Pub. Date:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

by David A. Bell
Current price is , Original price is $19.99. You

Temporarily Out of Stock Online

Please check back later for updated availability.


The twentieth century is usually seen as "the century of total war." But as the historian David Bell argues in this landmark work, the phenomenon actually began much earlier, in the era of muskets, cannons, and sailing ships—in the age of Napoleon.

In a sweeping, evocative narrative, Bell takes us from campaigns of "extermination" in the blood-soaked fields of western France to savage street fighting in ruined Spanish cities to central European battlefields where tens of thousands died in a single day. Between 1792 and 1815, Europe plunged into an abyss of destruction.

It was during this time, Bell argues, that our modern attitudes toward war were born. In the eighteenth century, educated Europeans thought war was disappearing from the civilized world. So when large-scale conflict broke out during the French Revolution, they could not resist treating it as "the last war" -- a final, terrible spasm of redemptive violence that would usher in a reign of perpetual peace. As this brilliant interpretive history shows, a war for such stakes could only be apocalyptic, fought without restraint or mercy.

Ever since, the dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of total war have been bound tightly together in the Western world—right down to the present day, in which the hopes for an "end to history" after the cold war quickly gave way to renewed fears of full-scale slaughter.

With a historian's keen insight and a journalist's flair for detail, Bell exposes the surprising parallels between Napoleon's day and our own—including the way that ambition "wars of liberation," such as the one in Iraq, can degenerate into a gruesome guerrilla conflict. The result is a book that is as timely and important as it is unforgettable.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780618919819
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 01/16/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.62(h) x 1.04(d)

About the Author

David A. Bell is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins and a contributing editor for the New Republic. A graduate of Harvard College, he completed his Ph.D. at Princeton and taught for several years at Yale. Bell has written for the New York Times, Slate, and Time, and was featured on the History Channel’s program on the French Revolution.

Read an Excerpt


This war will be the last war.
— Charles-François Dumouriez, 1792

The years '89 and '90 were years of elation and hope. A powerful and much-
loathed regime not only collapsed unexpectedly but did so with surprisingly
little violence. Amid its ruins, a new international order seemed to be taking
shape, built on a respect for peace, democracy, and human rights. So
transformative did the moment appear that many advanced thinkers predicted
nothing less than the coming end of warfare. But disillusion followed with
cruel speed. The years that followed brought not peace but unremitting
violence, which the dominant powers found frustratingly difficult to contain.
Soon, the widespread expectation of an end to war gave way to the equally
widespread conviction that an era of apocalyptic conflict had begun. Indeed, it
was widely argued that to defeat evil adversaries, war now needed to be
waged on a sustained and massive scale, and with measures once
condemned as barbaric.

