David A. Bell: The idealistic origins of total war

Historians in the News

In “The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It” (Houghton Mifflin; $27), David A. Bell, a professor at John Hopkins, tries to restore military history to the center of history. This ambition may come as a surprise to amateur readers, for whom military history i probably already at the center of history. But academics tend to regard it either as old-style history, where seven key battles change everything, or a hobbyist’s history, where Tom Clancy types look up from the pages to buy Blue and Gray fighting action figures. Real history is the slow-crawl study o small changes, from clan loyalties to price ratios—gradually shifting tectonic plates that suddenly erupt into visible mountains. We see the peaks, but th movement, not the mountain, is the story.

Against this notion, Bell believes that understanding warfare, its practice and its particulars, is necessary to understand modernity—those mountain peaks really are the places that give you the longest view. He wants to make military history respectable by enfolding it into intellectual and cultural history. His subject is Napoleon’s wars, and he goes into great and often riveting detail about the tangles of Marengo and Moscow, all offered with a gift for storytelling and a flair for the weird, unfamiliar fact. (The problem that the French Army had in Russia, he points out, was not just the cold but the heat, too. It was ninety-seven degrees when the French arrived in their heavy woollens.) The thesis, though, is what’s startling: that the practice of “total war” is a modern and ideological invention, born in the French Enlightenment, and first realized fully by Napoleon—a millennial idea before it was a murderous activity.

The modern practice of total war, Bell argues, was driven by the Enlightenment dream of total peace. Before the modern period, wars were just part of life, like taxes and sickness. Every country fought them and was expected to fight them—they were a necessary sign of aristocratic virtue among the officers who led them—but they were fought largely along established lines, and among soldiers who were, like Renaissance mercenaries, more devoted to the profession than to any cause. Bell draws entertaining pictures of the improbable dandywarriors of the eighteenth century, from the Duke of Cumberland, who took a hundred and forty-five tons of baggage into battle with him, to the Duc de Richelieu, who helped defeat Cumberland in the battle of Fontenoy, but who was mostly “famous for his primping, using so much perfume that fellow courtiers claimed that they could detect his fragrance on people who had done no more than sit in a chair he had occupied hours earlier.”
Into this often bloody but still limited and cautious warfare came, alas, the intellectuals. The French philosophes of the Enlightenment began to see war not as one of those things which happen but as one of those things which must be forbidden. (“War, like murder, will one day number among those extraordinary atrocities which revolt and shame nature, and drape opprobrium over the countries and centuries whose annals they sully,” the Marquis de Condorcet wrote, while Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie assured readers that the body politic “is only healthy—that is to say, in its natural state—when it is at peace.”) Bell traces the spread of this view that war was unnatural, and that a new era of permanent peace was about to dawn. Of course, once the philosophes had dreamed of an end to war, the fact that war hadn’t ended could mean only that someone was keeping it from ending. The vexing remnant of the old-fashioned had to be swept away. Through the one-last-time exertions of total war, total peace would arrive at last....
Read entire article at Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker

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