The Myth of Total War

A recurring theme in discussions of warfare is the search for ways to classify or define conflicts in order to better understand and thus learn from them. The Strategy Bridge has recently published two articles in this genre.[1] One of the results of this often quixotic journey has been an endlessly expanding list of descriptors: Low Intensity Conflict, Civil War, Guerrilla War, Hybrid War, Gray Zone War, and so forth. Too often the result of these efforts has been obfuscation not clarification. One of the most commonly used terms is Total War. It is also among the most useless. Why do I say this?

First and foremost, it fails one of the key requirements for good theory. Instead of helping clarify concepts—as Carl von Clausewitz insists good theory should do—the term total war muddies the analytical waters.[2] Theory and its key terms should produce firm, universally applicable foundations for analysis. The term total war does not, thus it is useless as a tool for critical analysis.

The keystone problem is that there is no agreement as to what total war means. Generally, the term is used to suggest a “big” war, particularly the twentieth century world wars.[3] Explications of total war also usually (but not always) include wars fought for the overthrow or complete conquest of the enemy regime.[4] Discussions of potential nuclear wars are often described as total wars, particularly in limited war theory, and sometimes include other elements such as genocide or the extermination of an enemy.[5,6] Some similar terms that are often used interchangeably can be thrown in the same bowl: general war, major war, big war, national war, all-out-war, central war, and any others in this vein. The most bizarre definition I have seen is the following:

Total war has three distinct traits: (1) a particularly close interdependence between the armed forces and the productive forces of the nation, which necessitates large scale governmental planning; (2) the extension of siege warfare involving the nation as a whole in both offensive and defensive actions; and (3) a general vilification of the enemy nation.[7]
Hans Speir: "Total war has three distinct traits..." (New School History Project)

Hans Speir: "Total war has three distinct traits..." (New School History Project)

A related (though valueless and arbitrary) definition commonly accepted in some academic circles is:

“Major war means an operation where the United States deployed over fifty thousand troops and there were at least one thousand battle deaths.”[8]

Such figures are simply arbitrary.

Even when total war is defined (and often it is not), the definitions are valueless. For example, one author writing in 1957 defines a total war as one where “the survival of the U.S. or U.S.S.R. as sovereign nations is the issue of the war.” He goes on to insist that there was no satisfactory definition of limited war and that no one could explain when a conflict stopped being this and moved to being total.[9] He makes his point by comparing one badly defined thing (total war) with something else that is equally badly defined (limited war) by almost every author who writes on either subject.[10]

Other discussions of total war center on the related subject of the use of technology, particularly technology that intensifies the bloodshed and destruction delivered at the tactical level. But this is only an example of war’s natural tendency that puts forward yet another argument for defining total war by the means used. Technology and the increasing power of the modern centralized state simply feed war’s inherent escalatory nature and allow more intense escalation via these increasing means.

Sometimes the argument revolves around the war’s so-called totalizing effect upon the nation or nations involved, meaning how much of its material and manpower resources are consumed or mobilized for waging the conflict.[11] The problems with this approach, as historian Eugenia Kiesling correctly observes, is that “[d]iscussing wars in terms of a meaningless notion of totality naturally leads to an appallingly low standard of intellectual discourse as military historians struggle to defend the concept.”[12] Sometimes when authors discuss total war they are actually writing about escalation or the level of mobilization of the means used for waging war.[13] This is one of the many problems with the totality argument. Moreover, one cannot define the moment that a nation’s war effort becomes total.

It is not useful to define wars by measures such as size, scale, or commitment because these are subjective and thus cloud analysis.

