#Reviewing The Age of Total War

The Age of Total War: 1860-1945. Jeremy Black. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010.

Clausewitz tells us war is inherently unknowable, and once released it becomes an entity unto itself, transforming and growing without regard to the circumstances particular to its creation. But analysis requires categories, and most military professionals accept that war occurs on a continuum, a spectrum of conflict ranging from small-scale guerrilla warfare, to limited war, to conventional combat (force on force) by states leveraging all the elements of national power in a bid to defeat each other. And the period roughly ranging from the American Civil War to the end of World War II is clearly delineated in the scale, scope, duration, and government control of conflict.

It is useful for experts to challenge the consensus in their field and in The Age of Total War Jeremy Black does not disappoint. He not only questions convention, but offers a useful for doing so. Dr. Black’s work is not so much a history as a paean to the historiography and military dogma regarding what we commonly call Total War. After listing the criterion and schema others have used to describe total war, Black acknowledges that any analytical term is inherently an abstraction and that we should not concern ourselves too much with the details of what is or isn't total war. What is important is that the period of history from 1860 to 1945 showed a remarkable break from previous and subsequent periods in terms of the character of fighting, economic and social mobilizations employed, and scale of conflict. Black’s thesis is that this period “bulks large in the study of military history” due to its consequences.[1]

While the military tools employed from 1860-1945 were not necessarily new—blockade for instance—the scale, scope, and consequences of conflict were different. What occurred from 1860-1945 was a confluence of worldwide trends that created fertile ground for the types of major conflicts commonly known as total war: mass industrialization, the collapse of centrifugal trends (especially in Europe) that led to the rise of centralized nation states, and direct interstate competition (imperialism). The result was warfare on an unprecedented scale, a kind of war that fundamentally changed both the nature of the citizen-state relationship and the purpose and capability of armed force, and the creation of industrialized slaughter on a worldwide scale. During this period, warfare also moved from something governments did (a lot) to something societies did relatively infrequently.

Prior to Blacks age of total war, precedent emerging from the post-Napoleonic Councils of Vienna caused the public to generally view major conflicts during this period as a break from a norm, a national emergency. Though common, war was viewed as a distinct type of event, with particular laws, rules, norms, and expectations of citizens. Of course, this model leaves out the huge number of small-scale conflicts waged by imperial powers across the globe, from the Philippines to Egypt to India. The analysis holds true, however, because during this period, major war (not brush fire conflict) was a state-sponsored endeavor. When war occurred, states generally adopted specific wartime measures such as rationing, conscription, and a curtailment of civil liberties designed to enhance production and efficiency. In other words, during this period, war evolved from something armies and governments did to something societies did. In doing so, war became more total.

Black acknowledges the trend of mass war mobilization and societal warfare did not begin in this age, but rather two generations prior during the wars of the French Revolution. This type of warfare became the commonplace after 1865, however. Black acknowledges this historiography may ignore examples of total war from Ancient Rome or China, but it was only during 1865-1945 that total war as Black defines it (mass mobilization, state control of resources, etc.) became both common and fundamental as opposed to an asymmetric advantage. Indeed, he acknowledges his analysis focuses almost entirely on Western Warfare, ignoring major conflicts outside of Europe aside from World War II.

Overall view of Lockheed's mechanized P-38 assembly line; 10,037 aircraft would be built between 1941 and 1945. (Wikimedia)

Black makes a clear distinction between our common conception of total war as methods—mass mobilization and large campaigns—and the aims of war—total victory. While war has often been total in its means and methods (genocide in Rwanda for example), it’s political purpose is often limited. Even the brutal wars of religion in 15th and 16th century Europe often had limited political goals despite the frequently horrific means employed. On the other hand, many conflicts, even the most brutal ones, do not seek the completion annihilation of adversaries, particularly civilian populations.[2] According to Black, that distinction makes 1860-1945 more unique; during this era both the means of warfare and the political end state sought were often total. The period from 1860-1945 can be thought of as a combination of totality in both areas, ends and ways.

Aside from the Civil War, the United States is the exception to most of the Black’s examples. Unlike Germany, China, Japan, France, or Russia, America emerged from World War I and World War II relatively unscathed, with little or no change in domestic structure or public institutions. Even America’s massive mobilization during the Second World War did not alter the shape or character of its domestic institutions. The war also did not change America’s aversion to foreign entanglements and a large peacetime army; postwar demobilization was rapid and severe. It would take the mass mobilization and drastically different global arrangement of power following the Second World War for Americans to fundamentally change their views on permanent military readiness.

Despite its hold on our imagination as the culmination of interstate conflict, total war as a phenomenon may not repeat itself, at least in the West. There may be another large-scale conflict that requires commensurate mobilization of state resources, but the legalistic and moral frameworks developed during the 20th century, to say nothing of the impact of mass media, may make the battlefield methods of total war (e.g., indiscriminate bombing and brutality) less acceptable. Indeed, such methods may reduce the civilian commitment total war requires. For Europe, the United States, and the most Westernized Asian powers, demographic and social change have increasingly constrained state conduct in war. What Black calls hyper-informed and conscientious populations are critical of the traditional tools used by states during large-scale conflict. Conscription, for example, is nearly extinct in the West, and declined in particular after the Cold War ended.[3] Increasingly diverse populations and shifting demographics weaken concepts of nationalism, further eroding bonds between populations and the state that are particularly important during wartime. Ethnic nationalism remains a strong force, but one that is increasingly localized and tribal; one need only look at domestic politics in the United States today to see that a broader view of “Americanism” is lacking. As a result, it may be difficult to mobilize for even a true national emergency. However, in light of the destruction that total war can bring, even to the victor, this may not necessarily be a bad thing, especially among nuclear-armed states.

What a term or concept is lies in the eye of the beholder; total war can describe nearly any conflict when couched in the proper terms. Moreover, a conflict can be total for one participant while something less for another. Black uses the colonial conquests of the Western powers in the second half of the 19th century and the American Indian Wars to illustrate this point. Black’s use of revolutionary wars—the Chinese Civil War in particular—helps demonstrate that total can also mean the literal reordering of society, leading to a conclusion that one of the most commonly seen types of warfare is in fact total.

The Age of Total War has utility as a text for framing the importance of questioning terms and widely-held beliefs in graduate-level history courses, though its brevity limits usefulness for bachelor’s programs. As a brief summary of major conflicts from 1860-1945 this work succeeds. For the wider audience, however, even history buffs will find the book’s material either redundant or narrowly focused on terminology. By parsing the term total war into various meanings and offering numerous examples of total conflicts outside of 1860-1945, Black proves his own point that total war means different things to different people; consequently, such terms have limits. In doing so, Black renders his postscript so abstract that it will turn off casual readers not focused on the teleology of historical terms.

Black’s work is strongest when he questions conventional wisdom regarding how we see war. His approach is an excellent counter to a linear view of warfare—one that sees the evolution of warfare through various stages, culminating at some point. This is also the view of technologists, those that advocate that technology will fundamentally change warfare, a view that has failed time and time again when it meets the reality of conflict. In undermining the technologists, Black augments previous criticisms of Williamson Murray and others.

By focusing on the unique circumstances (societal, technological, industrial) of the period ranging from 1860-1945, Black helps us understand how and why this period’s conflicts were fought in a particular way and why their consequences were important to the world we live in today.

John Q. Bolton is an U.S. Army officer and a frequent contributor to military journals. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Langemarck, Belgium in October 1914, during the First Battle of Ypres. (Wikimedia)


[1] Jeremy Black, The Age of Total War: 1860-1945 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010), 11.

[2] Ibid., 163.

[3] See also James Jay Carafano, "The Draft Should Be Left Out in the Cold," The Strategy Bridge, 17 May 2017.