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This volume presents the results of a fifth and final conference on the history of total war. It is devoted to the Second World War, which many scholars regard as the paradigmatic instance of total war. In considering the validity of this proposition, the authors address a broad range of analytical problems that this vast conflict posed in the arenas of Europe and Asia. They analyze modes of combat, war aims, the mobilization of economies and societies, occupation regimes, the vulnerability of noncombatants, and the legal and moral issues raised by the industrialized warfare of the mid-twentieth century. The volume will be of interest to all students of war and society in the modern era.
In the vast library that now houses the historical literature on World War II, the volume that Gordon Wright published more than forty years ago occupies a special place. It is one of the shortest books in the entire collection. It is also perhaps the most comprehensive survey ever published on the war in the European theater. It ranges over military operations, the diplomacy of war, the mobilization of economies and popular morale, occupation and resistance, psychological warfare, the harnessing of science and technology to destruction, and the war's revolutionary impact on society and culture. The volume is remarkable in an additional respect. Although it bears the title The Ordeal of Total War, it proffers neither a sustained discussion nor a definition of this pivotal term. Instead, it appears to argue by implication that World War II was paradigmatic, that the defining feature of total war was the very enormity of its scope and impact, and that such a degree of comprehensiveness made this conflict a singular phenomenon in military history.
This is a defensible argument that other historians of the Second World War have embraced in the same axiomatic spirit, which has had to work in lieu of analytical reflection.2 However, at the conclusion of a series of volumes on total war, it seems appropriate to reexamine some of the premises of this argument. Defining the Second World War as the paradigmatic instance of total war has important methodological ramifications, which pertain above all to issues of narrative logic. The central analytical questions revolve around the degree to which this war resembled its predecessors – particularly, given the purview of this series of volumes, the American Civil War and the First World War.
The radicalization of warfare appears to have reached a climax during the Second World War. Not only did the belligerent powers come closer than ever before to putting total war into practice, but this war also witnessed the most shocking genocide in history. The Second World War is thus rightly regarded as the ultimate horror of the modern age. It resulted in the deaths of some 60 million people worldwide, at least 10 percent of whom fell victim to some form of genocidal action.
The moral dimensions of this catastrophe were enormous, but they must not obscure the effort to explain. This essay accordingly examines analytically the relationship between total war and genocide in the Second World War. It also offers some general reflections on the relationship between the two phenomena, particularly about the extent to which genocide represents a constituent element of total war.
Total war and genocide share the characteristic of being difficult to define. While several attempts have been made to study genocide comparatively, a model has only recently been proposed to overcome the many theoretical difficulties. In the first part of this essay, we shall therefore offer a theoretical model that is intended to address both genocide and total war.
The period between the two world wars of the twentieth century was one of the most challenging in the history of war. In anticipation of another conflict, military planners and civilian thinkers struggled after 1918 with the painful implications of World War I. Given its scope, the wholesale mobilisation of civilian populations and the targets of civilians via blockades and strategic bombing, many observers regarded this titanic conflict as a 'total war'. They also concluded that any future conflict would bear the same hallmarks; and they planned accordingly. The essays in this collection, the fourth in a series on the problem of total war, examine the inter-war period. They explore the consequences of World War I, the intellectual efforts to analyse this conflict's military significance, the attempts to plan for another general war and several episodes in the 1930s that portended the war that erupted in 1939.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century it appears as if the age of total war may be over. Military history, let alone “history” itself, has admittedly not come to an end. The so-called new world order, in which a single superpower remains, has failed to provide global peace or stability. Wars continue with unabated frequency. Nonetheless, the character of international conflict, at least in its organized form, seems to have moved away from the patterns that dominated the first half of the twentieth century.
During the recent war in Kosovo, NATO officials routinely offered public regrets about the “collateral damage” that the alliance's airplanes had inflicted inadvertently on civilians in the Balkans. The destruction of a single bus by NATO bombs resulted in an international outcry and consternation among Western leaders. By contrast, the same officials proudly announced that one of their pilots had avoided a target after he had determined that it lay close to a church. Fifty-five years earlier, during World War II, political and military leaders would have found this kind of warfare difficult to comprehend. They would not have been troubled by the destruction of a bus in the course of a bombing sortie. The wholesale killing of civilians was a common and essential part of their strategies, for the distinction between soldiers and civilians had ceased to matter much.