form and manner of the protest, as five men discovered when a judge threw them in jail for contempt of court when they refused not to interfere with Shell’s operations in northwest Mayo.

It would be interesting to know what the law professor thinks of both these cases, but that is really a rhetorical question and not relevant here. The Shield of Achilles is a very clever book, which should be read slowly and carefully, in the context of your own country, because the author while being objective in his descriptions of war and peace in history is more subjective in his analyses of constitutional law, lawmaking and jurisprudence.

–  Robert Allen

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