David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare.
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
James J. Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe.
New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008.
Although the subject of warfare during the Napoleonic era has not exactly suffered from inattention, David Bell believes that the reading public needs yet another account. He turns out to be right. In The First Total War, he has produced a masterful volume, written with panache and brimming with insights.
Bell, a historian who teaches at Johns Hopkins, began work on his book at the end of the 1990s, a decade fairly bristling with big ideas. History had ended. A unipolar era was at hand. Globalization promised to transform the international order, bringing in its wake both prosperity and peace. The United States stood astride the world, its status as sole superpower and indispensable nation acknowledged by all.
As Bell immersed himself in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Europe, he witnessed the demolition of these late twentieth-century illusions, which then gave way to early twenty-first century anxiety and confusion. In the wake of 9/11, a radically different—yet no less illusory—set of big ideas emerged. Through the concerted exercise of American power, President George W. Bush vowed to eliminate tyranny and make an end to evil.
The president will leave office with his declared purpose unfulfilled. Tyrants persist and even prosper, more than a few subsisting on American dollars. Rather than peace, a Global War on Terror has emerged as the defining reality of the age. So at least Bush and his lieutenants would have us believe.
What are we to make of this paradox in which Bush’s Freedom Agenda has provided the genesis for open-ended conflict? Bell finds the paradox more apparent than real. For those like President Bush who profess certainty as to history’s purpose, using any means necessary to hurry history along to its predetermined destination offers a nearly irresistible temptation. When that conviction is accompanied by a further certainty that on the far side of victory permanent peace awaits, the resort to force becomes almost obligatory. The greater the sense of conviction the easier it becomes to justify any mayhem committed on behalf of big ideas and high ideals.
The ideas that interest Bell are those that grew out of the Enlightenment and informed the French Revolution. In pre-Enlightenment Europe, armed conflict had been, to put it mildly, a commonplace event. Yet if wars occurred frequently, they tended to be limited in scope and impact. War kept kings busy and provided seasonal employment to the king’s friends, allies, and dependents. Warfare, writes Bell, served as “a form of aristocratic self-expression.” Although battles were fought and casualties inflicted, the effects fell well short of being apocalyptic. The object of the exercise was typically to seize a bit of territory—not to overturn the social order. Soldiering was anything but a full-time profession. In the intervals between campaigns, generals spent their time writing verse, seducing women, and engaging in court intrigue rather than drafting contingency plans or conducting command post exercises.
Enlightenment thinkers—beginning with Archbishop Francois de Salignac de la Mothe Fenelon, but eventually including boldface names like Voltaire and Immanuel Kant—subverted these arrangements. Above all, they challenged the notion that war formed part of the natural order of things. All men shared a common humanity that transcended differences based on religion or nationality, they believed. In a well-ordered world, commerce should supplant fighting. Even if not completely abolished, war ought to be the exception and peace the rule.
In this sense, the Enlightenment “transformed peace from a moral imperative into a historical one.” If God would not make an end to war, then it had become incumbent upon man to do so, a transfer of responsibility that “opened the door to the idea that in the name of future peace, any and all means might be justified—including even exterminatory war.”
The leaders of the French Revolution seized on this idea. Certain that liberty, equality, and fraternity, once triumphant, would underwrite something like universal peace, they brooked no opposition. When dealing with internal opponents or their enemies abroad, “any means were justified, for this was to be the last war.” The result was a new “political dynamic that drove the participants relentlessly toward a condition of total engagement and the abandonment of restraints.”
The “meteor strike of the Revolution,” writes Bell, destabilized the European order and also transformed war, the one reinforcing and exacerbating the other. Rather than becoming exceptional, war became perpetual as well as bigger and bloodier. These were conflicts fought without quarter, pitting not only army against army but nation against nation. “The absolute destruction of the enemy became a moral imperative, raising the prospect of the conflict stretching indefinitely into the future.”
Hungry for power and glory, Napoleon Bonaparte made himself the principal beneficiary of these developments. In the Grand Armee he evolved “the perfect vehicle for the implementation of total war,” although the army’s strength was not inexhaustible. Above all, the people of Republican France, fired by revolutionary ideals and fierce in their hatred of kings and aristocrats, provided Napoleon with a deep reservoir on which he drew to raise, inspire, sustain, and reconstitute his army’s fighting power.
