Review of Bell, The First Total War, for JGR, 2007

Posted: December 12, 2009 in genocide reviews, war reviews

David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-618-34965-4, 0-618-34965-0, 420 pp, $27.

This book deserves its modest celebrity, not so much because it expresses the new, post-Iraq scepticism towards war – the connections are explicit but not particularly profound – but because it provides a searching account of the origins of total war, a phenomenon of immense importance for understanding contemporary society in general. The idea that the Revolutionary and Napoleonic era produced the first forms of total war, the precursor of more developed forms in the twentieth century world wars, is not new: I first came across it in Geoffrey Best’s War and Society in Revolutionary Europe (London: Fontana, 1982) and used it in constructing a theory of total war in my Dialectics of War (London: Pluto, 1988). But here it is explored in an incisive, highly readable synthesis which should help push the historical timeframe of all ‘modern’ social and historical studies, including genocide studies, firmly back to the watershed of the French Revolution. Bell’s historical colleagues may argue about details (especially since the argument is unreferenced) but for this sociologist of war, the book has the great advantage of developing a cogent narrative of a crucible of transformation in warfare, which has ramified through the last two centuries.

Bell’s case is that the French Revolution, despite its early renunciation of war, rapidly embraced a logic of violence in exterminating its enemies, breaking down the restraints of eighteenth century Europe’s aristocratic way of war. He shows how closely universalism and even pacifism in Enlightenment thought were entwined with rhetorics of violence, and how quickly the Revolution’s social and political transformations caused war to be fought in profoundly more destructive ways. Warfare in pre-Revolutionary Europe was often bloody, but the scale, scope and violence of war underwent a sea-change in the dramatic quarter-century between 1789 and France’s final defeat in 1815. Napoleon was the chief agent of these changes but it was their momentum, evident in the early years of the Revolution, that both produced and ultimately undid him. The story is told with a richness of detail that mostly convinces, but does not overwhelm, and to which a short review cannot do justice.

Total war, for Bell, is essentially war that does not recognise limits on destructive violence: he lays great emphasis on the new ‘culture of war’ generated by the Revolution. This has been surely very important to the later history, but is not enough to define total war as it has been more widely understood. Certainly Bell explores the political mobilization of French society and the development of the first modern militarism, both enabled by early mass media (patriotic pamphlets and songs) as well as by the enhancement of state power over society. Yet ultimately his total war is defined by the exercise of violence rather than by the relationships between this exercise and the social changes that lie behind them. Thus the connection between the Revolutionary wars and what came later is defined only by total violence, rather than by total mobilisation too.

Part of the problem here is that although The First Total War leads us to see the need for a longer narrative leading to today’s briefly mentioned conflicts, it offers not even an outline of the subsequent development – the world wars are mentioned (the American Civil War surprisingly not) but there is not even an suggestive hypothesis as how they developed from where Napoleon left off. Behind this issue, there is the general problem of a historian operating with concepts that are not defined – even ‘total war’ is dealt with perfunctorally – and so making, at crucial points, assumptions about what terms mean that overlook debates among non-historians that would challenge the course of his own discussion.

Nowhere is this truer than in Bell’s discussion of the suppression of the Vendéan insurrection in 1794, recently given a pivotal place in Mark Levene’s history of Genocide in Age of Nation State: Rise of the West and the Coming of Genocide (London: IB Tauris, 2005). Bell presents it as the defining moment in the totalisation of Revolutionary warfare. The sheer murderousness of the Republic’s attack on the civilian population as well as the armed rebels is amply demonstrated, but the suggestion that it constituted genocide is rather quickly dismissed. Bell sees it as expressing the logic of total war as such, rather than a development of total war that led beyond it to something else. Yet he emphasises that the Republicans went on killing men. women and children after the insurrection had been defeated: this should surely raise questions about its representation as only war. Clearly the Vendéan ‘race’ was no longer just the support for the armed rebels; it had become an enemy in itself, a population seen as inherently inimical to Republican power. But Bell uses Holocaust-reductive comparisons – there was no biological concept of race, no Wannsee conference – to dismiss these genocidal implications.

This failure leads Bell to use the Vendée as a model for the violence of Napoleon’s campaigns against occupied populations throughout Europe. And yet none of the atrocity-strewn examples he adduces – not even the suppression of the Spanish insurrections – quite appears to have matched the Vendée in barbarousness or, more crucially, the extent to which counter-insurgency war gave way to an onslaught on a population as such. The lack of precision in Bell’s idea of ‘total war’ is disabling here. He is unable to distinguish between the more unlimited violence towards armed enemies (which is a major theme of his depiction of Napoleonic battles), the extension of this violence towards supporting civilians (which I call ‘degenerate war’ in my War and Genocide, Cambridge: Polity, 2003), and the further extension which makes civilian populations in themselves enemies to be destroyed (genocide). Thus the dynamics of total war which produce these expansions of violence are unclear.

Nevertheless, Bell’s forthright analysis does raise a troubling question for the simple pattern that I have laid out. What if genocide, as well as being a product of total war’s degenerative tendencies, may also be a stimulus to the development of these wider tendencies? It also has implications for the argument raised by those who have traced the path from colonial genocide (South-West Africa, for example) to the Holocaust. Bell presents a strong case for arguing that (genocidal) total war began in Europe: the Vendée was the model, and the Republic’s genocidal suppression in Haiti followed from this.

It remains to remark that while it is very pertinent to show how the rhetoric that the Revolution used to take itself to war prefigured that of Western leaders today, this connection only blurs further the coherence of the underlying analytical case. As Bell is aware (but acknowledges only briefly near the end of the book) the USA today is not waging total war, its empire (if such it is) is not in the Napoleonic mode, and its policies are not murderous towards civilians in the way of the French Revolution, Napoleon, or more recent practitioners of total war. Bush’s invasion of Iraq may have stimulated others (al-Qaida, the Sunni-nationalist insurgents and Shi’ite militia in Iraq, for example) towards genocidal war. But that is another story.

Martin Shaw
University of Sussex


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