cover image The First Total War: Napolean's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

The First Total War: Napolean's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It

David A. Bell, . . Houghton Mifflin, $26 (420pp) ISBN 978-0-618-34965-4

Bell combines his roles as professor of history at Johns Hopkins and contributing editor for the New Republic in this interpretive study arguing that history's first total war was waged during the Napoleonic era. Scholars have increasingly stressed the global aspects of the network of conflicts extending across North America, South Asia and Europe during that time. Bell goes further, presenting a fundamental transformation of war from an ordinary aspect of human existence to an apocalyptic experience whose "terrible sublimity" tested societies and individuals to their limits and ultimately became a redemptive experience. Total war developed not in the context of nationalism or revolutionary zeal, but in the fundamental sense of a "culture of war" driving participants in the direction of complete engagement and total abandonment of restraint. Ironically, the intellectual roots of this modern militarism are in the Enlightenment belief in the coming of perpetual peace. Revolutionary France transformed a moral concept into a practical one: war to emancipate humanity from its past. Bell's conclusion that this mentality survived two world wars is open to challenge, yet his appeal for the rediscovery of restraint and limitation is particularly relevant at a time of nuclear proliferation and apocalyptic rhetoric. (Jan. 12)