The strange thing about this description is that it applies equally
well to two different centuries. Most obviously for us, it applies to the period
that began in 1989–90. Even before the rotten timbers of the Soviet Union
finished crashing to the ground, prominent political scientists were claiming
that an end to war was at hand. Some thought that the world had simply
begun to outgrow large-scale conflict. Others believed that peace would follow
the spread of democracy, since democracies supposedly do not fight one
another. Francis Fukuyama, in a famous and unjustly mocked article, linked
the end of war to "the end of history" — by which he meant an end to
conflicts over the proper form of society.
Instead of an end to war, of course, there followed an
intensification of conflict and danger: in the Gulf War, the wars in the
Balkans, and then the global upheaval that began on September 11, 2001. In
the wake of that day's horrific terrorist attacks, U.S. president George W.
Bush began to describe the struggle between the West and its adversaries
as one between the forces of freedom and the forces of evil. Prominent
supporters of his administration likened it to World War II and warned that the
very survival of the West hung in the balance. Some insisted that to prevail,
the West would even have to flout established restraints on military
behavior. "Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in
the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle," wrote the British
diplomat Robert Cooper in an influential 2002 essay. Soon afterward, the
United States and its allies began a preemptive war in Iraq, starting with an
open attempt to assassinate its head of state. Since then, American
military operations have involved a number of well-publicized lapses into
the "laws of the jungle." At this writing, it is difficult to see how or when the
current period of violent instability and danger might come to an end.
So far, so familiar. Yet, surprisingly, the description applies just
as well to the years 1789–90, when the collapse of the Old Regime and the
beginning of the French Revolution untethered hopeful imaginations around
the world. Even before these events, advanced opinion in the West was
already beginning to think of war as a rapidly vanishing anachronism. 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." On May 22, 1790, France's new revolutionary
government went so far as to issue a formal renunciation of "wars of
conquest," in what has been called a "declaration of peace to the world." It
promised that France would henceforth use its armed forces only in self-
defense. But just twenty-three months later, France invaded Austrian-ruled
Belgium, starting a conflict that would drag in all of Europe's major powers
and continue, with only short interruptions, for more than twenty-three years,
until France's final defeat in 1815. From early on, both sides saw this long
struggle in apocalyptic terms: "a war to the death," as one of its early French
advocates declared, "which we will fight . . . so as to destroy and annihilate
all who attack us, or to be destroyed ourselves." Neither side went so far as
to practice assassination openly. But desperate guerrilla warfare and savage
attempts to repress it spawned atrocities across the Continent on a scale not
matched again until World War II. As Napoleon Bonaparte himself explained,
foreshadowing Cooper: "It has cost us dearly to return . . . to the principles
that characterized the barbarism of the early ages of nations, but we have
been constrained . . . to deploy against the common enemy the arms he has
used against us."
Needless to say, the parallels are hardly exact. The sheer scale
of bloodshed and destruction in Napoleon's Europe — by which I mean both
the Europe he lived through as a young officer and the one he came to
dominate as ruler of France — greatly exceeded anything yet seen since
1989. Yet neither are the parallels coincidental. The late eighteenth and early
nineteenth centuries saw fundamental changes in Western attitudes toward
war and the start of a recurrent historical pattern, of which events since 1989
provide only the most recent, if also a particularly clear, example. In this
pattern, the dream of perpetual peace and the nightmare of total war have
been bound together in complex and disturbing ways, each sustaining the
other. On the one hand, a large and sustained current of public opinion has
continued to see war as a fundamentally barbaric phenomenon that should
soon disappear from a civilized world. On the other hand, there has been a
recurrent and powerful tendency to characterize the conflicts that do arise as
apocalyptic struggles that must be fought until the complete destruction of
the enemy and that might have a purifying, even redemptive, effect on the
participants. Today, these twin languages of war and peace define the
extremes of Western, and particularly American, thinking on the subject,
with "speakers" of each dismissing their opponents as a species of reality-
denying mental patients: the "delusional" doves versus the "paranoid" or "war-
mongering" hawks.
Some sophisticated commentators have interpreted these
languages as reflections of recent historical circumstances. Robert Kagan,
for instance, contrasts a Western Europe, which has allegedly enjoyed
peace without responsibility, thanks to American protection, since World
War II, and therefore shuns military action, with an America that has
grindingly confronted one lethal opponent after another. "Americans are from
Mars and Europeans are from Venus," he concludes.
But, in fact, these languages took shape long before World War II.
And they have more in common with each other than either side likes to
admit, for in each case, war figures as something wholly exceptional, wholly
outside the established social order. Not surprisingly, intellectuals and
statesmen have often braided them together in the idea that one final, all-
consuming war might paradoxically inaugurate the reign of perpetual peace.
To quote the single most famous expression of this idea, H. G. Wells's 1914
tract The War That Will End War: "This is now a war for peace . . . This, the
greatest of all wars, is not just another war — it is the last war!" A hundred
and twenty-two years before, the French politician-general Charles-François
Dumouriez had likewise promised: "this war will be the last war."
The fact that we see war through conceptual lenses that were
largely ground and polished two centuries ago in Europe does not mean that
our vision is necessarily distorted. Obviously, there are occasions on which
the West has faced apocalyptic danger. Nonetheless, we need to recognize
the power and persistence of these lenses and the distorting effects they can
often give rise to. In the 1990s, a reluctance to use military force, grounded in
part in a perception of war as an anachronistic folly, led to massive suffering
and death in the Balkans and Rwanda while Western statesmen sat
learnedly discussing sanctions and political pressure. Only in the former
case did they finally remember that there are barbarians in the world and that
they respond only to force.
But consider this as well. Since September 2001, the United
States has been involved in a War on Terror that has, to date, cost the same
number of American civilian lives that are lost every two and a half weeks in
road accidents on American highways. It is the same number of lives that the
Soviet Union lost every six hours, for four agonizing years, during World War
II. Our opponents in this new conflict, for all their stated desire to acquire
weapons of mass destruction, have so far demonstrated no ability to wield
anything more powerful than knives, guns, and conventional explosives. A
war it may be, but does it really deserve comparison to World War II and its
50 million dead? Not every adversary is an apocalyptic threat. Yet the
languages in which we are used to discussing war and peace make it difficult
for this point to emerge. Put simply, it has become very difficult to discuss
war in nonapocalyptic terms.
Why is this the case? Why has the West returned again and
again to the twin visions of an end to war and apocalyptic war? I don't pretend
to be offering an answer to this entire, vast question. But in this book, I
explore how and why the pattern began.

