There’s a review of David Bell’s new book on the inventional of modern warfare in Revolutionary/Napoleonic France, The First Total War, in the latest issue of The Nation. When The Nation contemplates economics and Progressive politics, it isn’t worth much. But on issues of war and peace, right now, with Democrats not bombing and invading countries for allegedly humanitarian reasons (and under explicit U.N. aegis or in defense of “international law”), The Nation is pretty good. I expect that will change once a Democrat reoccupies 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and our sprawling and out of control executive branch, when they will probably take up cudgels again. Until then, they are a valuable resource.
While the concept of total war is generally accepted as coming into its own in the early 20th century, Bell says the French Revolutionary Wars and Napoleon’s march across Europe constitute total war because they “involv[ed] the complete mobilization of a society’s resources to achieve the absolute destruction of an enemy, with all distinction erased between combatants and noncombatants.” While there was little aboslute destruct of enemies during the various Napoleonic campaigns (a point both Bell and reviewer Ruth Scurr note), the savage campaign by the Revolutionaries in the Vendee come closest. Absolute destruction is an ideal rather than a realistic program. A better description may be the absolute defeat, subjugation and even “conversion” of the enemy.
(And while Europe may have been spared another total war in the century between the Congress of Vienna and the assasination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, North America was convulsed by just such a war from 1861 to 1865.)
According to Curr, Bell links the evolution of total war to the rejection of war as part of the ancien regime’s social order by 17th and 18th century Enlightment thinkers, who concieved of peace as the rational outcome of a rationally managed social order. Curr writes:
It is far from obvious how the Enlightenment arguments for peace that the revolutionaries inherited can have transmuted in so few years into unprecedented bloodshed in Europe, or total war. Curtly summarized, the trajectory seems utterly bizarre.
Except that it isn’t, if you understand that what was happening was the creation (in the French Revolution) of the first ideologically defined total state. And that total state is itself the product Enlightenment rationalism, a state bound not by custom or tradition but allegedly by reason. A state that has power over all things, a state that seeks to remake individual human beings and whole societies. It’s no surprise that a writer with The Nation wouldn’t see this point, since The Nation, with its attachment to Progressive politics and the Enlightenment/Progressive teleology of history, also wants to believe in the ability of the total state to remake individuals and societies.
While some leaders of the French Revolution did not believe in the forceful spread of the French Revolution by force of arms — Curr and Bell quote Robespierre as saying in 1790: “The most extravagant idea that can arise in a politician’s head is to believe that it is enough for a people to invade a foreign county to make it adopt their laws and their constitution. No one loves armed missionaries…..” — this total statism becomes an evangelical faith within just two years. Robespierre himself would change his views on the subject, saying: “Those who make war on a people to halt the progress of liberty and destroy the rights of man must be attacked by all, not as ordinary enemies, but as assassins and rebel brigands.”
This gets to another point a Nation writer would not pick up. When the wars of the French Republic (and then of Napoleon) became “wars of liberation,” in which France became the “benefactor of nations,” then the evangelical religion of the total state became totally justified. What kind of evil and reprehensible people oppose being librerated? Who could honestly and decently stand against the ever rising tide of freedom? The Prussians, the Austrians, the Russians, the British, the Spaniards were not merely enemies of the French nation, but of humanity as well.
Violence — especially total violence — is implicit in any philosophy or theology of liberation (again, something a Nation writer wouldn’t see or wouldn’t admit even if she did), whether espoused by revolutionary priests or powerful presidents.
It’s axiomatic for many of us in the West that the Enlightenment was an absolute good. But I’m not so sure. Curr writes:
The thrust of this argument brings Bell up sharply against one of the most intractable questions about the French Revolution: Was it caused by Enlightenment social and political thought? Can its excesses and atrocities be attributed in some subtle yet direct way to the intellectual contributions of Voltaire, Rousseau or the proto-pacifists mentioned above? Bell claims that the arguments for peace that won over Europe’s intellectual elite during the eighteenth century were philosophical abstractions, insulated from the practice of war by a metaphorical glass wall, which the Revolution was to shatter. It put ideas into practice, just as Edmund Burke had seen it would. “The mode of civilized war will not be practiced,” he predicted in 1791, “nor are the French…entitled to expect it…. The hell-hounds of war, on all sides, will be uncoupled and unmuzzled.” Burke was right, but as he conceded, there was no moral high ground left to occupy, only squalid despair amid the horrors of unlimited war.
I’d go back a little farther, to the Reformation, which (in Europe) ended the nearly millenia-long dispute between church and state in favor of a state geographically limited monopoly over individual human loyalty. The Enlightment and the French Revolution would extend that monopoly from mere violence and loyalty to meaning, creating Michael Oakeshott’s teleological state — the ideologically defined state which assumes the unlimited right to intervene in all affairs of human life.