Friday, March 16, 2007

French Revolution Spawned the First Total War

Lew Rockwell linked to a book review of David Bell's The First Total War (Houghton Mifflin, 2007). The book explores the nature of warfare before the French Revolution and exhibits how the self-righteousness and fanaticism of the revolutionary ideas spawned large scale brutality such as the world had never seen before. Here is a fascinating excerpt:

All of this was to change starting in 1792, and much of "The First Total War" is devoted to describing the sheer atrociousness of the new forms of warfare. The first change was ideological, and can be seen in the debates of France's revolutionary legislature, which in 1791 declared that "The French nation renounces the undertaking of any wars aimed at conquest." War was no longer to be a normal pursuit of governments. But as Mr. Bell shows, in one of his most subtle and persuasive arguments, this banishing of war from the realm of the ordinary is what allowed it to assume extraordinary, totalizing proportions. For it made possible the dream of one last, apocalyptic war to end war forever, by spreading revolution around the world.

So it was that just a year after abolishing war, the revolutionary government embarked on an aggressive war against Austria. The French general Dumouriez declared, "this war will be the last war," a distinctly modern-sounding phrase that Mr. Bell uses as his book's epigraph. And to win such a war, new tactics would be necessary, including the most savage. This was most evident in the Vendée, a region of western France that rose in revolt against the Paris government. The specter of counterrevolution drove the revolutionary armies to commit war crimes against their fellow citizens, crimes so brutal that some recent historians have characterized them as genocidal. Mr. Bell's most powerful pages deal with the "hell columns" that criss-crossed the Vendée, killing and raping indiscriminately. One general announced proudly, "I have crushed children under the hooves of horses, and massacred women … I have exterminated everyone." (Read full article)



Anonymous said...

The reviewed book was a great read. It leaves no question that Napoleon Bonaparte was the first modern dictator, and determined the pattern of things to come.

Anonymous said...

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, and a great friend of the Irish people would deserve an honorable mention.

elena maria vidal said...

Excellent point, sc. The massacres and tyranny in Ireland also laid the groundwork for modern "total war."