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The Myth of Total War – The Rearguard

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What is Total War?

It is, by my estimation, an ineffectual taxonomic category that historians use to variously describe wars that are deemed to be particularly modern or exceptionally violent and that require the mass mobilization of both industry and population to carry out.

To this end, Roger Chickering described total war as being ontologically defined by both its “intensity and extent.”[1] Such a definition, however, fails to both accurately describe any single conflict as well as to delineate a particularly modern type of warfare. The utility of the concept is then limited to better understanding how modern historians have thought about war rather than war itself.

To explore this idea further, it is necessary to briefly examine how total war has been associated with brutality, the mobilized homefront, and modernity, and why none of these associations are unique to the concept itself, nor illustrative of war in reality.

Total War as Brutal War

The idea that excessive brutality is a hallmark of total war is the easiest to refute and owes much to what Chickering has dubbed the “rhetorical excess” of Total War scholarship.[2] Quotes about brutality and cruelty abound in the scholarship, partly due to the fact that most disciples of the Total War fiction study wars from the era of Napoleon forward, with notable clusters around the American Civil War and World War II, conflicts which are both abundantly documented and ripe for quote-picking (Is there a total war scholar who has not pilfered William Tecumseh Sherman’s sayings for rhetorical flourish?). The pervasive use of these quotes is not accidental, but designed to demonstrate that modern, industrialized warfare is somehow ontologically separated from its predecessors by virtue of its horror.[3]

The confusing of brutality and totality aside, otherwise serious scholars are compelled by this viewpoint to make laughable claims. A pertinent example of this is Hew Strachan, who describes the deliberate use of terror in war as a hallmark of modern warfare.[4] Such vacuous talk of barbarism is only possible because of the lack of barbarism in modern war, however. Extreme violence is not the norm in modern conflict, and when presented with it, armies and their nations are often revulsed, as is well demonstrated by the myriad reactions to Sherman’s words or public shock at images of the holocaust.[5] Needless cruelty, violence, and terror better describe the wars of the classical and the medieval than the modern, and there is no reason to confuse the horror of rifling with the torment of crucifixion and impalement. Indeed, the excesses of violence deepen the further one travels back through history.

Total War as Industrialized-Homefront War

The next idea about total war in need of discrediting is that the mobilization of the homefront, whether for troops or industrial goods, is somehow a phenomenon unique to modern wars. The wholesale conscription of men in societies for armed service is nothing new, though it is often regarded as a key feature of total war.[6] Perhaps the easiest example of this is ancient Sparta, where military service was mandatory for men until the age of 60, at which point they earned the right to vote. Rome, of course, had its fair share of experiments in both conscription and volunteer service. In both cases, homefront fighting was as frequent as extraterritorial conquest.

Regarding mass industrialization, there is a needless focus on the influence of industrial capitalism on work structures in the scholarship of total war.[7] That war is a materially-based enterprise is a truism, but the attempt to quantify some percentage of a wartime nation’s economy or industrial output as being representative of total commitment of resources is more helpful for understanding a particular war than a broad concept of total war.[8] Take for instance Chickering’s example of the Confederate States’ economy in the American Civil War.[9] Such an examination does wonders for rethinking our previously held views of the rural slave economy, but helps nothing in establishing a theory of total war based in economics, particularly as a modern phenomenon. The foil against modernity in this instance would rightfully be Richard I, who essentially bankrupted Angevin England to pay ransom after combat with the Holy Roman Empire. Economic output is simply not a useful indicator of some broad category of war.

Total War as Modern War

Finally, total war scholars’ obsession with modernity and the idea that modern warfare has somehow expanded beyond the scope of pre-modern warfare is a mistaken one. Firstly, the expansion of modern warfare, which even Chickering promotes as an idea, is a myth.[10] Yes, our measures of economic output have improved as industries have become standardized and thus less difficult to calculate, and yes World War II accounted for more deaths on record than any other conflict, but neither of these facts demonstrates that modern warfare is more destructive than pre-modern warfare. For instance, the Western Roman Wars, Mongol Conquests, and An Lushan Rebellion all killed far greater numbers of people than World War II when we consider those deaths as a percentage of the total global population rather than a simple number. The effort of supplying and feeding armies in the Middle Ages was likewise on par with modernity in terms of relative economic capacity. Therefore, we should consider the destructive power of pre-modern warfare to be at least equal to, if not greater than, that of modernity.

Chickering is also wrong to point to the growing size of armies, as soldiers form a far smaller percentage of the general population than ever before, particularly in societies with volunteer militaries.[11] William Philpott’s claim that earlier wars were somehow more limited is false for the reasons already explored.[12] In all, modernity has changed warfare through technological advances and societal structure, but the nature of war itself has not become more total than at any other point of major conflict in history.

Conclusions: The Myth of Total War

Total war is a useful concept for considering how historians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have categorized the myriad phenomena of war, and how modern scholars think about warfare as an extension of society. It is not, however, a useful category for understanding war in and of itself, and presents no demonstrable ontological difference in our consideration of wars more broadly. Total war, then, is best conceived as a foil against which we can explain the immensely limited and largely moral scope of modern warfare. It is an abstract against which we can measure the concrete. It is not concrete itself.

It is true that the concept of total war is one that could only be thought of in the modern era. That concept, however, has never been a reality.


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[1] Roger Chickering, “Total War: The Use and Abuse of a Concept,” in Manfred Boemeke, Roger Chickering, and Stig Förster, eds., Anticipating Total War: The German and American Experiences, 1871–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 16.

[2] Chickering, “Total War,” 17.

[3] Hew Strachan, “Essay and Reflection: On Total War and Modern War,” International History Review 22, no. 2 (2000), 341.

[4] Strachan, “Modern War,” 355.

[5] Strachan, “Modern War,” 352.

[6] Chickering, “Total War,” 22.

[7] William Philpott, “Total War,” in William Philpott and Matthew Hughes, eds., Palgrave Advances in Modern Military History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 131 and 147.

[8] Strachan, “Modern War,” 361.

[9] Chickering, “Total War,” 20.

[10] Chickering, “Total War,” 28.

[11] Chickering, “Total War,” 26.

[12] Philpott, “Total,” 133 and 147.

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