Posted in 18th century America, military

The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

Bell, David Avrom. The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2007.

In The First Total War, David Bell, whose historical interest lies in the political culture of the Old Regime and the French Revolution, argues that modern militarism evolved during the vast number of worldwide conflicts that occurred during the Napoleonic era.  The book’s introduction suggests that Bell’s research is a response to the continual state of war American leaders have waged on the Middle East and beyond since the early nineties.  Although historians are not in agreement over the term “total war,” Bell argues that apocalyptic rhetoric and, with it, the “complete mobilization of a society’s resources to achieve the absolute destruction of the enemy” are key identifiers of total war, and Bell claims that absolute investment in total war becomes a redemptive experience (7). Yet, ironically, the intellectual roots of modern militarism can be found in the Enlightenment belief in the coming of perpetual peace (6, 73-74, 77-78), and Bell connects these themes to both World War I and the aftermath of 9/11 (314-315).

Most of Bell’s sources are published secondary resources, such as academic journal articles and books, with a few works with which the general public would be familiar, such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and popular magazines, such as The Wall Street Journal.  Bell saved the layman from having to wade through scores of footnotes by arranging them at the end of his book.

Bell missed a number of opportunities that would have helped readers better understand our current state of perpetual warfare.  Apocalyptic discourse tied to redemptive experience stems from Christian narratives, yet Bell failed to connect the influence the Church has on politics and language.  He also failed to connect the differentiation of the military from civilians to the abolition of the nobility and the clergy during the French Revolution.  Societies are ordered hierarchies, so leveling the importance of the nobility and the clergy in French society left a gaping wound that was quickly filled by this new prestigious military power.