At the heart of the story is an astonishing transformation. During the
eighteenth century, as in previous centuries, most Western cultures
accepted war as an inevitable, and ordinary, facet of human existence.
Western rulers saw war as their principal purpose and fought continually —
during the 1700s, no more than six or seven years passed without at least
one major European power at war. But since the end of the terrible religious
conflicts of the Reformation, war had also become relatively easy to control
and to restrain. Armies were relatively small, major battles relatively
infrequent (though devastating when they occurred), and civilians relatively
well treated. Military leaders saw their adversaries largely as honorable
equals. This is not to say that war was not horrific. War is horrific by
definition. But historians need to be able to make distinctions between
shades of horror, and if the eighteenth century did not exactly reduce the
slavering dogs of war to "performing poodles" (as Sir Michael Howard once
jokingly put it), its conflicts still ranked among the least horrific in European
This state of virtually permanent but restrained warfare seemed
entirely natural and proper to the noblemen who led Europe's armies under
the Old Regime, for it allowed the aristocratic values of honor and service to
find full expression without serious threats to social stability and prosperity.
Indeed, war operated as a sort of theater of the aristocracy, just as the royal
courts of the period did. In war, aristocratic lives and values were put on
display, amid splendor, polish, gallantry, and shows of utter self-assurance.
European elites of the eighteenth century assumed that this world would last
indefinitely. They did not realize that it was on the edge of total eclipse.
The transformation had its origins in the realm of the intellect.
During the great movement of ideas we now call the Enlightenment, influential
thinkers began to argue that permanent warfare might not, in fact, be the
permanent fate of mankind. Human societies, they wrote, followed a common
path of historical evolution from savage beginnings toward ever-greater levels
of peaceful civilization, politeness, and commercial exchange. From this
point of view, the prevailing state of restrained warfare did not represent a
natural equilibrium but rather a stage on the way to war's eventual complete
disappearance. In modern times, war would soon become an abhorrent,
exceptional state of affairs, a grotesque remnant of mankind's violent infancy.
These thinkers were by no means the first prophets of perpetual
peace: philosophical and religious pacifists had long preceded them. But for
devout Christians in particular, the inescapable fact of original sin implied that
a reign of peace could come about only as the result of a providential change
in human nature. By contrast, the secular eighteenth- century writers
described peace as the culmination of entirely natural social changes that
were already visible and taking place according to scientifically observable
laws. This difference made them the most convincing, and the most
apparently realistic, pacifists the world had ever known, and their ideas
rapidly became conventional wisdom among educated Europeans, including
even many nobles and military officers.
Yet even as these beliefs gained in popularity, other Europeans
began to stare into the abyss of war and see not only something terrible but
also something that held a terrible fascination, even a terrible sublimity. They
began to see in it the ultimate test of a society and of an individual self. They
began to imagine it as an elemental, cleansing, even redemptive
experience — and therefore, perhaps, as a desirable one. War might be
fundamentally alien to a civilized way of life — but was "civilization"
necessarily such a blessing? Could not war serve as a corrective to the
corruption and pettiness of civilized existence? "War is one of the healthiest
phenomena for the cultivation of the human race," the German polymath
Wilhelm von Humboldt would write. "It is the admittedly fearful extreme." This
new glorification of war did not, however, mark a return to the earlier,
aristocratic understandings. Quite the contrary. War remained seen as an
exceptional, extreme state of affairs, not as an ordinary facet of human
existence. For the enthusiasts, it was no longer a matter of aristocratic self-
control, of establishing a reputation by emulating an impersonal model of
glory. It was becoming a matter of Romantic self-expression. In fact, the very
concept and experience of the "self " in war was changing.
Before the French Revolution, ideas of this sort had little effect on
Europe's rulers, still less on the conduct of war. But during the first three
years of the French Revolution (1789–92), one of the greatest moments of
political and cultural fermentation in all history, they burst into the
mainstream of political debate in Europe's largest and most powerful state.
During the same period, the French aristocracy lost its predominant position
in the French state and armed forces and found itself the target of visceral
revolutionary hostility. As a result of these changes, when France took up
arms in 1792, it was not to fight anything like the limited wars familiar to the
powers of the Old Regime.
What followed deserves the adjective "apocalyptic." The conflicts
of 1792 to 1815 did not witness any great leaps ahead in military technology,
but Europe nevertheless experienced an astonishing transformation in the
scope and intensity of warfare. The figures speak for themselves. More than a
fifth of all the major battles fought in Europe between 1490 and 1815 took
place just in the twenty-five years after 1790. Before 1790, only a handful of
battles had involved more than 100,000 combatants; in 1809, the battle of
Wagram, the largest yet seen in the gunpowder age, involved 300,000. Four
years later, the battle of Leipzig drew 500,000, with fully 150,000 of them
killed or wounded. During the Napoleonic period, France alone counted close
to a million war deaths, possibly including a higher proportion of its young
men than died in World War I. The toll across Europe may have reached as
high as 5 million. In a development without precedent, the wars brought about
significant alterations in the territory or the political system of every single
European state. Guerrilla fighting left livid scars in regions of Spain, Italy,
Austria, Switzerland, and France itself. This, then, was the first total war.
The concept of "total war" deserves some explanation. It has
enormous resonance, and many historians have used it to describe the wars
of 1792–1815. But it is also one of those concepts that seems to get blurrier
the closer you come to it. It is often defined as a war involving the complete
mobilization of a society's resources to achieve the absolute destruction of
an enemy, with all distinction erased between combatants and
noncombatants. This formulation seems, at first, clear enough. But can any
