Monday, 15 December 2014

When Was The First Total War?

I am very interested in the concept of 'total war', whether such wars can and do exist, and if so, which wars have been 'total', and which, like the wars in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2001) have been limited. The phrase 'total war' is a twentieth century one but the concept itself is much older. I think the French Revolutionary Wars were the first modern total war, but the Peloponnesian War is the first pre-modern total war. Carl von Clausewitz first articulated the concept of total war when he discussed how wars could not be fought within limits or by laws, as the logic of war is 'absolute' and demands that all available resources are deployed, in his book Von Kriege in 1966. Clausewitz said that Napolean had changed the nature of war and that the French Revolutionary Wars mark the point in which wars became the business of the people as opposed to the 'hobby of kings'. Clausewitz also came up with the famous saying "war is a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means".

In a total war there is a full mobilisation of available resources and population to the war effort, there is no real distinction between civilians and combatants, they are prolonged and bloody (because they only end with 'total surrender') and there are no 'rules of war'. These criteria fit, to some extent, the French Revolutionary Wars from 1792 to 1815, where the whole of society was mobilised in that the wars were seem as 'people's wars' and all Frenchmen were in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. Almost 3 million men were enlisted in the army between 1792 and 1815, and almost 1.7 million of them died. The use of 'populidices' was seen by the massacre at Vendee, where 200,000 people were slaughtered. Prior to the French Revolutionary Wars wars were relatively easy to control and restrain: armies were small, major battles infrequent, civilians well treated: they were the wars of kinds, fought by professional armies who respected their opponents as men of honour.

The first pre-modern total war which we have enough evidence for is, I believe, the Peloponnesian War, 431 - 404 BC. Sparta was a society which was organised for war: weak babies were abandoned at birth, young men and women went through a brutal military training as they grew up and all male citizens were enrolled in the army from 20-30 years of age. Likewise Athens focused on their Navy, which had 300 triremes, almost 8 times the size of the next largest naval power and almost the same size as today's US Navy, which supports a population which is 1,500 times larger. In the Peloponnesian War, all citizens were considered targets, seen by senseless massacres of children and no mercy towards prisoners of war. The Peloponnesian War violated the harsh code of previous Greek warfare (previously Greek warfare had been relatively controlled and formalised, where opposing armies would rush at each other and engage in hand to hand battle until one side surrendered). However the Spartans abandoned this strategy, destroying whole cities and butchering entire populations. The war only ended in total surrender, and destroyed the democratic institutions of Athens.