Through nearly continuous campaigning Bonaparte made himself dominant in France and France dominant across Europe. In some respects this piled up problems destined to afflict future generations. Napoleon’s humiliation of Prussia at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806, Bell notes, ignited “a torch of German resentment that would take 140 years to burn out.” Payback for France’s celebrated victories of 1806 came in the successive detonations of 1870, 1914, and 1940.
For Napoleon himself the immediate problem was that once on the treadmill there was no getting off. No matter how many enemies he forced into submission, “final, permanent victory proved to be like an asymptote on a graph, impossible to reach.” A strategy of imperial expansion produced booty and shored up his authority in Paris. Yet it also “created a larger frontier to defend,” generated “more potential flashpoints,” and gradually diluted the quality of the army on which everything depended.
Even so, once committed to a policy of war without end, Napoleon could see no alternative except to press on. In Russia and in Spain, he eventually met crushing defeat. Although the cataclysmic failure of Napoleon’s Russian expedition is the better known, Bell suggests that the Peninsular campaign is perhaps the more illuminating episode.
In Spain, despite a clear superiority in numbers, discipline, and firepower, the world’s best army could not overcome an insurgent force that resisted with religiously inspired fervor. The protracted struggle gradually exhausted Napoleon’s once seemingly invincible formations. As the frustrated French military governor of Navarre complained to his emperor, “Our troops are plowing furrows in the water.”
That secular messianism should yield not utopia but a condition of chronic warfare comes as no surprise to David Bell. Neither does the spectacle of a nation professing its devotion to peace and universal values even as it employs force in a vain and self-destructive attempt to cut through history’s frustrating complexities. If this describes France in the age of Napoleon, it just as accurately describes America today.
Bell does not disguise the fact that he wrote The First Total War with one eye fixed firmly on the present. He clearly intends his reader to contemplate the depressing parallels between Napoleon’s misadventure in Spain and George W. Bush’s misadventure in Iraq, which for more than five years now has seen U.S. troops plowing furrows in the sand. One can almost imagine Bell seated in front of his laptop, chronicling the inexorable erosion of French power even as a news ticker crawls across the bottom of his television screen tracing the inexorable erosion of American power: “cakewalk . . . slam-dunk … ‘greeted as liberators’ . . . Mission Accomplished . . . suicide bomber . . . ‘bring ‘em on’ . . . Abu Ghraib . . . IED . . . ‘stuff happens!’ . . . Fallujah . . . Golden Mosque . . . Haditha.”
Does the ultimate fate of Napoleon’s empire foreshadow the fate that awaits the American empire? In ways that we may not fully appreciate, it has already done so. In France, the perversion of Enlightenment thinking subverted professed Enlightenment values. The result was not liberty, equality, and fraternity, but a gaudy militarism that underwrote a penchant for strategic recklessness. Although the Bush administration marketed its Freedom Agenda as the means to eliminate tyranny and ensure democracy’s triumph around the world, it has achieved little in that regard. Instead, in the pursuit of utopian aims, it has further militarized U.S. policy, thereby squandering American power and influence.
James Sheehan’s Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? nicely complements Bell’s account, describing the evolution of European attitudes toward war across the nearly two centuries since Napoleon left the scene. Everything about this book is admirable apart from its quirky title, which, to readers of a certain age, will conjure up images of stringy-haired folkies earnestly strumming their guitars. A more apt title might have been: Rejecting Armageddon.
Long after Bonaparte’s demise, his ghost continued to haunt Europe. Major powers and lesser powers alike persuaded themselves that defending against the next Napoleon required the maintenance of a mass army. The chief function of the modern nation-state that emerged in the nineteenth century was to prepare for war. Lecturing at the University of Berlin late in that century, the historian Heinrich von Treitschke made the essential point: “The protection of its citizens with weapons remains the state’s first and most essential task.” Treitschke was not expressing a peculiarly German view; this perspective pervaded Europe.