So, do we define a war as total because it involves extensive mobilization, the overthrow of the enemy, the harnessing of society, and even genocide? Rationally, we cannot because this does not provide a firm foundation for critical analysis. Critically, all of these definitions are dependent upon a variable that is consistently fluid: the means used to wage the war, and discussions of total war almost invariably boil-down to a debate about the level of means being used to prosecute the struggle.[14] It is not useful to define wars by measures such as size, scale, or commitment because these are subjective and thus cloud analysis. This is particularly true in regard to such things as cost and casualties. How much a war costs, how many people it kills, and what it consumes and destroys are certainly important issues—no one disputes this—but these are not bases for critical analysis because they fail to generate solid, tangible, universal foundations for discussion, which is exactly what writing on such subjects should provide. If one does not have solid ground for discussion, the resulting debate is not as productive. Too often discussions of total war essentially become: “We have more stuff and men and break more things faster, thus we are fighting a total war.” The means being used and how these means are being used are elements of the conflict that contribute to its nature, but these aren’t good foundations for theory.

This brief survey shows us another problem with the term total war: that it is used to mean almost everything, thus it means nothing. Historian Brian Bond goes so far as to call total war a myth.[15] Historian Eugenia Kiesling compares discussions of total war to medieval “ruminations about angels cavorting on pinheads.”[16] The use of the term as part of the title of a 1943 speech by Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s famous propagandist, perhaps shows us the term’s real utility.[17]

Carl von Clausewitz (Wikimedia)

The most famous source for the use of the term total war is in Carl von Clausewitz's magnum opus On War. Here, he uses the terms total war and absolute war interchangeably. But what is most important for our discussion is that Clausewitz uses them in a theoretical sense as part of an ideal type method, meaning, he holds up total (or absolute) war as an unreachable, theoretical ideal. He does this to decipher the reality of war, which is influenced in innumerable ways. He does not say that wars should be waged in a total sense. In fact, he says that wars cannot be waged in this manner because friction, chance, human nature and other forces prevent war from escalating to its theoretical extreme. What is his most important limiter upon the race of war toward the extreme? Politics—especially the political objectives sought by the combatants.[18]

Why does this matter? Clausewitz, in his “Two Letters on Strategy,” when asked by a former subordinate to evaluate two training exercises, insisted that he couldn’t realistically do so without knowing the political context. Similarly, in 1815 he remarked in a letter to one of his mentors, Neidhardt von Gneisenau, that he didn’t like to “break his head on such work” unless he knew the political objective being sought.[19] In other words, what the combatants are seeking is of primary importance, everything else flows from this. In On War, as well as in his unfinished work Strategie, Clausewitz made it clear that wars are fought to overthrow the enemy regime or something less than this. Maritime theorist Sir Julian Corbett built upon Clausewitz’s work to construct a theory of warfare and gave us the terms unlimited war to describe a conflict waged to overthrow the enemy government (an unlimited political objective), and limited war for a war fought for something less (a limited political objective).[20] Rational discussion and analysis of all wars—civil wars, guerrilla wars, limited wars, religious wars, and every other kind of war—fits within this framework by beginning with the starting point of both Clausewitz and Corbett: all wars are fought either for the political objective of regime change or something less than this. This is an ironclad foundation for analysis because we have defined what is of utmost importance: what the war is about. Critically, the combatants are often pursuing different objectives, but the opponent’s political objective is an element contributing to the war’s nature and simply part of the reality of war that one must consider when doing their assessment. There is no room here for so-called total war.

Unfortunately, the current writer and his fellow historians are only part of the problem. Journalists, political scientists, pundits, students of international relations, and military officers are just as dangerous when they embark upon discussions of so-called total war, possibly even more so because they sometimes lack the historical knowledge necessary to provide solid analysis and critical nuance. The U.S. Department of Defense once insisted that the term total war is “not to be used.”[21] Unless the author is discussing total war in a theoretical sense, they should take this advice.

Donald Stoker is Professor of Strategy and Policy for the U.S. Naval War College’s program at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He is the author or editor of numerous books and articles on strategic subjects and is currently writing a book on limited war. His most recent book is Clausewitz: His Life and Work. The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not represent the views of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Men go over the top and through the wire on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916 (Art Archive/Imperial War Museum)


[1] Timur Neresov, “What Size is My War? Examining the Concepts of Total and Limited War,” The Strategy Bridge (Nov. 3, 2016); Ian Bertram, “The Return of Limited War,” (Sept. 13, 2016).