real war live up to this ideal standard? (Even a massive thermonuclear
exchange would not involve the mobilization of all of a society's resources!)
And if not, what determines which wars come sufficiently close to the ideal to
qualify? The ambiguities are such that one leading scholar, Roger Chickering,
has come close to concluding that the concept should simply be scrapped.
I believe that "total war" remains a useful term but only when
applied to war in a broad political and cultural context. What marked the
conflicts that began in 1792 was not simply their radically new scope and
intensity but also the political dynamic that drove the participants relentlessly
toward a condition of total engagement and the abandonment of restraints.
Even before France attacked Austria, much of the French political leadership
had come to see war in the new manner, as an unfathomable extreme, set
outside the ordinary bounds of social existence, that could end only in total
victory or total defeat. This vision drove France into declaring war even though
it lacked clear, practical strategic goals. It produced the widespread
conviction that France's enemies were themselves bent on a "war of
extermination." It helped demonize enemy populations and made it almost
impossible to see enemy soldiers as honorable adversaries or enemy
noncombatants as innocent bystanders. It drove France to conquer ever more
territories as a buffer against these enemies and to impose revolutionary
reforms there, even at the cost of provoking massive uprisings. These actions
drove France's enemies, particularly rebels against French occupations, to
adopt an equally radical vision of the conflict. In short, the French advocates
of war set up a race into the abyss that could not easily be reversed, even
after they themselves had largely vanished from the scene. Napoleon
Bonaparte, despite his taste for conquest, was no conscious advocate of
total war (still less was he the bloodthirsty megalomaniac of legend). But it
was the radical intensification of war that brought him to prominence and
power, and in the end, he could not contain it. He was, in turn, the product,
master, and victim of total war.
As the French scholar Jean-Yves Guiomar has compellingly
argued, it is this fusion of politics and war that distinguishes modern "total
war" from earlier incidents of unrestrained or even exterminatory warfare.
Needless to say, humanity had a long and sorry record of such conflicts
before the eighteenth century. It did not, however, except in a few,
geographically confined arenas (e.g., city-states), see concerted political
attempts to harness entire societies — every human being, every resource —
to a single, military purpose. This factor is what brings the continent- wide
conflicts of 1792–1815 closer to the world wars of the twentieth century.
Tellingly, the term "total war" itself first appeared in France and Germany at
the end of the First World War, not only to describe the fighting but also to
help envisage even more violent conflicts, in which nations would concentrate
all available strength for one, great, convulsive blow. In the World War II
speech that gave the term particular notoriety — Joseph Goebbels shrieking
at a crowd of Nazis at the Berlin Sports Palace just weeks after the German
surrender at Stalingrad, "Wollt ihr den totalen Krieg?" ("Do you want total
war?") — it again referred to an as yet unrealized future, not the past or the
present. Calls for total engagement, Guiomar observes, have tended to come
from civilian political leaders far more than from military professionals.
Here, then, is the essential argument of The First Total War. The
intellectual transformations of the Enlightenment, followed by the political
fermentation of 1789–92, produced new understandings of war that made
possible the cataclysmic intensification of the fighting over the next twenty-
three years. Ever since, the same developments have shaped the way
Western societies have seen and engaged in military conflict.
This is a new argument. Among historians, conventional wisdom
has long attributed the intensification of war after 1792 to two different factors.
First, they cite revolutionary ideology, suggesting that the wars grew out of a
conflict between fundamentally incompatible belief systems: one radically
egalitarian and the other conservative and hierarchical. Second, they invoke
nationalism, arguing that even though earlier wars had pitted dynastic houses
against each other, these new conflicts took place between entire nations
that were coming to new states of self-consciousness.
Ideology and nationalism both played hugely important roles in the
history of this period. But were they the principal factors driving the
intensification of war? Both explanations date back to the period itself and
echo rather too neatly the justifications for war given at the time. For
example, the British conservative Edmund Burke, in 1796: "It is with an
armed doctrine that we are at war . . . if it can at all exist, it must finally
prevail." Or the future military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, in 1812: "It is not
[now] the king who wages war on the king, not an army against another
army, but a people against another people." Furthermore, both explanations
reduce war to little more than an instrument of changing political goals.
Neither allows any scope for treating war as a meaningful and dynamic
activity in its own right, exerting profound and complex effects on politics and
culture in its turn (not surprisingly, the famous definition of war as "the
continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means" derives from
the period — from Clausewitz himself ).
Both explanations also suffer from more specific, chronological
problems. Consider that even during the most radical period of the French
Revolution (which ended in 1794), not all French leaders advocated the
spread of revolutionary ideology by force. Under Napoleon, there followed a
return to naked dynastic politics: he put three of his brothers and a brother-in-
law on foreign thrones, and himself married the daughter of the Austrian
emperor. Yet it was precisely during the later, least revolutionary years of his
rule that the wars grew largest in scope and most vicious in the suppression
of rebellions against French rule.
Nationalism certainly contributed to the wars. The concepts of
forging nations anew and mobilizing entire populations helped inspire
everything from France's 1793 "levée en masse" (mass levy of soldiers) to
Spain's 1808 rising against Napoleon to the German "war of liberation" of
1813. Yet the slogan of a "war of nations" had appeared in France and Britain
decades before the Revolutionary war, while Napoleon's regime ended up
downplaying nationalist language, in keeping with its revival of dynastic
politics and its transformation into a multinational empire. Nor did the
spectacle of the "people in arms," so loudly hailed as a world-changing event