As a consequence, throughout Europe (Great Britain excepted) the chief manifestation of the state became the army itself. The chief civic role of (male) citizens was to fill the army’s ranks. Military institutions and military service took on large moral and cultural connotations. “Men in uniform,” writes Sheehan, a distinguished historian who teaches at Stanford, “personified the virtues on which the state’s existence depended.”
Europe became an armed camp. The statesman maneuvered to position his country so that it would end up on the winning side when conflict finally erupted. General staffs refined elaborate mobilization plans and plotted the opening moves of the campaign to come. It’s not that everyone was eager to fight. Yet the prospect of war remained omnipresent.
In the summer of 1914, war did come, the first of two meteor strikes that purged Europe of any further appetite for armed conflict as decisively as the French Revolution had once made war seem necessary or desirable.
For historians, assigning culpability for this confrontation has remained an abiding preoccupation virtually since the guns of August first sounded. The issue is not one that interests Sheehan, however. Those who fought, he argues, did so because they preferred fighting to any of the alternatives. More important in his view is that while each and every belligerent chose war, “none of them chose the war they got.” For victors and vanquished alike, the war turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. “We thought we were the Romans,” one observer said of the victorious Allies, “when we were actually the Carthaginians.”
Sheehan’s account of the Great War and its consequences is a model of compression and synthesis. In essence, the conflict of 1914–1918 divided Europeans into two camps. In the first camp were those who could conceive of no circumstance justifying another European war. Their prescription was a simple one: never again. In the second camp were those—notably leaders of the newly created totalitarian left and right—who believed with equal conviction that only another round of fighting could remedy the problems, moral, cultural, as well as political, to which round one had given rise.
In 1939, members of the second camp got their way, with horrific consequences. This “last European war” saw any lingering constraints on the use of violence swept away. By the time the fighting stopped in 1945, distinctions between combatants and non-combatants had collapsed, utterly and completely. In a conflict in which the Nazis engaged in genocide while the Anglo-Americans wantonly firebombed cities and liberation by the Red Army unleashed orgies of rape and murder, nothing seemed impermissible.
Still, this outpouring of savagery proved to be the turning point. After 1945, two problems concentrated the minds of statesmen in Western Europe. The first problem was what to do about the proximate threat posed by the Soviet Union. The second problem was what to do about the potential threat of a resurgent Germany. Relying on the United States as the ultimate guarantor of Western European security, signified by the creation of NATO in 1949, constituted the principal answer to problem one. A process of economic and then political integration, initiated the following year with the proposed creation of a European Coal and Steel Community, provided the beginnings of an answer to problem number two.
Although Sheehan’s narrative of Western Europe getting its act together after 1945 contains little that qualifies as truly novel, he adds to the basic story an important ancillary theme. The ensuing Cold War, a period that combined considerable tension with pronounced stability, served as an incubator of sorts, allowing Europeans to evolve an entirely new conception of the nation-state. A now widely shared aversion to war provided part of the foundation for this new concept. A more expansive definition of the state’s proper role provided the rest.
The result was what Sheehan calls “the civilian state.” Rather than a submissive conscript, the citizen now became an assertive client, demanding that the state provide all that an individual might require “to be a productive, healthy, and secure member of society.” Governments that had previously expended considerable energy celebrating military virtues and commemorating past martial accomplishments now devoted greater attention (and money) to investing in education, health care, and old-age pensions. A new conception of security took hold, one in which keeping a watchful eye on foreign armies took a backseat to insisting that government fulfill its part of an ever-expanding social contract. For the state, the protection of citizens with weapons no longer qualified as job one.
Within Europe (although not necessarily elsewhere), peace ensued. Acts of soldierly valor did not secure this peace. Instead, deals cut by hard-nosed politicians and regulations enforced by bureaucrats in Brussels and Strasbourg did. The process was not heroic, but it delivered the goods. Sheehan suggests that the success of this Western European “civilian state” did as much or more than the Reagan Doctrine or the Strategic Defense Initiative to subvert the cohesion of the Soviet Empire and bring the Cold War to a quietly successful conclusion.
