The Claims for Total War Revisited


According to the numerous defenders of Total War, no means of breaking an enemy’s will can be forsworn under the conditions of modern warfare. The enemy includes every member of the “enemy society,” regardless of age, gender, occupation, etc. Any vestiges of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century practices that aimed at limiting the destructiveness of war and at preserving as much as possible of normal life during war reflect mere sentimentality or obsolete punctilio.

Total Warriors like to recommend General Sherman’s cute little saying that “war is hell.” You can see Sherman quoted about once a day at National Review Online and other such places. Of course as a Confederate officer retorted at the time, “it depends somewhat on the warrior.”1

The fact that so many states knowingly chose to abandon older limitations and rules during the twentieth century does not go very far toward proving that circumstances beyond their control drove them to their decisions and that they could not have made different decisions.

Still, otherwise sane military historians of the Boer War, for example, will say that British policymakers “had no choice” but to begin burning farms and putting Afrikaner women and children into concentration camps where 27,000 of them died. They had to do so, once their opponents resorted to unconventional warfare.

Otherwise, the British would not have won.

To this, one may say, So what? Is anyone outside the British state apparatus required to care about that? Is there any reason to suppose that British forces had some kind of right to prevail, a right so overriding as to sanctify any means that could contribute to that end?

To put it another way, does it necessarily follow, even if Britain did embody the cause of civilization and enlightenment in the Boer War—an extreme hypothesis, I admit—that it would therefore have been moral for the British commanders to use any means at all?

Getting the War Over With, “On Schedule”

Aside from general name-calling and the unproven but popular claim that the Good may use means that the Bad may not, Total Warriors have a few other arguments up their sleeve. One is that Total War—the policy of making war on the enemy’s entire society—is defensible, even humane, because it “shortens the war.” There are some problems with this argument, the first of which is that one would like to see some proof that Total War tactics have shortened all wars, most wars, or even any war in which they were used.

The next question is, What is so great about shortening the war? A war carried on with old-fashioned restraint and respect for civilian lives and property would not obviously be worse, if it lasted beyond some arbitrary time, than a shorter war carried on with every possible weapon available to imaginative Total Warriors. I think this may go part of the way toward answering the Total Warrior’s claim that shortening the war “saves lives.”

If merely “saving lives” were the point, then the quickest way to fulfill that goal would be to end the war.

We learn little enough from the claim that Total War saves lives; we don’t know whose lives are being saved, nor do we get an estimate of how many will be saved, proportionately, by carrying on Total War instead of some other kind of war that might last longer on the calendar. I am not sure that we know if any lives will be saved at all by Total War. More might well be killed. The most we might say is that there will be a different distribution of victims.

Traditionally, if contending powers actually wanted to shorten a war, they had other means, such as negotiating and making peace. I suppose that was silly of them, but it was a choice to which the powers sometimes recurred. I see no reason to dismiss it out of hand in favor of flattening the enemy’s entire society.

The Inconveniences of Behaving Rightly

In any case, it does not at all follow—even if Total War brings with it such benefits as shortening the war and saving unspecified people’s lives—that it could ever be moral to use the means to which Total Warriors are addicted. They will naturally say that with mass conscription, complex industrial economies, and the rest, no one can be asked to make a strict distinction between combatants and noncombatants or between military and civil production. As one authority put it in the 1920s: “To require aviators to single out the one class of persons and things from the other and to confine their attacks ‘exclusively’ to one of them will in many cases amount to an absolute prohibition of all bombardment” [my italics].2

Precisely!—And where’s the problem?

Of course the early exponents of air power reasoned that it would be “inconvenient” not to bomb and that, therefore, bombing must be done, and any rules limiting the use of this wonderful tool should be set aside. This reflects a view which, as Thomas Nagel noted in 1972, is “widely accepted in the civilized world,” namely, that “any means can in principle be justified if it leads to a sufficiently worthy end.” He comments that “If it is not allowable to do certain things, such as killing unarmed prisoners or civilians, then no argument about what will happen if one doesn’t do them can show that doing them would be all right.”3

This is not such a difficult proposition. Imagine, for instance, that most people believed that Fred Smith should be wealthy. Fred Smith might decide that killing his six wealthiest neighbors and taking their stuff was an acceptable way to reach this widely approved goal. But, now, most would say they agreed with the goal but not his chosen means. This would not be because murder was wrong only in close connection with that particular end. The end does not come into it at all. Murder was wrong as such before Smith’s goal was formed and his program announced. Its wrongness has no relation to its possible place in Smith’s, or anyone’s, complex chain of ends and means.

Referring to U.S. strategy in Vietnam, Nagel writes: “Once the door is opened to calculations of utility and national interest, the usual speculations about the future of freedom, peace, and economic prosperity can be brought to bear to ease the consciences of those responsible for a certain number of charred babies.”4It is important to see what Nagel is saying here. He is not saying that there are no such things as utility and national interest.

He is saying that if there is an overarching moral framework, considerations of utility and national interest (whatever that might be) cannot decide questions that are essentially moral, that is, questions of what it is right to do. Within the moral framework, we can and do make decisions about utility and the like all day long. But notions about utility and national interest—if the latter even exists apart from the interest of actual people living under some state, and this is my question, not Nagel’s—cannot take the place of moral reasoning.