at the time, ever entirely live up to its reputation. The ill-trained and ill-
equipped soldiers of the levée en masse did matter because of their sheer
numbers, but they helped the French war effort much less than
contemporaries claimed. Similar attempts at general levies in Austria and
Prussia also had only partial success. Napoleon depended on professional
soldiers as much as possible. As for the Spanish war against Napoleon,
which still generally has the reputation of being a spontaneous rising of the
entire Spanish people, much of the population in fact remained aloof from the
war, while the activities of the rebels sometimes resembled organized crime
as much as national liberation.
In this book, then, I look less at nationalism and ideology than at
transformations in what I would call the "culture of war" between the mid-
eighteenth century and the first decades of the nineteenth — in other words,
roughly across the lifetime of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769– 1821). I have
already mentioned the single most important transformation: the way war
ceased to be seen as an ordinary part of the social order and began to
appear as something entirely apart from the proper course of history. But two
other, related shifts took place at the same time, and The First Total War
discusses them as well.
First, there came new perceptions of the armed forces. It was in
this period, I argue, that the "military" came enduringly to be defined as a
separate sphere of society, largely distinct from the "civilian" one. The
distinction was not unknown in Europe but had previously appeared primarily
in societies that relied on mercenary armies, such as the city-states of
Renaissance Italy. In most of Europe, common soldiers had often lived apart
from nonsoldiers and had a distinct set of experiences, but the idea
of "military" and "civilian" as opposites did not yet form part of the social
vocabulary. Indeed, the word "civilian" itself, in the sense of "nonmilitary," did
not yet appear in English or French dictionaries. Before the 1790s, a "civilian"
in English meant an expert in civil (i.e., Roman) law. The distinction did not
exist, because the men who dominated Old Regime societies did not draw
sharp lines between their professional role as military officers and their social
identity as aristocrats. Only in the new era of war did the notion of
the "military" as a world unto itself, with its own distinct rules and values, run
by men whose experiences cut them off from civilian peers, take shape for
the first time. Only then did the noun "civilian" — in French, "civil" — take on
its familiar, modern meaning.
True, this redefinition of the "military" coincided with the
appearance of citizen armies, fed by conscription. As early as 1793, the
French Revolutionaries proclaimed every male citizen a soldier, an action that
in one sense lowered the barriers between "military" and "civilians," rather
than the reverse. But conscription and universal military training did not mean
that every male citizen should always behave as a soldier. It meant, rather,
that every male citizen should stand prepared to give up "civilian" life in times
of national emergency and cross the boundary into the distinct realm of
the "military." Indeed, the military leaders of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic
wars explicitly sought to break their conscripts' links to civilian life and
provide them with a new, military ethos. In this sense, the rise of conscript
armies actually reinforced the distinction between military and civilian.
This new separation of realms gave rise in turn to a second
phenomenon that had not truly existed before 1789: namely, militarism.
Militarism, as I would define it, relies precisely on the assumption of a sharp,
clear divide between "military" and "civilian" society, for it involves the
imposition of the values and customs of the former on the latter. Militarists
believe in the moral superiority of the armed forces, which they praise as
disciplined, self-sacrificing, and tested by adversity, to civilian society, which
they usually deride as weak, corrupt, and self-absorbed. In the Europe of the
Old Regime, the subordination of the armed forces to the aristocracy and the
princes made such a doctrine virtually unthinkable, except perhaps in the
Prussia of Frederick the Great. And even there, the notion that an
autonomous military might seize political power for itself would have seemed
utterly absurd. The whole purpose of the army was service to the monarch.
Modern militarism first arose, rather, in Revolutionary France and helped
bring about the first military coup d'état of modern times: by Napoleon
Bonaparte in 1799. The word "militarism" appeared about the same time. Of
course, it has since become a familiar element of modern Western politics
and culture. In the United States today, the historian Andrew Bacevich has
described a "new American militarism" that expresses itself in everything
from such films as Top Gun to the widespread idea that military service
constitutes a principal qualification for high political office (think of the
presidential candidacies of John Kerry and Wesley Clark in 2004).
As a result of these shifts, a culture of war that seems quite alien
to us had given way, by the early 1800s, to one that remains highly
recognizable today across the Western world and especially in the United
States. In fact, current American attitudes sometimes seem particularly,
eerily close to those of Napoleon's Europe. On the one hand, Americans
today generally see war as an exceptional state of affairs — despite the fact
that American forces have engaged in five major military operations in the last
fifteen years and maintain bases in scores of countries. Americans frequently
describe war as something civilized nations have outgrown. American
politicians automatically denounce the country's adversaries as criminal
malefactors, threaten them with prosecution or even assassination, and never
do them the courtesy of a formal declaration of war. But many Americans, as
Bacevich observes, also have an unabated fascination with war, considering it
a test of their society's worth. They treat members of the armed forces with
respect verging on reverence and take for granted that no one who has not
been in combat can ever really understand "what it is like" or how it changes
a person. These attitudes, which seem timeless and natural to us, only came
into being in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe, from
where they subsequently spread across the world.
It is for this reason that if we want to understand the place of war
in the modern imagination, we need to travel back in time, strange as it may
seem, to the era of muskets, cannon, and sailing ships. The technology of
war has since changed beyond recognition. Strategy, tactics, and logistics
have changed to nearly as great a degree. But the place war holds in
Western culture has changed much less, even taking into account the vast
changes wrought by the two world wars.

