The First Total War? a Brief Analysis of This Miltiary Term

Updated on July 12, 2019
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John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815
The Battle of Waterloo, 1815 | Source


The term “total war” has been used by historians and political thinkers alike as a term to describe the extremes and conditions of war. As a term, however, total war is not without its critics and attempts to define it or determine its utility in defining a state of warfare have proven at times problematic.

Conceptually, the terms “total war” in contrast to “limited war” are imprecisely defined and the subject of significant debate among security analysts, historians, and military professionals. Yet these terms are also frequently utilised in conversations about military history and contemporary military operations.

Despite this lack of clarity, historians, military leaders, and policymakers have made, and continue to make use of these terms for the purposes of dividing history into eras of total war and limited war, and also as a means for advocating total war as an ideal form of conflict.

While utilised almost exclusively in the modern era, the characterization of "total war" has been employed decriptively to wars in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The aspects and traits of such warfare, however, are not unique to modern era and can be applied from antiquity up through the early modern era.

This short article will unpack the term and consider the modern applications in the past 300 years.

Modern appreciation

LtCol Lance McDaniel in his book “Restraints in War” has rightly asserted that such a term, in order to describe a level of aggression and use of force between adversaries in conflict, is more theoretical than a reality in practice. (McDaniel, “Restraint in War”, 1) Likewise, the US Marine Corps doctrinal publication, MCDP-1Warfighting has also cited that the term “total war”, used in order to define a state of conflict, rarely exists in practice. (MCDP-1, 4) As a term, total war therefore has its limitations but can used to describe by degrees the means that belligerents are prepared to use in war against each other. MCDP-1 at length attempts to define the nature of war to help those who study it gain a means for beginning to understanding it.

A brief comparison of total war across three wars

The characterization of the American Civil and the two World Wars of the twentieth century as total wars is applicable to the extent that these were wars that saw levels of violence used against both combatants and non-combatants alike. While each of these wars saw the introduction of new technologies that made the waging of war unique certainly at the tactical and operational levels of war, all of three of these wars saw common themes which make them suited to the definition of a total war.

In the Second World War, both President Roosevelt and Nazi leaders used the term “total war” rhetorically to explain to their respective peoples, the demands that would be made of their populations. Historians still argue that even this most extreme manifestation of war never called for the complete mobilization of societies, and the debate continues as to how both the United States government and Nazi regime were selective as to what sacrifices they asked their citizens to make.

Soldiers of General Sherman destroying a railroad in Atlanta in the American Civil War
Soldiers of General Sherman destroying a railroad in Atlanta in the American Civil War | Source

All these wars saw, for example, the use of arms against civilian populations in order to influence a respective enemy towards capitulation: Sherman’s March to the Sea, Zeppelin raids against London, and atomic weapons used on population centers. These wars also saw the complete subjugation and defeat of a respective enemy which saw the end of the conflict. The intensity of these conflicts, as well as the means that the belligerents were prepared to use has served to define these wars as total wars.

British First World War poster of a Zeppelin above London at night
British First World War poster of a Zeppelin above London at night | Source

In the case of the American Civil War, President Lincoln would later forego any immediate hope or concerns about reconciliation with the South by adopting the war of "annihilation" which Generals Grant and Sherman believed would bring the war to a swift conclusion. (Weigley, The American Way of War, 150) What the Union was prepared to do at the start of the war, and what was decided to be necessary to end the war, had changed and evolved over the timeline of the war, reflecting a clear change in the character of the conflict. Rhetorically, these conflicts likewise shared a common language used by political leaders in what methods they were prepared to use in war, and what they would in turn ask of the civilian population in support of war.

If the American Civil War has been suggested as the first total war of the early modern era, then historians such as David Bell in his examination of the Napoleonic Wars in The First Total War, will continue to extend the line of enquiry for the study and characterization of war in the spectrum of conflict.

Final Thoughts

Conceptually, “total war as a term may have served its utility as applied to modern conflicts, but the very nature of war transcends the timeline of history. Examples of other local and global conflicts, from antiquity to the early modern era, can fit our criteria defining other wars as “total”. As a means for us in gaining further means of distinction, the term “total war”, while imperfect, still serves as a useful comparative tool. Therefore, the utility in the term “total war”, is to help us provide a means measure conflict, as well as to aid us also understanding and distinguishing the extent and also the means to which belligerents are prepared to engage in warfare.

Works Cited

  • David Bell, The First Total War, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007)
  • LtCol Lance McDaniel, "Restraint in War", (Marine Corps Gazette, November, 2006)
  • Russell F. Weigley, The American Way of War, (Indiana University Press, 1973)
  • MCDP-1, Warfighting, United States Marine Corps, 1991

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