January 10, 2007


The All Against All (ADAM KIRSCH, January 10, 2007, NY Sun)

[O]ne facet of the Napoleonic era, [David A. Bell's "The First Total War"] contends, is still unappreciated: its transformation of the way wars are conceived and fought. The term "total war" was invented to describe the militarization of societies in World War I, and the Nazis claimed it as a slogan for their own wars of conquest. But in fact, Mr. Bell argues, it was the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that first showed the world what total war really meant. "We see war," he writes, "through conceptual lenses that were largely ground and polished two centuries ago."

To prove his thesis, Mr. Bell, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University, attempts to do two large things in this relatively short book. First, he offers a cultural and intellectual history of warfare in the years between 1792 and 1815, showing how writers, politicians, officers, and common soldiers thought about the wars they were fighting. Second, and more doubtfully, he argues that these conceptions were both radically different from their ancestors', and substantially the same as our own.

As Mr. Bell suggests in his introduction, his attempt to apply the techniques of cultural history to the subject of military history is a novel one. The fields are usually "unjustly separated," he writes, since military historians tend to focus on old-fashioned questions of tactics and technology, while more au courant historians of culture tend to see war as a distasteful subject. But his own example brilliantly shows how much the cultural historian can teach us about war, which is, after all, not just a matter of battles and weapons, but of ideas and passions.

Never was this more dramatically the case than during the French Revolution. The events of 1789, Mr. Bell argues, caused a radicalization of ideas about war that had long been brewing in French culture. In the 18th century, European wars had been nearly constant, but as Clausewitz wrote, they were sharply limited as to both means and ends.

We willfully blind ourselves to the way in which democracy itself made more savage wars permissible, even necessary

Posted by Orrin Judd at January 10, 2007 9:27 AM

One must have a care not to force the very language of one conception of "war" around the phenonema of another.

"Total" is such a concept. Kirsch's criticism of the Bell book is very well taken. Napoleanic national war seems "total" in comparison to baroque skirmishing, but less so in comparison to classical, to say nothing of bibical, wars.

Since then we have seen the term applied to thermonuclear warfighting, which compasses the fate of Amalek for the enemy population. Thus when we say a war is "total," we do not mean the same thing as Clausewitz, or even Goebbels, but rather more like that understood by the Prophet Samuel.

The Dresden raid forshadowed this idea, if only remotely. A wave of British bombers hit at 2300, a second at 0100, and a American daylight wave the following morning. The bombing of Japan moved the concept along.

What does it mean today? The answer is to be found in contemporary warfighting doctrine. Total war is still available to up if needed.

Posted by: Lou Gots at January 10, 2007 10:56 AM

Some part of the "total" concept must also involve the will of the people to do whatever is necessary.

With Japan and Germany, we were going to kill as many of them as possible, and it was never a matter of domestic debate. Our wars since then have not had that kind of single-mindedness. In fact, we are moving into an almost palsied condition of fighting like a crippled giant. Our political class is incapable of waging "total" war today.

Posted by: jim hamlen at January 10, 2007 11:04 AM

We've just gotten better at casualty free fighting--how many North Koreans, Iraqis, Cubans, etc. have we killed with sanction regimes at a cost of zero American lives? We use starvation as a strategy now.

Posted by: oj at January 10, 2007 12:16 PM

Total war is best thought of, as Kirsch's title suggests, as all of us against all of them. War used to be one army against another.

Posted by: oj at January 10, 2007 12:17 PM