Yet surprisingly, the cultural history of war in Napoleon's Europe remained
largely unexplored territory until quite recently and still lacks a systematic
overview. True, many aspects of the story told here have featured in history
books before — it could hardly be otherwise, since by some estimates more
than 220,000 books and articles had appeared on Napoleon and his empire
alone by 1980! But historians and social scientists have attempted far less
often to examine the place of war in Western society and culture, particularly
for periods before the twentieth century. Before plunging into the story itself,
it's worth briefly discussing why they have not done so, because this context
will help show where The First Total War is coming from and how the book
has taken shape.
We can begin with the fact that the modern social sciences have
in fact never done a very good job of understanding war. Indeed, they have
often preferred not to deal with the subject at all. This is mostly not because
many academics have pacifist tendencies, and few have military
experience — although these things are true. More fundamentally, as
sociologists such as Hans Joas and Michael Mann have perceptively
observed, it is because, broadly speaking, the social sciences descend from
precisely the liberal, Enlightenment-era thinking that dismissed war as
primitive, irrational, and alien to modern civilization. Even Marxism, which had
such vast intellectual influence from the mid-nineteenth to the late twentieth
centuries, did not fundamentally depart from this thinking. Although Marx saw
class conflict (which is conflict within societies, not between them) as the
motor of historical change, he still believed it would eventually lead to a
condition of social harmony and perpetual peace. Nor did he ever exalt
violence as cleansing and redemptive, the way some of his followers would
do in the twentieth century. One strain of nineteenth-century philosophers
and social scientists did take war more seriously, arguing that without it,
societies would weaken and wither. But they lived mostly in Germany and
largely disappeared from view after World War I.
Among leading twentieth-century thinkers, one of the few to set
war at the center of his reflections was a man whose reactionary politics put
him entirely at odds with the liberal social scientific tradition. The German
jurist Carl Schmitt went so far as to place his formidable intellect at the
service of Adolf Hitler and to embrace the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Yet
the hatred he felt toward liberal thought gave him disturbingly keen insights
into its paradoxical consequences for war, and no serious student of the
subject can afford to ignore them, however repugnant their author. What
happens, Schmitt asked, when a war was fought for the sake of perpetual
peace, when it was "considered to constitute the absolute last war of
humanity"? He responded: "Such a war is necessarily unusually intense and
inhuman because, by transcending the limits of the political framework, it
simultaneously degrades the enemy into moral and other categories and is
forced to make of him a monster that must not only be defeated but utterly
destroyed. "Writing these lines in 1932, Schmitt had in mind particularly
World War I and the Versailles peace settlement that imposed punitive
reparations on Germany, but the passage has relevance for the earlier period
as well — one that Schmitt himself singled out for attention in later works. In
his Theory of the Partisan, which begins with Spain's struggle against
Napoleon, Schmitt usefully proposed the concept of "absolute enmity" to
describe a condition in which each side denies the very humanity of the other.
For a time, the historical profession differed from the social
scientists. In the nineteenth century, history was still preeminently a literary,
narrative art, and the past offered no more dramatic or compelling subject
than war. Such masters as Ranke, Macaulay, Michelet, and Parkman all
gave it a major place in their works, took military science seriously, and put
climactic battles at the heart of their stories. In the twentieth century,
however, history turned in a more explicitly scientific, academic direction,
and so, many historians followed the social scientists' lead away from the
battlefield. The leaders of the influential "Annales school" of social history,
which developed in France in the early twentieth century, explicitly
downplayed "event history" — by which they particularly meant military
history — in favor of "deeper" geological, social, and economic factors. The
most important Annaliste, Fernand Braudel, held to this principle so strongly
that he managed to draft much of his masterpiece, The Mediterranean, while
in a World War II German prisoner-of-war camp. Historians of the twentieth
century resisted these tendencies better than others (not surprisingly, given
the cataclysmic impact of the world wars), but in accounts of earlier periods,
war lost its formerly commanding position.
Since the 1980s, many historians have turned toward literary
criticism and postmodern philosophy for inspiration, but these disciplines
share the social sciences' aversion to war. One of the contemporary
philosophers most important for historians, Michel Foucault, did have a
certain fascination with war — but mostly because he saw modern society
waging a "silent war" on itself, through a broad spectrum of repressive
practices (inverting Clausewitz's remark, Foucault quipped that "politics is
the continuation of war by other means"). Mainstream historians, meanwhile,
remain surprisingly uninterested in and ignorant of pre–twentieth century
military history. The American Historical Review, flagship journal of the
profession in the United States, has not published an article on Napoleonic
military history for more than thirty years.
Military history itself has by no means died out, but it has become
remarkably segregated from other branches of history — virtually a discipline
of its own. It attracts many talented and original practitioners, but for the
most part, they have not asked the same sorts of questions as their
colleagues in nonmilitary fields. They have concentrated on the development
of technology, tactics and strategy, on motivation and combat effectiveness,
on the social makeup of armed forces, and on the way common soldiers
experienced combat. John Keegan, one of the most brilliant and prolific of
them, once complained that "not even the beginnings of an attempt have
been made by military historians to plot the intellectual landmarks and
boundaries of their own field of operations." For a very long time, military
historians did regrettably little to place war within a larger cultural context.
In recent years, though, the situation has finally begun to change.
In Britain and the United States, historians of ideas have rediscovered the
central place held by war and diplomacy in premodern political thought. In
France, a new generation of experts in the Revolutionary era have finally
begun to exorcise the ghost of the fin-de-siècle diplomatic historian Albert
Sorel, whose grandly intimidating history of the Revolutionary period's foreign
relations was driven by a reductive insistence on the primacy of French
national interests. In Germany, cultural historians, such as Michael Jeismann
and Karen Hagemann, have devoted renewed attention to the origins of
modern forms of militarism and bellicosity. In much of this work, Carl Schmitt
has stood as a prominent — and hotly disputed — point of reference.
It is no coincidence that this new work has begun to appear since
the end of the cold war and that reflection on the subject has intensified since
September 11, 2001. The competition between NATO and the Warsaw Pact,
with its basso continuo of proxy war in the third world and the threat of
mutual assured destruction supposedly preventing open superpower conflict,
made the utopian hopes and apocalyptic struggles of early modernity feel far
away. Since 1989, the parallels and connections have come to seem much
more pressing and important. It has become a much more vital task to
understand how the modern culture of war and peace first took shape.
The First Total War addresses this task, drawing on both military
history as it has traditionally been practiced and the forms of cultural history
that have developed over the past generation. I try to establish some
connections between these unjustly separated fields, emphasizing the
centrality of war to a period in which it has recently been ignored by
mainstream historians, and the centrality of culture to military
transformations that have been studied mostly from an operational viewpoint.