By the end of the twentieth century, Europe had emerged “whole and free,” as President George H. W. Bush had promised back in 1989. Yet something else had also happened. Europeans had finally banished the ghost of Napoleon, seemingly for good. They retained no further appetite for war. They saw no need to devote any substantial resources to prepare for or even to avert war. Sheehan describes this gradual “eclipse of violence,” which began in 1945 and continued over the course of several decades, as “a slow, silent revolution, hidden in plain sight.” By the time it was over, a continent once bristling with arms and anxieties had been thoroughly and irreversibly debellicised.
Having experienced much of the same history, if in very different ways, Americans have reached altogether different conclusions. So at least various commentators have argued, Robert Kagan prominent among them. Thus in “Power and Weakness,” a famous essay published in the summer of anticipation that fell between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, Kagan wrote that when it comes to war, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.”
Hyping relatively modest differences into massive discontinuities has long been a specialty of intellectuals. Although this makes for entertaining journalism, it yields lousy strategic analysis. “Power and Weakness” offers a case in point. The purpose of Kagan’s essay was to contrast the power of the United States, gearing itself up to invade Iraq, with the weakness of post-9/11 “Old Europe,” which was opting out of the war. “It is time to stop pretending,” Kagan instructed, “that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world.” Furthermore, he continued, “this state of affairs is not transitory.” Rather, “the reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure.”
Americans [Kagan continued] generally see the world divided between good and evil, between friends and enemies. . . . When confronting real or potential adversaries, Americans generally favor policies of coercion rather than persuasion. . . . Americans tend to seek finality in international affairs: They want problems solved, threats eliminated. And, of course, Americans increasingly tend toward unilateralism in international affairs.
Although Kagan does not hesitate to speak for his countrymen, events suggest that he does not really understand them. When it comes to war, Americans may simply be lagging a couple of decades behind Europeans. To judge by the military history of the past two decades—to judge in particular by the course of the Iraq War—the transatlantic divide may not be nearly as deep as Kagan once imagined.
It turns out that Americans are from Mars only when war involves no personal sacrifice and as long as someone else’s kid is sent to do the fighting. Sheehan’s concept of a civilian state describes the present-day United States far more accurately than does Kagan’s concept of America as “an international sheriff . . . trying to enforce some peace and justice in . . . a lawless world where outlaws need to be deterred or destroyed, and often through the muzzle of a gun.” Americans don’t really want to fight; they want to consume. They don’t “seek finality in international affairs.” They seek bargains at Wal-Mart.
Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the desire for revenge ran hot, President Bush himself seemingly subscribed to this view. Although the president declared an open-ended global war on terror and compared the struggle ahead to the great wars of the previous century, he studiously refrained from asking his fellow citizens to contribute to the war effort. Instead, he promised tax cuts and encouraged them to go to Disney World.
Here we confront the most fateful of the miscalculations that have marred basic U.S. policy in recent years—Bush’s belief that the United States could achieve exceedingly large ends absent the availability of comparably large means.
By comparison with Napoleon, President Bush qualifies as a true believer. There is little reason to doubt the conversion he experienced on 9/11: On that day Bush was born again and committed himself without reservation to the Wilsonian mission of spreading freedom and democracy. Instead of summoning his fellow citizens to join him in that cause, however, he cast them in the role of spectators. When it came to implementing his Freedom Agenda, Bush seemingly expected his existing army to suffice.
In launching the Iraq War, Bush was counting on that army to defeat Saddam Hussein’s army as decisively as Napoleon had defeated the Prussians at Jena and Auerstedt. For a brief interval, events seemingly conformed to those expectations. Who needed a levee en masse when you had “shock and awe”?
Yet within weeks of Saddam’s removal from power, Iraq began to unravel. An army optimized for high-tech warfare was caught unawares. As Iraq became Bush’s Spain, the American people evinced little inclination to rally to the colors. Iraq was not their cause and dying for an imperial president not part of their contract. So Bush and his army found themselves going it alone—hence, the spectacle of a democracy with a population exceeding 300 million, engaged in a conflict said to compare in importance to the war against Nazi Germany, sending weary young men and women back for their third or fourth combat tours while the rest of the country chills out. With the United States embarked upon what some observers call a “generational” struggle, Sheehan’s question is one the war managers in Washington ought to contemplate: Where have all the soldiers gone?
Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His new book, The Limits of Power, appeared in August.