432 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN-13: 978-0618349654
We have grown accustomed to viewing the World Wars of the 20th Century as the first total wars in modern history, for they required the total mobilization and militarization of the societies involved. Their accompanying ideologies – Fascism, Nazism, Communism – were appropriately called totalitarian since they left no aspect of society unaffected. But historian David Avrom Bell in The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It has written a new and different history of the Napoleonic Wars (1792 – 1815) arguing that they were in fact the first total wars.
In his introduction, Bell tells us that he is borrowing techniques from intellectual history to write a military history. Traditionally military historians have restricted themselves to accounts of battlefield tactics and weapon systems, but in his book Bell is attempting to go further in showing that the ideals of the Enlightenment played a role in what he calls the first total war. He believes that the French Revolution – the apotheosis of the Enlightenment – radicalized people’s ideas about how and why wars should be fought. During the time of the Ancien Régime (which is Bell's main standard of comparison) wars were limited and short-lived and were fought according to established rules and usually to defend the honor of this or that aristocrat; in fact, many times the armies involved were made up of mercenaries who fought for pay rather than honor or, much less, patriotism. The philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Kant, Diderot, d’Alembert, and the Marquis de Condorcet were certain that with the advent of reason wars would be a thing of the past. As late as 1790 Robespierre was declaring in the Assembly that the French nation had no desire to engage in war, that to invade another country and make it adopt their laws and constitution was the furthest thing from their minds.
Much changed in two years: by 1792 there was growing opposition to the revolutionary government in Paris, especially in the Vendée region of western France. The government decided to put down this rebellion with a degree of brutality not seen before and conducted a scorched-earth policy that spared no one, making no distinction between combatants and non-combattants. The dogs of war had been unleashed to save the revolution and to obliterate any dissent. Bell explores the nature of total war and how it feeds on itself. Once the military becomes front and center of the government, war becomes unstoppable, and in the case og Ferance, all of the nation’s resources and efforts went to the Grande Armée to create an empire in places as far as Egypt and Russia.
In his retelling of the Spanish campaign, Bell attempts to draw a parallel with America’s intervention in Iraq, and to an extent there are some parallels. Napoleon claimed to be bringing Enlightenment ideals and reform to Spain, yet the insurgency would have none of it. This, however, is a distraction from Bell’s thesis; whatever else it did in Iraq, America didn’t conducting a total war; it was, rather, a very restrained and cautious use of military power. In fact, Napoleon’s excursion into Spain was somewhat cautious to be called total war.
When contrasted with what transpired in the preceding century and what the philosophes predicted, the Napoleonic Wars were barbaric and total, but it is still not clear how they were different from, say, the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages or the military expeditions of Alexander the Great. Its seems that the so-called total wars of Napoleon have been conducted before. The total mobilization of people and resources is as old as human history. Mutual and absolute hatred for the enemy is a timeless emotion. Bell’s argument that hell hath no fury like a citzen’s army is reminiscent of Victor Davis Hanson’s thesis in Carnage and Culture, and it is as unconvincing.
Bell’s book provides much food for thought on how quickly circumstances can change from permanent peace to permanent war without pinpointing exactly what triggers the change. Paranoia, perceived threat, and survival are all factors in the devolution of high ideals to base hostility – and why armies of citizens driven by Enlightenment ideals fight more effectively than previous armies is still unanswered. However, Bell makes a robust effort with this original work.