Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 3  /  

What’s in a Name II: “Total War” and Other Terms that Mean Nothing

What’s in a Name II: “Total War” and Other Terms that Mean Nothing What’s in a Name II: “Total War” and Other Terms that Mean Nothing
To cite this article: Stoker, Donald, “What’s in a Name II: “Total War” and Other Terms that Mean Nothing,” Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Issue No. 3, fall 2016, pages 21-23.

The historian Peter Paret pointed out in 1960 that “any discussion of war is bedeviled by a confusion of terms… the definitions have undergone repeated modification—and in different countries not always to the same effect.”[i] “Total war” perfectly illustrates this problem. The term is commonly used in discussions of warfare, but usually as an undefined catchall that fails to provide a firm foundation for discussion and analysis. Modern writing on warfare too often lacks this needed basis. Much of it uses theoretical approaches to the study of war, but these have generally failed to help generate policies and strategies that lead to victory. Poorly reasoned, poorly constructed theory—which includes poorly defined terms and concepts—can detrimentally influence how wars are fought, as well as whether or not one wins them.

Carl von Clausewitz told us why good theory is necessary: “The primary purpose of any theory is to clarify concepts and ideas that have become…confused and entangled.”[ii] Theory, as Sir Julian Corbett tells us, can help “a capable man to acquire a broad outlook.” Theory should teach us to think, to analyze, to bring a critical but informed eye to the problem at hand and consider both its depth and breadth. It also serves to ground us by defining our terms and providing us a firm foundation for analysis while teaching us to distinguish between what is important and what isn’t.[iii] Theory, Clausewitz reminds us—particularly any theory addressing warfare—“is meant to educate the mind of the future commander.”[iv]

Clausewitz and Corbett also gave us the intellectual basis for building a solid theoretical approach to war: defining wars based upon the political objective sought. Clausewitz made clear his intention to rewrite his unfinished opus based upon his epiphany that all wars are fought for regime change or something less, but did not live to do so.[v] Corbett built upon Clausewitz’s work to construct a theory of maritime warfare and gave us the terms “unlimited war” to describe a conflict waged to overthrow the enemy government (an unlimited political objective), and “limited war” for a war fought for something less (a limited political objective).[vi] Rational discussion and analysis of all wars fits within this framework by beginning with the starting point of both Clausewitz and Corbett: all wars are fought either for the political objective of regime change or something less than this.

Critically, there is no room in this clear, simple, ironclad typology for so-called “total war”. The most significant problem with the term “total war” is that it is used to mean everything and thus it means nothing. Historian Brian Bond goes so far as to call “total war” a “myth.”[vii] Historian Eugenia Kiesling compares discussions of “total war” to medieval “ruminations about angels cavorting on pinheads.”[viii] Even when “total war” is defined (and often it is not), the definitions are valueless. For example, one author writing in 1957 defines a “total war” as one where “the survival of the U.S. or U.S.S.R. as sovereign nations is the issue of the war.” He goes on to insist that there was no satisfactory definition of limited war and that no one could explain when a conflict stopped being this and moved to being “total.”[ix] He makes his point by comparing one badly defined thing (“total war”) with something else that is equally badly defined (“limited war”) by almost every author who writes on the subject.[x]

Generally, “total war” is used to mean a “big” war, particularly the twentieth century world wars. Explications of “total war” also usually include wars fought for the overthrow or complete conquest of the enemy regime. Discussions of potential nuclear wars are often described as “total wars,” particularly in limited war theory, and sometimes include other elements such as genocide or the extermination of an enemy. Some similar terms that are often used interchangeably can be thrown in the same bowl: general war, major war, big war, national war, all-out-war, central war, and any others in this vein. These provide further examples of the definitional catastrophe that is too much of today’s military and political theorizing and writing. A related (though valueless) definition commonly accepted in certain academic circles is: “Major war means an operation where the United States deployed over fifty thousand troops and there were at least one thousand battle deaths.”[xi]

Critically, all of these definitions are dependent upon a variable that is consistently fluid: the means used to wage the war. So, do we define a war as “total” because it involves extensive mobilization, the overthrow of the enemy, the harnessing of society, and even genocide? Rationally, we cannot because this does not provide a firm foundation for critical analysis. These definitions are subject to debate and thus lack explanatory clarity.

