Monday, September 22, 2014

Book review: The First Total War

David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Houghton Mifflin, 2007. 420 pp. (including notes, bibliography, and index).

Historians and social scientists do not agree, and likely never will, about when (or how) certain key features of the modern world originated.  One such feature or phenomenon that eludes universally accepted definition and a universally accepted date of origin is "total war."  International-relations scholars these days refer to "major war" or "hegemonic war" but don't use the phrase "total war" much, although Hans Morgenthau had used it, indeed had devoted a chapter to it, in Politics Among Nations.  At any rate, for most people the phrase "total war" brings to mind the world wars of the twentieth century; however, a good case can be made that the kind of war that engulfs whole societies was invented in the era of the French Revolution.  Although various writers have made this point before, in The First Total War David Bell explores it in detail, deftly combining cultural, intellectual, political, and military history.  

The intensification of warfare during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic period reflected, Bell maintains, a change in the prevailing "culture of war," from one that assumed war was an unexceptional, normal phenomenon to one that viewed war in apocalyptic terms:  "A vision of war as utterly exceptional -- as a final, cleansing paroxysm of violence -- did not simply precede the total war of 1792-1815.  It helped, decisively, to bring it about" (p.316).  He argues that a mindset that demonizes enemies and presents conflicts in stark good-vs.-evil terms continues to affect the way Western societies prosecute wars.  Clearly this argument is influenced, perhaps overly influenced, by the rhetoric of the G.W. Bush administration, during which The First Total War was written.  Bell refers to Carl Schmitt a few times, and those who see the 'war on terror' as a 'Schmittian moment' will find support for their position here.  The book's value, however, lies perhaps not so much in its main thesis as in the wide range that it covers, from works of philosophy to poems and paintings to rhetoric to battles and strategy, and in its effort to draw connections among these.  Most of the book's detail cannot be covered in this post, unfortunately.      


The opening chapter describes the aristocratic and relatively restrained character of eighteenth-century warfare (the key word being relatively).  The nobles who dominated European officer corps before the French Revolution viewed their behavior on the battlefield as a kind of elaborate performance, similar in that respect to their behavior on the dueling field, on the dance floor, and (in certain cases) in the bedroom.

According to Bell, this aristocratic ethos took war to be a normal, ordinary part of existence.  During the Enlightenment that assumption came under a dual intellectual assault: on one hand, from various philosophers who saw war as irrational, primitive, and likely to disappear as commerce, civilization, and morality progressed; on the other hand, from writers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, who called war "one of the healthiest phenomena for the cultivation of the human race" (p.82).  The eighteenth-century nobility generally saw war as neither primitive (in d'Holbach's or Condorcet's sense) nor healthy (in Humboldt's sense), but as something one regularly did between May and October (see p.25).  The two-pronged critique of that view of war gave rise to what Bell calls "a new culture of war in embryo, one grounded precisely in the assumption of war's exceptionality" (p.82).  Add the idealization of the classical (Spartan and/or Roman) ideal of the citizen-soldier, as extolled by Rousseau and Mably and then by various orators in the Revolutionary assemblies, and the ground was prepared for a new style of warfare.  

Revolutionary and Napoleonic France led the way in the adoption of this new unrestrained and often brutal style of war, while the other European powers lagged behind.  And in the case of the counterrevolution in the Vendée and its violent suppression, described vividly in chapter 5, the French turned the brutality on each other.      

As for how and why the Revolutionary wars were launched in the first place, Bell emphasizes the belligerence of the faction known as the Girondins, and especially Jacques-Pierre Brissot.  They thought war would "regenerate" the Revolution.  While some scholars have seen France more as a victim of Austria and Prussia in 1792 than as an aggressor, Bell writes (pp.110-111): "The apparent weakness and chaos within [France] certainly tempted Austria and Prussia to behave more aggressively...but.... [w]hat proved decisive was that an influential group of French radicals [i.e. the Girondins] began to push for aggressive international action, in apparent contradiction of the declaration of peace [by the National Assembly in 1790]."   

After almost 200 pages, Bell turns to Napoleon, discussing Napoleon's character and the cult of personality that he fostered, as well as Napoleon's campaigns.  Even as French forces' often brutal suppression of insurrections in various parts of Europe (notably Spain) blurred or eliminated the civilian/combatant distinction, within France there was "a growing cleavage between military and civilian spheres" (p.217).  The legitimacy of civilian authority was eroded by crises, factionalism, and incompetence, while the citizen army's main loyalty increasingly went to its generals and to Napoleon in particular.  And although Napoleon as emperor was not exactly a military dictator, maintaining a civilian administrative apparatus and keeping or institutionalizing certain features of the Revolution, the influence of militarism on society and culture increased (p.243).  The casualty figures on all sides in the Napoleonic wars (not only from battle but, significantly, from disease) still have the capacity to shock, lending some credence to Metternich's claim in his memoirs that Napoleon told him: "I grew up on the battlefield.  A man like me does not give a shit about the lives of a million men" (p.251; see end-note on p.351).  Yet, as Bell remarks in the epilogue, Napoleon's legend has survived the gore for which Napoleon was responsible: "Julien Sorel [the protagonist of Stendhal's novel The Red and the Black] stands for millions of real men and women who have breathed in [the legend's] intoxicating fumes" (p.307). 


Not all historians are inclined to emphasize the discontinuities between the pre-1789 and post-1789 worlds as strongly as Bell does, nor will everyone be fully persuaded by his attempt to connect the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars to the early twenty-first century.  Some will be irked by his dismissal of "trend analysis" as applied to armed conflict (p.315).  Bell's stress on the causal role of ideas, rhetoric, and ideology will be congenial or not, depending at least partly on the reader's prior commitments.  But whether one cottons to the main arguments or not, this book is well worth reading for its engaging narrative backed by solid research.  Students of international relations will find much of interest in The First Total War, and they may find it worth comparing to the approaches of political scientists who have dealt with the same period, such as Stephen Walt (in Revolution and War) or Mlada Bukovansky (in Legitimacy and Power Politics).    


hank_F_M said...


Very nice! (If those are the right words for the subject?)

It's midnight if I think of some more coherent comments in a day or two I will add them.

LFC said...