Book Review: The Shield of Achilles


When I was at Supernova in June I had dinner one night with John Robb (former CEO of Userland) about his forthcoming book on Global Guerrillas. During the course of the conversation, he said something like "to understand the context of what terrorists are doing, you really ought to read Philip Bobbitt's The Shield of Achilles." I ordered it that night and I've found it fascinating.

This isn't a technical book, its history. The subtitle of the book is "War, Peace, and the Course of History." To give you an idea what the book is about, here's the opening paragraph from the Prologue:

We are at a moment in world affairs when the essential ideas that govern statecraft must change. For five centuries it has taken the resources of a state to destroy another state: only states could muster the huge revenues, conscript the vast armies, and equip the divisions required to threaten the survival of other states. Indeed, posing such threats, and meeting them, created the modern state. In such a world, every state knew that its enemy would be drawn from a small class of potential adversaries. This is no longer true, owing to advances in international telecommunications, rapid computation, and weapons of mass destruction. The change in statecraft that will accompany these developments will be as profound as any that the State has thus far undergone.

In 800 pages, the book describes what Bobbitt calls "epochal wars" and the peace treaties that ended them. Epochal wars are those wars that change the structure of the state and the society of states. The 800 pages are a relatively easy read. I often found myself wanting to get back to the book the same way I would a novel so I could see what developed. The book provides a 30,000 foot view of the last five centuries. I found it to be illuminating.

There's certainly plenty of controversial content in the book. Bobbitt calls it like he sees it, not like we might want to interpret matters given our natural short term focus. The Shield of Achilles will change the way you look at things. After reading it, I found myself listening to the presidential candidates on both sides and thinking that they are not quite living in the 21st century. I recommend this book heartily to anyone who's interested in gaining some perspective on the US and its current situation vis 'a vis the rest of the world.