Because I am dealing with such a broad subject, there are a number of
things that I have necessarily not done in the pages that follow, and for the
sake of clarity, it may be worth saying what these are. To begin with, readers
will not find here a systematic survey of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic
wars. As the people who lived through the period often remarked, it
sometimes seemed as if time itself had become impossibly compressed —
"this quarter-century equalled many centuries," to quote Chateaubriand.
Merely recounting the major battles would have made this book twice as
long. In any case, readers can turn to many other places for such a history,
starting with Timothy Blanning's superb histories of the Revolutionary wars,
David Chandler's magisterial survey of Napoleon's campaigns, and Jean-Paul
Bertaud's and John Lynn's incisive studies of the armies of the French
Two other important subjects are relatively tangential to the
changing place of war within the European imagination at the time, and so
they get short shrift as well. One of these is economics. I have no desire to
deny the importance of economic competition in starting wars or the
importance of economic resources and systems of taxation and expenditure
in the waging of them, not to mention the way Napoleon's France raised the
practice of pillage to a fine art. But except where economics impinged on
fantasies, myths, and representations of war — for instance, in the way
Enlightenment thinkers linked commerce to peace — I do not give it
systematic attention. The second of these subjects — painful as it is for a
devotee of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian to admit — is naval warfare.
Again, I have no desire to downplay the importance of navies in the course of
the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. British dominance of the seas in
general, and Britain's victories at Aboukir and Trafalgar in particular,
determined the outcome of the wars as much as any other factor did. But
naval warfare changed much less than land warfare during this period, and
outside of Great Britain had relatively little to do either with the developments
of total war or with the beliefs, stories, and myths that arose around it.
This mention of Great Britain leads to another caveat. Although
the changes I am examining flowed across Europe, I have necessarily
concentrated on France more than on any other country. France stood at the
crossroads of the European Enlightenment; its Revolution and the rise of
Napoleon were the decisive events of the period. The phenomenon of total
war reached a hideous peak in 1793–94, in the French region of the Vendée.
Modern militarism, as I have defined it, first took shape in France in the late
1790s. And, of course, France largely drove the period's wars forward, both
under the Revolutionary governments of 1792–99 and then under Napoleon.
Napoleon's conquests went further toward creating a Europe-wide empire
than anything else since the time of Charlemagne, perhaps even the Caesars.
With many of my historian colleagues currently embracing the
cause of "world history," one last omission may strike readers as
problematic: I deal only rarely with the world beyond Europe. Can this
decision be justified on grounds other than, again, wanting to keep this book
a manageable size? As I was writing it, colleagues often suggested to me
that the origins of modern total war are surely to be found on the early
modern imperial frontiers. Surely it was here, long before the French
Revolution, that Europeans first dispensed with notions of chivalric restraint
and waged brutal wars of extermination against supposed "savages." Did not
Europeans learn their worst behavior from imperial encounters in Asia, Africa,
and the Americas?
In fact, I think that the answer to this question is no. To begin
with, Europeans hardly needed colonial empires to learn the art of mass
murder. The horrendous slaughters of the Reformation-era wars of religion
began well before most European empires had developed much beyond
trading posts, and the worst examples occurred in the German states, which
had no colonies. The development of the French and British overseas
empires coincided with the introduction of relative moderation and restraint
