The myth of total war

Reader Frank posted a comment about total war and the principle of distinction between combatants and non-combatants. While we’re on the subject, I thought it a good opportunity to post some old research I did on the concept of total war, and the history behind the myth.

The history

A contemporary dictionary definition of ‘total war’ tells us that it is:

a war which is unrestricted in terms of the weapons used, the territory or combatants involved, or the objectives pursued, especially one in which the accepted rules of war are disregarded.

But the history of the term doesn’t match this definition.

The term ‘total war’ is first attributed to the German General Erich Ludendorff, in his 1936 memoir of the First World War. Ludendorff’s ‘total war’ is the ideal of a nation dedicated entirely to the war effort, but should also be read as an exhortation to the people to strengthen their will. According to Ludendorff’s theory:

“War was to be total in two respects. All available resources of the nation were to be mobilized completely at the beginning of the conflict, and they were to be exploited ruthlessly to the single end of military success. […] His basic assumption was hence that a warlord inspired by genius should subordinate everything to the army’s victory in a radicalized, short, total war.”

Various sources have applied Ludendorff’s theory retrospectively, and thus identify such conflicts as the battle of Carthage as instances of ‘total war’:

“All the sacred places, the temples, and every other unoccupied space, were turned into workshops, where men and women worked together day and night without pause, taking their food by turns on a fixed schedule. Each day they made 100 shields, 300 swords, 1,000 missiles for catapults, 500 darts and javelins, and as many catapults as they could. For strings to bend them the women cut off their hair for want of other fibers.”

More recently, the French Revolutionary Wars have provided an example of ‘total war’, as the new French Republic fought off a coalition of enemy states:

“From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic.”

This concept of ‘total war’ as the mobilisation of all available resources for the war effort can of course also be identified in the Second World War. In Britain, for example, rearmament expenditure was only 7.4% of the national expenditure in 1938, but rose during the war years to peak at 55.3% in 1943. In Britain, America, and Japan, women were drafted to work in munitions factories and other industrial roles, thereby boosting the workforce while allowing more men to be drafted into armed service. The war effort even extended to the level of children collecting scrap metal and rubber to help supply the arms industry.

But in Germany, women were never drafted to work in the factories, and the entire German arms industry remained surprisingly inefficient until Albert Speer began enacting dramatic changes in 1942. It may indeed come as a surprise that despite the ‘total war’ attitude of nations such as Britain and Japan, Nazi Germany did not consider itself in a state of ‘total war’ until Joseph Goebbels’ Sportpalast speech in February 1943.

“The Soviet Union over the last 25 years built up Bolshevism’s military potential to an unimaginable degree, and one we falsely evaluated […] A whole nation in the East was driven to battle. Men, women, and even children are employed not only in armaments factories, but in the war itself […] The masses of tanks we have faced on the Eastern Front are the result of 25 years of social misfortune and misery of the Bolshevist people. We have to respond with similar measures if we do not want to give up the game as lost […] Total war is the demand of the hour[…] The danger facing us is enormous. The efforts we take to meet it must be just as enormous. The time has come to remove the kid gloves and use our fists. […]We must use our full resources, as quickly and thoroughly as it is organizationally and practically possible.”

What is astonishing from our perspective is that when Goebbels talks about ‘removing the kid gloves’ he is not referring to the bombing of civilian targets – the London Blitz alone had already killed more than 20,000 civilians in 1941. Instead, Goebbels is explicitly referring to the social and economic changes necessary to support an increase in Germany’s war effort. His ‘total war’ is a matter of increased mobilisation, and the purpose of his speech is to rouse the German people to this cause, as if the great challenge and difficulty of ‘total war’ was not moral, but morale.

The myth

Since Ludendorff coined the phrase in 1936, ‘total war’ has somehow come to mean far more than its advocates intended. It has gained particular currency as a justification for the targeting of civilian non-combatants during wartime. It is argued that since civilian populations have become so integral to the overall war effort, civilians should no longer be considered ‘off limits’ as potential targets. Variations of this argument may focus on the pragmatic need to ‘break the will’ of the enemy population, or on the populations loss of ‘immunity’ due to their moral and material complicity in the war effort.

So ‘total war’ meaning ‘the mobilisation of all available resources’ has been used to justify the targeting of the enemy’s civilian population. Thus the interpretation of ‘total war’ has morphed in the popular consciousness to mean war without limits. We may now find that every act of war that breaches the limits of ethics or convention – from General Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea’ in the American Civil War, to the horrendous trail of Japanese war crimes across Asia – can be referred to as manifestations of ‘total war’.

If we accept this new understanding of ‘total war’, we are implicitly agreeing that increased mobilisation of the civilian population renders those populations a legitimate target. But this idea was never put forward by the originator of ‘total war’. So where did this idea come from?

The idea that we may abandon ethics and conventions for the sake of a speedier or more certain victory, has always been with us. It is not so much that increased civilian mobilisation renders the civilian population a legitimate target, but rather that it renders them an expedient target.

Sherman’s justification for his ‘March to the Sea’ was not that the nature of the war had altered the ethical rules at play, but that:

“War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war on our country, deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. […] You might as well appeal against the thunder-storm, as against these terrible hardships of war. They are inevitable; […] We don’t want your negroes or your horses, or your houses or your land, or anything you have; but we do want, and will have a just obedience to the Laws of the United States […]and if it involves the destruction of your improvements, we cannot help it.”

In other words, the suffering and hardships faced by the civilian populations are the fault of the warring party itself for initiating conflict. The destruction of civilian property is expedient because it robs the enemy forces of supplies and support. It was incongruous to Sherman that one might affirm the war itself but balk at using these direct and effective tactics.

The same logic is at the heart of all decisions to strike at non-combatants for the sake of military expedience.   In the words of Air Chief Marshall ‘Bomber’ Harris:

“Attacks on cities like any other act of war are intolerable unless they are strategically justified. But they are strategically justified in so far as they tend to shorten the war and preserve the lives of Allied soldiers. To my mind we have absolutely no right to give them up unless it is certain that they will not have this effect. I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany as worth the bones of one British Grenadier.”

Harris takes expedience to its logical extreme. So long as there is a chance that the bombing of civilian targets will shorten the war, it would be wrong not to continue. This obligation to target enemy civilians is the most radical departure from the ethics and conventions of warfare. It constructs a new ethic that actually demands the targeting of non-combatants, whether it be justified on the grounds of unprecedented civilian mobilisation, or simply on the practical basis of what terror can achieve, as Winston Churchill himself admitted:

“It seems to me that the moment has come when the question of bombing of German cities simply for the sake of increasing the terror, though under other pretexts, should be reviewed … The destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing.”

The truth is that ‘total war’ merely serves as a convenient excuse for the rise of military expedience. Increased civilian mobilisation according to the original ‘total war’ ideal did not change the moral distinction between combatant and non-combatant. Rather, it merely increased the strategic advantage in terrorising and destroying civilian populations.

People like to refer to ‘total war’ as if describing a new mode of warfare in which the old rules do not apply. But an analysis of the historical meaning of the term shows that it refers instead to increased economic mobilisation towards the war effort. It would be better phrased as ‘total war effort’ or ‘total war commitment’. But increased mobilisation doesn’t change the rules of warfare or the morality of killing people who are not directly involved in combat.


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