Johns Hopkins University
Fall/Winter 2007
Vol. 5, No. 1


Pinpointing “Pockets of Hope”

Cosmology’s Force to Be Reckoned With

Student Research From the Field


> Total War: The Big Picture

Plumbing the Mysteries of the Mind

Embrace Your Inner Cynic

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Total War: The Big Picture

More than 8 million soldiers and 20 million civilians perished in World War I. Many say "The War to End All Wars" instituted military conflict on the grandest scale ever before seen.

Or did it? "Total war," as David Bell argues in his latest book, actually began more than a century earlier, during the Age of Napoleon.

In The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Bell recounts the Age of Enlightenment and its impact on the bloody wars that raged through Europe from 1792 to 1815. The fighting during this period, waged on both land and sea (and with muskets and swords), caused nearly 5 million military and civilian deaths and affected every state on the continent. More to his central premise, this era also introduced such concepts as conscription, unconditional surrender, guerrilla warfare, disregard for the rules of combat, and the peculiar notion of war fought for the sake of total peace.

Bell, dean of faculty for the Krieger School and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities, sat down with the magazine to talk about his book, writing for a general audience, "Napoleon: The teen years," and how the specter of total war lives with us today.

David Bell photo
David Bell

Q: Why did you decide to write a mass-market book?
History is not a specialized field where narrative has to be mysterious. History is a discipline that is inherently open to the general public; the average person on the street can understand and get something out of it. In this case, I wanted to show the barbarism and horrors of war.

Q: In the book, you talk about how the Age of Enlightenment hatched the theory of total peace through total war. Do you think the average citizen back then bought into this philosophy?
As a historian, it's difficult and often not justifiable to go back and blanketly characterize what the everyday person on the street felt. But I think that the French people, ordinary citizens if you like, were into politics and they had a sense of what they were fighting for, that it was something meaningful.

Q: Early in the book, you talk about the young Napoleon and you show a side of him many won't find familiar.
Until the French Revolutionary wars began, Napoleon believed quite rightly that he probably would never be able to rise up very high in the armies of the heavily inegalitarian aristocratic France of his day.
To the extent that he was ambitious, he dreamed of possibly either a career as a kind of political person in his native Corsica, or of being some sort of man of letters. He started to write and take notes. He did it while training to be a military officer, a very young second lieutenant.

Q: How unsuccessful was Napoleon's foray into literature?
Keep in mind that he was very young, a teenager, when he wrote some of this. If I look back at what I wrote when I was 17, I'm sure some, if not most of it, would be appalling.
As it is, what we have is mostly his juvenilia, and like most juvenilia, it's awful. It was overblown. It was imitative of the things he had been reading, and badly so. But it still gives a sense of what makes him tick.

We don't really know how he might have developed. He became a very good writer in a lot of ways. His military dispatches that were written later, and his speeches, while they were certainly incredibly bombastic (the style in those days), [showed] real talent.

Q: How does the concept of total war live with us today?
We live in a society today where the assumption is that war is like Pandora's box, once you open it-kaboom! We get something like World War I or the absolute horrors of World War II: bombings and mass slaughters. Or something like thermo-nuclear war.

So yes, I think that lives with us. It lives with us partly because of the memories of all of these conflicts. But it also lives with us because, as modern people, we've begun to think of war as something primitive, which really shouldn't be here anymore. And as long as we think of it as an aberration, we think, "How can this be controlled and limited?" If we go to war, we might as well give it everything we've got. What I was trying to do in the book is really highlight the difference between that way of looking at things and the way that prevailed before the era of the French Revolution and Napoleon.

Q: But aren't Afghanistan and Iraq limited wars that the populace can live with?
Sure, there are limited wars. If you look at the way we are prosecuting the war in Iraq, it is anything but a total war. We are making great attempts to spare the civilian population. We are fighting, in a sense, more the kind of war the French fought in Spain that I write about in my book.

One misconception is that I was arguing that every modern war is a total war, and it's not, of course. But that does not mean that the temptation is not there, that the rhetoric is not there. If there was a very serious terror attack on the United States that caused many times over the casualties of 9/11, we might see a very different attitude toward how we prosecute these wars, and the restraints that we are putting on now would disappear overnight.

Q: Any plans for writing another general audience book?
A: Oh, yes, sure. One of the great pleasures of being a historian is that you do have this sort of contact with the general public. And one interesting thing about new information technologies is that they've broken down barriers even further.

With the Internet, courses on CDs, the History Channel, it is very easy for the general public to become very well educated about the subjects they like. And then it becomes rather natural for them to come into contact with those who are working on this material professionally.
Writing academic books, you sometimes get the sense you are writing for six of [your] colleagues, and while that can be very important and enjoyable, sometimes you want to reach out a bit further.