The modern use of the term “total war” can be dated to the French push in the last year of the First World War for guerre totale, which meant renewing the nation’s ideological and political dedication to the struggle. German Field Marshal Erich Ludendorff used the term in his 1918-19 memoirs and his 1935 book Totale Krieg. In these examples whether or not a war is “total” generally boils down to an issue of means.[xii] Discussions of “total war” very often pick World War I as its first example, though sometimes the French Revolutionary Wars and the US Civil War are branded the first “total wars.” These efforts focus generally—if not exclusively—on the means utilized or mobilized for the struggle in their efforts to define it, and are often tied to discussions of escalation based upon nations increasing the means they dedicate to the war.[xiii]

Political scientist Robert Osgood offers us one of the better definitions of “total war”, but it also characterizes the analytical and critical failure exhibited by use of this term as part of a coherent theoretical approach: “that distinct twentieth-century species of unlimited war in which all the human and material resources of the belligerents are mobilized and employed against the total national life of the enemy.”[xiv] This definition has several problems. First, it is limited to the twentieth century, and thus not consistently applicable as an analytical tool. Second, it insists upon the mobilization of all of a state’s “human and material resources.” This is impossible. A state cannot harness “all” of its resources for war or anything else. During the Second World War the Soviet Union’s leaders mobilized more of their nation’s human and physical resources than any state in history, but even Stalinism could not mobilize “all” of the nation’s means. During the US Civil War, nearly 80 percent of the Confederacy’s white male population aged 15-40 served in uniform.[xv] But even this extreme number is not “all.” Nation states have a difficult time putting more than 10 percent of their people in the military. Going beyond this often begins to cause the economy to breakdown.

Osgood’s definition also mixes ends and means, which is also not unusual. Indeed, one could argue that the defining element of definitions of “total war” is the emphasis on means. Wars cannot be defined by the means used because this is a nebulous, subjective factor and thus does not pass the defining test of building a theory upon solid ground. The means nations dedicate to pursuing political objects are a manifestation of the value they place upon that object. The means used to fight the war are also one of the contributing factors helping to create the nature of the struggle. But the means used do not and indeed cannot define the war itself. The political objective sought defines the war, not the means or methods used in pursuit of this.

The problem with having a poor analytical foundation for any discussion—or none at all—particularly one examining the development of an idea or concept is clearly demonstrated in Cambridge University Press’s five volume study of “total war”.[xvi] In a series drawing upon a staggering array of the era’s best writers on military affairs, the editors missed the chance to create a supremely groundbreaking work because they failed from the outset to define “total war” and thereby provide a solid foundation for analysis. What makes this especially remarkable is that the editors identified the answer to their problem but then didn’t grasp it. They linked the concept of limited war to the manner in which Max Weber used an “ideal type,” as well as Clausewitz’s discussion of “absolute war” and “total war” (terms he used interchangeably to denote an “ideal type”).[xvii] Simply put, when using the “ideal type” methodology the writer sets up a theoretical ideal that cannot be reached. Various factors intervene to produce a reality that is acted upon by these factors that keep the resulting creature from ascending to the ideal. This is the method of analysis used by Clausewitz in On War. To him “absolute war” and “total war” (again, terms he uses interchangeably) represent the unreachable “ideal type.” War—if the state could utilize all of its resources and never stop moving toward its goal—would be “total” or “absolute”, but reality intervenes. Politics, friction, the actions of the enemy, and other things unite to produce the reality of war.[xviii] By using “total war” as an ideal type in the manner of Weber and Clausewitz, combined with the insistence by both Clausewitz and Corbett of the tendency of wars to escalate and consume more of the state’s resources in a climb toward the unreachable theoretical ideal, the editors could have placed their contributors on a firm and coherent path. The articles could have been strengthened further by the addition of Clausewitz’s concept of whether or not the warring states were pursuing regime change or more limited political goals. This would then force a needed and clearer delineation between the political aim or aims sought and the means and methods used to try and achieve them—which again shows why wars can’t be defined by the means used because the means derive from the value of the political objective sought. All of this goes to again prove that if the analytical foundation lacks clarity and strength the building falls.

Other discussions of “total war” center on the use of technology, particularly technology that intensifies the bloodshed and destruction delivered at the tactical level. But this is only an example of war’s natural tendency to escalate and is merely the offering of yet another argument for defining “total war” by the means used. Technology and the increasing power of the modern centralized state simply feed war’s inherent escalatory nature and allow more intense escalation. All wars—civil wars, guerrilla wars, limited wars, religious wars, and every other kind of war—fit within the Clausewitz/Corbett typology because all wars are fought for political objects, even if these are sometimes masked by religious terms or propaganda.

Interestingly, the editors of these volumes raise the question of whether the term “total war” should be killed because it creates more confusion than clarity—something about which they are completely correct—but then make the mistake of refusing to kill the enemy when the opportunity arrives. Instead, they argue for the term’s retention and ask “that historians henceforth should attend more to its manifold hazards and limitations.”[xix] Editing a five volume historical work should have decisively convinced the editors of the impossibility of this. Unfortunately, the current writer and his fellow historians are only part of the problem. Journalists, political scientists, pundits, students of international relations, and military officers are just as dangerous when they embark upon discussions of so-called “total war,” possibly even more so because they often lack the historical knowledge necessary to provide solid analysis and critical nuance.

