Reflecting on Total War
There was a time when certain groups, like women, children and the aged were spared the sufferings of war, and when armies fought each other on the field of battle to decide an issue. This chivalric discrimination came to an end in the modern warfare practiced by Lincoln, Sherman and Sheridan.
Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman
North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission
"Unsurpassed Valor, Courage and Devotion to Liberty"
"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"
Reflecting on Total War
“The French Revolution marks the period when the impulse to end discrimination and to integrate everything first began to make itself definitely felt. From the beginning of the age of chivalry until this date the Western world had generally recognized a code of war.
The Napoleonic Wars following the French Revolution [brought] in the “democratic” conscript army but they preserved the distinction between combatant and noncombatant. Civilians retained their freedom of movement. The armies marched along paths prescribed for them, fought for victory rather than for annihilation, and expected society to go on with its function. When the eighteen-year upheaval was over, the central figure in it, though overthrown, was neither hanged or shot.
He was transported to an island where he could live out his years in comfort, if not in happiness. When he escaped and repeated his offense, he was transported to a more remote island. There was never any thought of trying to “prove” something by killing him. A distinction was preserved between an enemy on the field of battle and an enemy captured.
During the Crimean War (1854-56) Russia continued to pay interest on its debt to its enemy Britain. War was one thing; the honoring of financial obligations another.
The American Civil War, coming a decade later, marked a decisive turn in the direction of total war. The Federal commander George B. McClellan and the Confederate General Robert E. Lee belonged to the old school. Both conducted the type of war which is designed to overthrow the opposing army and decide the issue on the field of battle. It was not part of their policy to turn the war against civilians and non-military objectives.
[Lincoln and the Radical leaders of the Northern Congress] removed [McClellan] from command after the battle of [Sharpsburg]. The character of the war thereafter was changed drastically, and in the last two years the Federal Generals [Sherman and Sheridan] carried on a systematic warfare of destruction in Virginia and the Carolinas with the object of involving the entire population.
The statement of the former that he would “bring every Southern woman to the washtub” and the latter that he had devastated the Shenandoah Valley . . . sounded the end to the age of chivalry. For his part in this General Sherman has been termed by an admiring biographer a “fighting prophet,” who saw beyond the old concept of war to a new order, in which no one and nothing would be spared.
[The] advance toward totalism in [the First World War] certainly appears in the sweeping nature of the conscription practiced by all belligerents and in the way in which every phase of life — economic, financial, social, and cultural – was drawn into the struggle and made ancillary to the war. To an unprecedented degree the idea was promoted that the nation should become as one , with no thought but to kill and destroy.
The Second World War went immeasurably further and reduced the word “noncombatant” almost to meaningless. Distinctions of sex and age and vocation vanished away. Neither status nor location offered any immunity from destruction, and that often of a horrible kind. Mass killing did indeed rob the cradle and the grave.
Our nation was treated to the spectacle of young boys fresh out of Kansas and Texas turning nonmilitary Dresden into a holocaust which is said to have taken tens of thousands of lives, pulverizing ancient shrines like monte Casino and Nuremburg, and bringing atomic annihilation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
These are items of the evidence that the war of unlimited objectives has swallowed up all discrimination, comparison, humanity, and, we would have to add, enlightened self-interest. We are compelled to recall Winston Churchill, a descendant of the Duke of Marlborough and in many ways a fit spokesman for Britain’s nobility, saying that no extreme of violence would be considered too great for victory.
Then there is the equally dismaying spectacle of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the reputedly great liberal and humanitarian, smiling blandly and waving the cigarette holder while his agents showered unimaginable destruction upon European and Japanese civilians.
The object of this reflection, however, is not to place blame for any particular atrocity, but to ask whether civilization n has given itself a mortal hurt in going so far beyond bounds that were previously respected. It is said that some kinds of animals become infected with a type of madness which leads finally to their extinction as a species. Is this the kind of epitaph that will have to be written for modern man if there is anyone left to write epitaphs?
(Visions of Order, The Cultural Crisis of Our Time, Richard M. Weaver, ISI Books, 1995, pp. 96-98)
Reflecting On Total War
Reflecting on Total War