Total war and total peace

[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

A random thought while sitting in a lecture today: if there is (or can be) such a thing as total war, does that imply that total peace is a meaningful concept?

Firstly, what is total war? One definition, drawn from the ubiquitous set of conference proceedings edited by Stig Förster et al (and more directly, from today's lecture notes), goes something like this. Total war consists of:

  1. total aims: e.g. the destruction of an enemy nation
  2. total methods: e.g. bombing cities
  3. total mobilisation: e.g. conscription for both the armed forces and for labour
  4. total control: e.g. censorship, dictatorship

More briefly, total war is the subordination of every other consideration (law, custom, morality, etc) to the prosecution of war. Total war is an ideal form of warfare, something which can be approached more or less closely, but which can never actually be fully attained. Well, hopefully not, because that would be bad.

So what would total peace look like? I don't think it can simply be the absence of total war; that's just peace generically. Total peace must be total in some sense.

One approach might be to say that total peace is the subordination of every consideration to the prosecution of peace. But why would this be necessary? Perhaps as a sublimation for the martial impulse, a moral equivalent of war. William James called for 'gilded youths' to be conscripted in 'the immemorial human warfare against nature', that is to say to do dirty and unpleasant jobs such as mining, construction, roadbuilding, which would knock some sense into them and make them better people. James was inspired in part by H. G. Wells, who himself later had similar ideas. For example, in his screenplay for Things to Come (1936) he imagined a peaceful future civilisation which turns its energies towards the exploration of the Universe, by way of the construction of a giant space gun.

But it's hard (for me, at least) to imagine any real society devoting itself so totally to peaceful pursuits. Fear and greed are, unfortunately, more powerful motivating forces than altruism or even curiosity. Indeed, even in Things to Come the rationalists have to face down a rebellion which fears where progress will lead and wants to tear down the space gun.

So perhaps a total peace is more negative: the subordination, in peacetime, of every other consideration to preparing for total war. Like total war itself, this would be a never-realised ideal. But, also like total war, there are times when it is approached more closely than at other times. One such period might be the Cold War. But to the same extent that total war became unthinkable after the advent of nuclear weapons, so too would total peace become unnecessary: if the war was actually fought, it could not be won, and so the preparations for it would have been pointless. And how total can the Cold War be said to have been? Most people in the West, at least, lived out their lives without being greatly affected by it.

Another period when a total peace might have occurred would have been before the Second World War. Think civil defence, peacetime conscription, the coordination of labour to maximise armaments production, the building up of bomber forces. In Britain, at least, these initiatives were only secondarily intended to prepare the nation for total war. Their primary aim was to deter an attack altogether. So perhaps total peace was actually the (inevitably, only partial) reorganisation of society to try to prevent a total war from starting in the first place?

Random thoughts have a low probability of being useful, however. More considered thoughts would be welcome!

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20 thoughts on “Total war and total peace

  1. Maybe total peace would be the complete eradication of violence from society, but that would be unattainable. The paradox is that force and violence (or at least the threat of them) by the state (or someone) are probably necessary to stop people from being violent. That kind of comes back to international air forces: an enforced peace can only be enforced by an organisation that is better at war than anyone else. But who gets to control it, and what if it stops wanting peace?

  2. Jakob

    I was thinking along the lines of lions lying down with lambs and children putting hands in cockatrices' dens, but I'm not sure that's a policy prescription!

  3. That first definition of total war is a bit overelaborate: point 3 is the critical one, from which all the others (as technologically appropriate) flow. The phrasing I use in class (and I'm smack in the middle of it, too) is "the committment of all, or nearly all, of the economic and human resources of a society to military needs." Then I can explain how the economic resources became legitimated as military targets, going from Sherman to WWI embargoes to WWII strategic bombing.

    It might be worthwhile to have a term for a peacetime state that takes military preparedness as its highest goal, but "total peace" is so orwellian and opaque in that context that I don't see it being all that useful.

    "Total Peace" makes me think more of the utopian socialists, who wanted to reorganize society so as to create a calm, comfortable and perpetually stable environment.

  4. Erik Lund

    Developing Jonathan Dresner's comments, maybe "total peace" is the same thing as Francis Fukuyama's end of history? (Or even Hegel's, I'd say, if I'd ever read Hegel on the end of history.)

  5. Liam

    I immediately thought like Alan and Jonathan of Christian (and utopian socialist) millenarialists. William Lane in Paraguay, for instance.
    Alternatively, there's the anarchist notion that organised military violence should be supplanted by organised revolutionary violence, in the interests of a peaceful post-revolutionary order---the war of class replacing the war of nations.