Why does all of this matter? One of the great failings of discussions and analysis of military affairs and strategic issues is the lack of definitional clarity. These fields are infested with buzzwords and jargon that cloud issues and thereby weaken our ability to understand and explain past—and more importantly—current conflicts. For example, much ink has been spilled of late over “Gray Zone Wars.” But there is nothing new here. Authors in the 1950s were discussing “war in the gray zone”—and in relation to conflicts on the periphery of Russia (though it was still called the Soviet Union).[xx]

Unless someone is discussing war in a theoretical sense the term “total war” should never appear in historical or policy writing. Why? Because it has no analytical solidity, fails to clearly illuminate the nature of conflict, and adds needless linguistic opacity. It creates confusion instead of producing clarity, and it is clarity that we need.


[i] Peter Paret, “A Total Weapon of Limited War,” Royal United Services Institution, Vol. 105, No. 617 (1960), 34.
[ii] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans. and eds. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 132.
[iii] Sir Julian Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, Eric Grove, intro. and notes (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988 [1911]), 3-7.
[iv] Clausewitz, On War, 141.
[v] Clausewitz, On War, 69.
[vi] Clausewitz, On War, 69; Corbett, Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, 44-46. Clausewitz discusses wars fought for “limited aims” in Book 8 of On War.
[vii] Brian Bond, War and Society in Europe, 1870-1970 (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1998), 168.
[viii] Eugenia C. Kiesling, ‘”Total War, Total Nonsense” or “The Military Historian’s Fetish,” in Michael S. Neiberg, ed., Arms and the Man: Military History Essays in Honor of Dennis Showalter (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 220.
[ix] Ephraim M Hampton, “Unlimited Confusion Over Limited War,” Air University Quarterly Review, Vol. IX (Spring 1957), 31-32.
[x] For two examples of bad definitions of limited war see the following: John Garnett, “Limited War,” in John Baylis, Ken Booth, John Garnett, and Phil Williams, Contemporary Strategy: Theories and Policies (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982), 123; Robert McClintock, The Meaning of Limited War (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1967), 5.
[xi] Dominic Tierney, The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts (New York: Little Brown, 2015), 7. In footnote 12 on page 317, the author notes that the term “major war” is problematic because it could be major for one side and not the other. But the real reason is that “major war,” like “total war,” has no concrete meaning.
[xii] John Horne, “Introduction: Mobilizing for ‘Total War’, 1914-1918,” in John Horne, ed., State, Society, and Mobilization in Europe During the First World War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 4.
[xiii] See Horne, “Introduction: Mobilizing for ‘Total War’, 1914-1918,” 3-5, and I. F. Beckett, “Total War,” in C. Emsley, A. Marwick, and F. Simpson, eds., War, Peace, and Social Change in Twentieth Century Europe (Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press, 1989), especially 28, 31-32.
[xiv] Robert E. Osgood, Limited War: The Challenge to American Strategy (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1957), 3.
[xv] Donald Stoker, The Grand Design: Strategy and the U.S. Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 24.
[xvi] Stig Förster and Jörg Nagler, On the Road to Total War: The American Civil War and the German Wars of Unification, 1861-1871, German Historical Institute (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 15; Manfred F. Boemke, Roger Chickering, and Stig Förster. Anticipating Total War: The German and American Experiences, 1871-1914, German Historical Institute (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 15-16, 16 fn.3, 23-24, 24 fn. 47; Roger Chickering and Stig Förster, eds., Great War, Total War. Combat and Mobilization on the Western Front, 1914-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000); Roger Chickering and Stig Förster, eds, The Shadows of Total War: Europe, East Asia, and the United States, 1919-1939, German Historical Institute (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 3-10; Roger Chickering, Stig Förster, and Bernd Greinder, eds., A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1937–1945, German Historical Institute (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2010). See also this review: Talbot Imlay, “Total War,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (2007), 547-570.
[xvii] Clausewitz, On War, especially 580 and 582, but also 488-489, 501, 581, 606.
[xviii] Clausewitz, On War, 80-89 (especially 85), 579-581. The editors also bind Clausewitz’s teachings—incorrectly—to his experience in the Napoleonic era. This is a misreading of the text because Clausewitz’s larger ideas are not limited by the Napoleonic era. They do note his passage on “absolute war” where he says that it was reached under Napoleon, but they miss the contradiction in Clausewitz’s discussion of “absolute war” because they do not examine the fullness of the text on this point.
[xix] Boemke, et al, eds., Anticipating Total War, 16.
[xx] See Thomas K. Finletter, Power and Policy: US Foreign and Military Policy in the Hydrogen Age (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1954), 81-192, especially 84-85; Osgood, Limited War, 267-274, 307; Henry Kissinger, “Military Policy and the Defense of the ‘Grey Areas’,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Apr. 1958), 416-428; E. Biöklund, “Can War Be Limited? (In General or Local Wars),” Air Power, Vol. 6 (Summer 1959), 287-293. Finletter seems to have been first to print with the concept.