[2] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, eds. and trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 132.

[3] I. F. Beckett, “Total War,” in C. Emsley, A. Marwick, and F. Simpson, eds., War, Peace, and Social Change in Twentieth Century Europe (Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press, 1989), 27.

[4] An example: Roger Chickering, and Stig Förster, eds., The Shadows of Total War: Europe, East Asia, and the United States, 1919-1939, German Historical Institute (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 2.

[5] Some examples: B.H. Liddell Hart, The Revolution in Warfare (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1947), 99; David V. Nowlin and Ronald J. Stupak, War as an Instrument of Policy: Past, Present, and Future (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998), 1; Bernard Brodie, “Unlimited Weapons and Limited War,” The Reporter, Vol. 8 (Nov. 18, 1954), 19.

[6] For an example of the genocide requirement see Chickering and Förster, eds., The Shadows of Total War: Europe, East Asia, and the United States, 1919-1939, 8-9. The editors of this five volume examination of “Total War” never succeed it in defining in a solid manner, and at one point debate its elimination. See Manfred F. Boemke, Roger Chickering, and Stig Förster, eds., Anticipating Total War: The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914, German Historical Institute (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 16, and Talbot Imlay, “Total War,” Review article in Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2007), 549.

[7] Hans Speier, Social Order and Risks of War: Papers in Political Sociology (New York: George W. Stewart, Publishers, 1952), 254.

[8] See Dominic Tierney, The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts (New York: Little Brown, 2015), 7. In footnote 12 on page 317, the author notes that the term “major war” is problematic because it could be major for one side and not the other. But the real reason is that “major war,” like “total war,” has no concrete meaning.

[9] Ephraim M Hampton, “Unlimited Confusion Over Limited War,” Air University Quarterly Review, Vol. IX (Spring 1957), 31-32. For an overview of French thinking on the differences between “Limited” and “Total War” that makes the same errors as English-language writers see Vincent Desportes, Comprendre La Guerre, 2nd ed. (Paris: Economica, 2001), 139-168.

[10] For two examples of bad definitions of limited war see the following: John Garnett, “Limited War,” in John Baylis, Ken Booth, John Garnett, and Phil Williams, Contemporary Strategy: Theories and Policies (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982), 123; Robert McClintock, The Meaning of Limited War (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1967), 5.

[11] John Horne, “Introduction: Mobilizing for ‘Total War’, 1914-1918,” in John Horne, ed. State, Society, and Mobilization in Europe During the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 3.

[12] Eugenia C. Kiesling, ‘”Total War, Total Nonsense” or “The Military Historian’s Fetish,”’ in Michael S. Neiberg, ed. Arms and the Man: Military History Essays in Honor of Dennis Showalter (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 218.

[13] Horne, “Introduction: Mobilizing for ‘Total War’, 1914-1918,” 3.

[14] Some examples: Robert E. Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1957), 3; Wilhelm Deist, “Foreword,” in Wilhelm Deist, ed., The German Military in the Age of Total War (Leamington Spa, UK: Berg Publishers, 1985), 9-10.

[15] Brian Bond, War and Society in Europe, 1870-1970 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1998), 168.

[16] Kiesling, ‘”Total War, Total Nonsense”,’ 220.

[17] Beckett, “Total War,” 27.

[18] Clausewitz, On War, 80-89 (especially 85), 488-489, 501, 579-581 (especially 580 and 582), 606. Clausewitz does contradict himself in this discussion, arguing at one point that war reached its extreme under Napoleon, but then that it did not. Such are the problems with publishing an unfinished manuscript. But his larger theoretical approach comes through clearly over the scope of the text.

[19] Donald Stoker, Clausewitz: His Life and Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 259-260.

[20] Clausewitz, On War, 69; Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 44-46. Clausewitz discusses wars fought for “limited aims” in Book 8 of On War.

[21] Kiesling, ‘”Total War, Total Nonsense,'” 216.