  6. Post author

    Wow, such great responses. Obviously the phrase is making people think of absolute pacifists or related groups. I guess I'm thinking of something which is practical on the large scale, ie can (or ideally has been) a viable society. Leaving aside the fact that utopian communes tend to fall to pieces fairly quickly, wouldn't a truly pacifist nation only survive as long as it was tolerated or protected by a non-pacifist nation?

    I've also got this idea that total peace should be related to total war somehow. Perhaps a mirror image, or its negation, or at least an alternate route from the same starting point which led to total war. And I'm thinking now (after the tutes) that maybe the Cold War was a better example of a total peace than I suggested. And that I can't leave out the intention to prepare for a total war either ...


    I like the idea of tying the international air force into a total peace. That suggests potential difference between a total peace and a total war (aside from the obvious), that the former has a tendency to erodes sovereignty where the other tries to enhance it. Internationalism vs nationalism ... which perhaps ultimately meet each other when they both turn into a world state, one evolved peacefully, the other through conquest?


    No, you'd need to find a cockatrice first!


    As I say, it's not my definition. I think it's the difference between taxonomy and evolution -- the list describes the characteristics of total wars, the thing about total mobilisation (which I agree is the key) is the cause of total war.

  7. Alan Allport

    I guess I’m thinking of something which is practical on the large scale, ie can (or ideally has been) a viable society. Leaving aside the fact that utopian communes tend to fall to pieces fairly quickly, wouldn’t a truly pacifist nation only survive as long as it was tolerated or protected by a non-pacifist nation?

    I suppose that religiously motivated pacifists would argue that 'survival of the nation' isn't a particularly important goal according on their scale of values, while millenarian socialists would argue that any pacifist breakthrough through class revolution would be international and comprehensive, eliminating the problem of war.

  8. wouldn’t a truly pacifist nation only survive as long as it was tolerated or protected by a non-pacifist nation?

    Well, this gets into areas where I'm no expert, but pacifism doesn't necessarily translate to passivity. I've heard of governments training their citizens in peaceful collective resistance, for example, with the aim of making it uneconomical to conquer and occupy. That's how you achieve "tolerated" I think.

    Some system of collective security might be necessary: some varieties of pacifism make considerable allowance for self-defense, for example, and community policing as an extension of self-defense.


  9. My problem with the list, by the way, is that the definition as written only covers WWII; I don't see why you wouldn't use a definition which would include WWI, even though the technology to attack the home front didn't yet exist.

  10. Post author

    I dispute that it only applies to WWII (the lecture I drew it from is from a subject entitled "Total War in Europe: World War One"!) The technology to attack the home front did exist, though it was primitive. Directly, many cities were bombed with some intensity in Britain, Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. Indirectly, Germany was blockaded by Britain and Britain was blockaded (less successfully) by Germany. And more passively both sides targeted propaganda at enemy civilians. So WWI was certainly a big advance towards total war under the definition I have in the post.

    As for non-cooperation and peaceful resistance, Gandhi's example certainly influenced some pacifists in Britain in the 1930s. But have any countries really taken it on board as a defence policy? Costa Rica, maybe? It abolished its armed forces decades ago (though I think it has a paramilitary of some kind).

  11. Chris Williams

    Costa Rica has a police force which is a gendarmerie on the French model. This means that it has (some) tanks - or at least it did 5 or so years ago.

    As for 'total war', hmm . . . I was in charge of a course with that in the title for three years (incl a brief appearance from guest lecturer B. Holman), which oddly enough has made me less rather than more dogmatic on the topic. There are at least 3 different definitions in the course alone, plus there's the one that John Bulkley uses in _Air Power and Total War_.

    If TW works it's as a theoretical state at one end of a spectrum, to which real life can only be asymptotic. And Total Peace works best as the point at the other end of the spectrum. 'Cold war' or 'hot peace' (how about the performance of neutrality by European countries in the world wars?) would be points in the middle of the spectrum.

  12. JDK

    I do like playing with opposites, but it's interesting how often they don't work or can't exist; thankfully it's not a mathematical equation world. Always a good game with hyperbolic advertising...

    Jonathan said: "My problem with the list, by the way, is that the definition as written only covers WWII..."
    In addition to Brett's response to the 'totality' of the Great War, I don't think W.W.II really qualifies as a total war, due to the deliberate withholding of certain weapons available - gas being the notable example. The shock effect of the atomic bombs and the nature of the genie unleashed tends to obscure the fact that none of the main combatants actually fought with all (a definition of total) of their weapons. There are other aspects of restraint shown, for whatever reasons, as well.

