The first total war

David A Bell "To understand the pattern, we need to return to the years in which it started, and recognize that it marked a decisive break from earlier attitudes. Before the late eighteenth century, most Europeans accepted war as an inevitable and ordinary facet of human existence. European rulers saw war as their principal purpose, and waged it constantly. Once the terrible religious conflicts of the Reformation had passed, moreover, warfare became, by historical standards, remarkably moderate and restrained. Armies were small, major battles infrequent (though devastating when they occurred), and civilians relatively well-treated. Most aristocratic military leaders viewed their adversaries as honorable equals.

In the eighteenth century, however, these attitudes were decisively challenged. During the great moment of intellectual ferment we now call the Enlightenment, many thinkers began to argue that human society was steadily evolving towards ever greater levels of peaceful civilization, politeness, and commercial exchange. As an optimistic English clergyman wrote in 1784: "The time is approaching, when the sound of the trumpet, and the alarm of war, will be heard no more throughout the earth." By 1789, these ideas had practically become European conventional wisdom.

Yet paradoxically, when war actually broke out in 1792, these same ideas led directly to the abandonment of the earlier restraints on those that waged it. If warfare was intrinsically barbaric, then one's enemies (on whom the conflict, naturally, was to be blamed) were barbarians, and deserved to be treated as such. Furthermore, if war really was disappearing, then perhaps this one would be, in the words of the commanding French general, "the last war" - the war to end all wars, so to speak. And if that were the case, what means were not justified in order to achieve victory?

Guided by these arguments, the leaders of revolutionary France willingly leapt into the abyss of total war. And ever since, western leaders from Bonaparte to Bush have found it all too easy to present wars of conquest as apocalyptic contests between civilization and darkness. Meanwhile, the earlier regime of restraints has proven difficult to resurrect. It is enough to make us ask if we are really quite as enlightened as we like to think, and if we might not have something to learn from the aristocratic warriors whom the philosophes derided as walking anachronisms."

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