into European warfare, not with their disappearance. European forces often
committed terrible atrocities on their colonial frontiers, but it is simply wrong
to think that they usually behaved in a systematically exterminatory manner
toward indigenous populations. Most European empires in this period were
still surprisingly weak and thinly spread. Europeans depended on the
indigenous populations: as trading partners, as guides, and as military allies.
European powers were continually negotiating with indigenous authorities
and, indeed, attempting to instruct them in the peculiar rites of European
warfare. Episodes like the Fox Wars — in which the French helped
exterminate an Indian tribe in present-day Wisconsin — tended to take place
not as a result of planned aggression but when these fragile networks and
alliances broke down or when Europeans found themselves dragged into wars
between indigenous entities. Even in the nineteenth century, as Isabel Hull
has suggested in a recent study of German East Africa, the colonial setting
mostly offered Europeans a laboratory for testing their own preexisting ideas
about war. "The Germans," she concludes, ". . . learned nothing from colonial
warfare that did not confirm their prejudices about the correct way to fight
This point applies even more strongly to eighteenth-century
France, for one simple reason. A few years ago, the French historian Jean-
Clément Martin confessed his bafflement at the sheer incompetence of the
French Revolutionaries who tried to suppress the bloody insurgency in the
Vendée region in 1793–94. Surely, he speculated, French soldiers had
gained considerable experience with irregular, guerrilla warfare of this sort
outside of Europe. But had they? Although many French military personnel
had fought in the Americas, India, and Africa in the 1770s and 1780s, the
turmoil of the Revolution cut this living skein of experience clean through.
Even before the Vendée rebellion began, almost all the officers from the Old
Regime had either resigned or been dismissed, and pre-1789 veterans made
up a distinct minority of the rank and file. In fact, the Revolutionary armies
initially lacked colonial experience almost entirely. They would soon gain it,
however — especially, as we will see soon, in Egypt and Haiti. And so they
would begin to export Europe's new culture of war to the rest of the world, to
its cost.
One final word of introduction. I have written The First Total War
for general readers, not only my fellow historians. I have therefore tried, as
much as possible, to embed my arguments in sketches and stories — at
times, rather impressionistic ones — rather than in analysis alone. In taking
this approach, I have been fortunate in one respect, for few periods offer such
a rich concentration of vivid, gripping events — all too often, horrifyingly
gripping ones. Few periods offer such astonishing characters, starting with
Napoleon Bonaparte himself. In describing these events and characters, I
have drawn not only on my own original research but also, naturally, on the
rich veins of expertise to be found in the scholarly literature. If these qualities
make the book something other than a definitive, exhaustive pronouncement
on the subject, and if specialists find some of the stories familiar, so be it.
The book is a voyage of exploration, not an exhaustive survey of unplowed
archival terrain. But we are living in a moment that needs accessible essays
at least as much as weighty monographs. For as Americans have been
discovering in recent years, few subjects are more dangerous than war to
discuss in a dry, abstract manner, without a sense of the human costs
involved — without hearing the screams, seeing the bodies, and smelling the
powder and the blood.

Copyright © 2007 by David A. Bell. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Table of Contents

Maps and Illustrations viii Acknowledgements ix

Introduction 1 1. Officers, Gentlemen, and Poets 21 2. Conscience, Commerce, and History 52 3. Declaring Peace; Declaring War 84 4. The Last Crusade 120 5. The Exterminating Angels 154 6. The Lure of the Eagle 186 7. Days of Glory 223 8. War’s Red Altar 263 Epilogue 302

Notes 321 Bibliography 360 Index 397

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews