Blogs > Cliopatria > Total war and total peace

Apr 20, 2009 3:18 pm

Total war and total peace

[Cross-posted at Airminded.]

A random thought while sitting in a lecture today: if there is (or can be) such a thing as total war, does that imply that total peace is a meaningful concept?

Firstly, what is total war? One definition, drawn from the ubiquitous set of conference proceedings edited by Stig Förster et al (and more directly, from today's lecture notes), goes something like this. Total war consists of:

  1. total aims: e.g. the destruction of an enemy nation
  2. total methods: e.g. bombing cities
  3. total mobilisation: e.g. conscription for both the armed forces and for labour
  4. total control: e.g. censorship, dictatorship

More briefly, total war is the subordination of every other consideration (law, custom, morality, etc) to the prosecution of war. Total war is an ideal form of warfare, something which can be approached more or less closely, but which can never actually be fully attained. Well, hopefully not, because that would be bad.

So what would total peace look like? I don't think it can simply be the absence of total war; that's just peace generically. Total peace must be total in some sense.

One approach might be to say that total peace is the subordination of every consideration to the prosecution of peace. But why would this be necessary? Perhaps as a sublimation for the martial impulse, a moral equivalent of war. William James called for 'gilded youths' to be conscripted in 'the immemorial human warfare against nature', that is to say to do dirty and unpleasant jobs such as mining, construction, roadbuilding, which would knock some sense into them and make them better people. James was inspired in part by H. G. Wells, who himself later had similar ideas. For example, in his screenplay for Things to Come (1936) he imagined a peaceful future civilisation which turns its energies towards the exploration of the Universe, by way of the construction of a giant space gun.

But it's hard (for me, at least) to imagine any real society devoting itself so totally to peaceful pursuits. Fear and greed are, unfortunately, more powerful motivating forces than altruism or even curiosity. Indeed, even in Things to Come the rationalists have to face down a rebellion which fears where progress will lead and wants to tear down the space gun.

So perhaps a total peace is more negative: the subordination, in peacetime, of every other consideration to preparing for total war. Like total war itself, this would be a never-realised ideal. But, also like total war, there are times when it is approached more closely than at other times. One such period might be the Cold War. But to the same extent that total war became unthinkable after the advent of nuclear weapons, so too would total peace become unnecessary: if the war was actually fought, it could not be won, and so the preparations for it would have been pointless. And how total can the Cold War be said to have been? Most people in the West, at least, lived out their lives without being greatly affected by it.

Another period when a total peace might have occurred would have been before the Second World War. Think civil defence, peacetime conscription, the coordination of labour to maximise armaments production, the building up of bomber forces. In Britain, at least, these initiatives were only secondarily intended to prepare the nation for total war. Their primary aim was to deter an attack altogether. So perhaps total peace was actually the (inevitably, only partial) reorganisation of society to try to prevent a total war from starting in the first place?

Random thoughts have a low probability of being useful, however. More considered thoughts would be welcome!

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More Comments:

Mary Dudziak - 4/21/2009

This may be unhelpful, since it is at odds with your categories, but in a new paper I critique the inherent temporal assumptions in the concept of "wartime," suggesting that our categories of wartime and peacetime are a feature of American legal thought, but are at odds with the 20th century practice of war. Also, in her work progress, Marilyn Young argues that *limited* war facilitates ongoing, or permanent, warfare, so that it is limited rather than "total" war that erodes the distinctions between wartime and peacetime.

My paper, "Law, War, and the History of Time," is here: A recent discussion of it is here:

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