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Achilless 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 manThough Philip Bobbitt is a highly placed policy wonk who served as President Clintons 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 Tolstoys novel about Napoleons war with RussiaIt also begins with a long citation of Homers 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 legitimacyBut 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 Larkins grumpy elegy Homage to a Government with its lament for an unimperial Britain that cannot afford an armyMichael Howard in a characteristically wise and witty introduction likens Bobbitts book to Spenglers apocalyptic romance The Decline of the West which as Howard at once adds is now deservedly forgotten Bobbitt lacks Spenglers cloudy Wagnerian rhetoric and he writes scholarly history
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