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The Age of Total War, 1860–1945

Jeremy Black, (Praeger Security International, 2006), $44.95.

Most people interested in military history may glance at this title and tacitly agree that the term “total war” and the dates are apt. Those who open the book and read the first paragraph, however, will find that the author believes the subject is much more complex than simply limiting its definition to the world wars and a few introductory conflicts.

Jeremy Black, a history professor at Exeter University in the United Kingdom, is unusually well prepared to deal with this subject, as his more than forty books range the history of warfare, as well as recent international affairs. In 174 pages he muses at length about the meaning of total war and explains how it applies or does not apply to warfare in Europe, the United States, Asia, Africa, and South America between 1860 and 1945, as well as to conflicts during the sixty years since World War II.

The term “total war” was first applied to World War I. Both Georges Clemenceau, the dominant premier of France, and Erich Ludendorff (with Paul von Hindenburg, the most famed of German generals) used the term to describe the result of powerful governments mobilizing society, technology, and the economy across its industrial base to sustain warfare over a long period. The fact that many Europeans had intellectually anticipated such a cataclysmic event, albeit one that would not last over a lengthy period, was another aspect of that particular war.

With the example of World War I still vividly in the minds of European and American leaders throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, it follows that World War II would be considered a total war. Black, however, points out that in both wars, the United States was not as fully mobilized as were most European countries, nor were its civilians exposed to the full brunt of the war as much as Europe’s civilians. Thus, he argues, they were limited wars as far as Americans were concerned.

Nor does he accept the concept of warfare evolving in a straight line or the interchangeability of the terms “modern war” and “total war.” Two examples of American modern wars are Korea and Vietnam, which were limited wars for the United States but closer to total wars for Koreans or the Vietnamese.

While total war is the theme of the book, defining it is only one aspect of the encyclopedic coverage of wars throughout the world during the 85 years it encompasses. In the five decades before World War I, Prussia fought three wars and unified Germany, and the Turks fought in the Balkans. Meanwhile, European powers built empires in Africa and Asia, and the United States fought the last of the Indian wars and carried out its venture into the Philippines.

Then there were the efforts by various rulers to expand their power in Asia, Africa, and South America. While the American war on the frontier had ended by the 1890s and the fighting against the Moros in the southern Philippines ended before World War I, one or more European powers were involved in a so-called “small war” at virtually any given time. Although Black says Europeans succeeded because of superior weaponry, they also generally made good use of local factions opposed to the particular enemy of the time, and also adjusted their tactics to the situation.

Black gives due attention to the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War, and the Russo-Japanese War, as well as the development of staffs and organizations to promote communication and control. However, he devotes more than a third of his text to the world wars. The British naval blockade brought total war to German civilians, as did Zeppelins bombing Britain, on a much smaller scale. He correctly acknowledges that the greatest American contribution to the Allied victory was the production and financing of war materiel; yet he goes too far in downplaying the AEF’s battles.

On the other hand, he deplores the argument that the Allies won World War II because of their superior economic power, thus removing the battlefield from the equation. He maintains that the Allies flatly outfought the Axis powers. The Germans, Japanese, and Italians brought problems upon themselves by their brutal, racist behavior toward the people they conquered. They were never able to reach the level of cooperation that the British, Americans, and Russians attained despite their differences. In the Pacific War, the Allies suffered early defeats but gained the upper hand through cooperation of sea and land forces and the superiority of their air units. Finally, it was the atom bomb that forced Japan to end the war.

In his postscript, Black emphasizes the tense nuclear balance that kept the Cold War cold between the nuclear powers; yet revolutionary wars based on ideology as well as more standard struggles for power too often broke the peace. So far, terrorists have dominated causes of conflict in the twenty-first century. Black points out the similarity of terrorists and revolutionaries in that they both believe that there is no such thing as peace, that conflict both domestic and international is continual, and that all people are combatants. This is truly “total war,” and Black ends with his opinion that it will get worse in the foreseeable future.


Originally published in the Winter 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here