    New Zealand's abandonment of a offensive or point defensive bomber or fighter force is quite interesting in the context, maybe.

    Just a thought.

  13. JDK: I'm not familiar with a definition of "total war" which requires unrestricted violations of the laws of war. Actually, that's not true: I've heard versions of this before, but it's a mostly pointless argument based on a counterfactual "common sense" reading of a specificly defined term. Also, the number of situations in which gas would have been effective is pretty limited; nothing about total war requires that the combatants waste their time and energy on dead end technologies.

    Brett: I hadn't really thought about the blockades in that light, and you are, of course, correct about the early bombing raids. I was overreading the "e.g." material. Sorry.

  14. Post author


    I vaguely remember giving that lecture, too! I agree that total war is an asymptotic state, but to say that total peace would be its opposite along a spectrum doesn't help me visualise it. I like the idea of cold war and hot peace being somewhere in the middle though.


    On that basis would you say that WWII was less total than WWI? I'd say not, because other aspects were more total (mobilisation, production, genocide, propaganda).


    No worries. I was a bit terse with the definition anyway ...

  15. JDK

    Jonathan wrote "I’m not familiar with a definition of “total war” which requires unrestricted violations of the laws of war."
    Presumably that is a historical/legal view rather than a linguistic-logical one. 'Total' means IMHO, 'all' simplistically.

    I'm no expert, but I'm not aware of a meaningful definition of 'total war' that isn't in some way partial, sometimes partisan. (The recent dubious pseudo-legal manoeuvring of the US state with 'enemy combatant' status, 'torture' and offshore imprisonment are good examples of this suspicion of expert witnesses.) IMHO logical view 'total' war is everything, and presumably no effort spared to achieve the aims of the state. Interestingly, Brett advances 'mobilisation, production, genocide, propaganda' as evidence of 'totality'; interestingly, none of which are front line combat and actions - the actual 'war' bit of a nation at war.

    The preparations for, stockpiling and defences against gas are evidence that all the major combatants expected that gas may well feature in W.W.II (Britain, America, Germany and Japan, among others, all prepared for gas attack. A very odd piece of late-war evidence is the 1945 gas detection patch on the Fleet Air Arm Museum's Corsair - there's no paperwork for why it was applied.)

    While I agree that the opportunities for a decisive gas attack were indeed limited, that is not, from my understanding, why none of the major combatants actually used gas - most accounts for most discussions make it clear that reprisal in kind or the escalation into chemical warfare was regarded as not worth the risk. Extend the arguably redundant gas warfare into biological (Britain, the USA and Germany had some pretty scary stuff under preparation, and Japan in similar ways with use on prisoners for testing) and the argument of redundancy doesn't stand. (Utility, manageability etc. however is a another kettle of poisonous fish.)

    Or in short; for me a total war (rather than a state on total military footing - Brett's points) is using all the available weapons to hand. The LDV in Britain were prepared to use very redundant pikes when they were backs to the wall; gas and chemical weaponry, stockpiled and available was not used; not even by Germany in 1945 when they had nothing to lose - ergo no total use of available military resources.

    It also occurs to me that one can't really talk of total war, but only of a state progressing to a total war footing - usually by stages. It's rare that both combatants entirely match their opponent in these political and moral choices at each point in the combat.

    Just some thoughts.

  16. Post author

    Interestingly, Brett advances ‘mobilisation, production, genocide, propaganda’ as evidence of ‘totality’; interestingly, none of which are front line combat and actions - the actual ‘war’ bit of a nation at war.

    I did say that in the comments, but in the post I've got 'total methods', which covers city bombing, gas, U-boats, atom bombs and what-have-you. :)

    A very odd piece of late-war evidence is the 1945 gas detection patch on the Fleet Air Arm Museum’s Corsair - there’s no paperwork for why it was applied.

    That's interesting. Was it destined for the Pacific, and maybe the possibility that Japan would use gas against carriers? Or even as air defence? Or maybe that the Allies might need to use gas against Japan, and so Allied aircraft might become contaminated by flying over such areas?

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  18. Devin

    Total war is full mobilization in competition with other.
    Total peace is full mobilization in cooperation with the other.

  19. Post author

    That's a nice, succinct definition. But I would quibble and say that if you're cooperating with the other then they're not very other. And, as I suggested in the post, it's hard to see (at least it is for me) cooperation on that scale in peacetime. We don't have a great record with that, outside of what are sometimes called totalitarian societies.

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