Now, all this is “extremist” stuff, to be sure, and I am glad that Nagel is carrying some of the burden here. His approach, if anyone cared to take it up, would tend to render Total War impossible. Under this strict standard, Total War appears as the highest stage of organized criminality.

States and their intellectual apologists have, since the sixteenth century, gotten away with a great deal of imposture in the area of morality. States, it has been said, are not like other human associations. They must make the really tough decisions, create peoples, pursue Hegelian missions, and so on, unfettered by the petty, everyday rules of mere morality. The state, indeed, is the source of law, and there you are.

That is not the only way in which to view these things, and may well be the worst way to do so.5

Nagel goes on to address “the widely imagined difficulty of making a division, in modern warfare, between combatants and noncombatants,” as well as “problems deriving from the connotation of the word ‘innocence.’6;

All he means by “innocence” is “currently harmless,” i.e., that someone is not presently aiming a gun at you, for example. This is helpful because it gets us beyond those high-flown constructs wherein the failure of the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker to overthrow the government under which they live, which happens to be at war, makes them “guilty” of whatever that government did or did not do to bring about the war or of whatever that government is doing in the course of the war. Under the other, more popular notion of innocence and guilt, everyone in the enemy society is guilty—of not overthrowing the government, of living there, or what?—and is therefore a target.

Thus the shoemaker, who repairs the shoes of the farmer who grows crops which might, some of them, be used to feed the army, members of which might actually do current harm to some actual combatant on the other side, does not automatically become a “legitimate target” just for doing what he would be doing anyway, if there were no war. Nagel writes: “The threat presented by an army and its members does not consist merely in the fact that they are men, but in the fact that they are armed and are using their arms in the pursuit of certain objectives. Contributions to their arms and logistics are contributions to this threat; contributions to their mere existence as men are not. It is therefore wrong to direct an attack against those who merely serve the combatants’ needs as human beings, such as farmers and food suppliers, even though survival as a human being is a necessary condition of efficient functioning as a soldier” [my italics].7

Here Nagel harks back to the position of such radical nineteenth-century laissez-faire liberals as Gustave de Molinari, who argued that the rules of warfare ought to be reformed to separate as completely as possible the enterprises connected with war from those of commerce. The latter ought to be allowed to proceed, as much as possible, as they would in the absence of war. Indeed, I think that Nagel’s conclusion could be stated even more radically, but I would not want to outflank him on the right, or left, or whatever it is these days.

On the basis of the view that war establishes “personal relations” between those involved, relations which have their proper “target,”8

and that soldiers are to be attacked in their capacity as soldiers and not as men, Nagel rejects as barbaric and atrocious such weapons as flamethrowers and napalm, which do far more than stop, incapacitate, or kill the man-as-soldier but inflict unneeded harm on him as a man.9

Total Warriors, I am sure, can only shake their heads at such utter sentimentality. And yet Nagel has a point.

In the same part of the discussion, Nagel suggests that the existing “laws” of war may be entirely too permissive, having been drawn up by cynical state functionaries, and thus may not constitute any moral framework at all. I would add that state actors have chosen to adopt the assumptions of Total War. As international law goes, however, the 1977 Protocol to the Geneva Conventions, Part IV: Civilian Population is a pretty good attempt at stating rules that would re-establish some distinction between combatants and noncombatants.

It should come as no surprise that the United States has not bothered to ratify the 1977 Protocol.

Rather than acknowledge the possibility of a larger moral framework, the United States prefers a sort of utilitarianism, described by Nagel as “a view of oneself as a benevolent bureaucrat distributing such benefits as one can control to countless other beings, with whom one may have relations or none. The justifications it requires are primarily administrative.”10

It would never do for the One Remaining Super Power to admit that ethical norms might exist—norms that were not mere derivatives of policy, and that were not instrumental and manipulative rationalizations of whatever the empire’s leaders wish to do anyway. It would cramp their style and hamper their flexibility. We should not even ask them to look into it.

You may expect to see a lot of new moral slogans under the empire’s present management, but you may not expect to see much actual morality. This is only an empirical judgment. Nevertheless, I expect it has high predictive capacity.

One last thing: Why raise the issue of Total War now? For one simple reason—if the reigning U.S. leadership are really bent on war against Iraq or any other state, any war they launch will be a Total War. It is a U.S. tradition since at least 1862. They know no other.

We shall hear all about “precision” weaponry and bombs so smart that they can recite passages from Immanuel Kant.

Well, some things are subject to empirical study. The U.S. authorities learned one thing in Indochina: foreigners, and even a handful of Americans, get a little edgy at these ongoing displays of massive explosive overkill. U.S. spokesmen certainly talk a good game of precision these days. Maybe they will kill fewer enemy civilians per square foot than has been their habit in the past.

If they can manage that, we can acknowledge the achievement without undue rancor. It will still not establish their right to have killed however many civilians they actually do kill. It will not establish much of anything except an aptitude for applied science and new advances in propaganda. Nor will it justify the large number of Iraqi deaths, over the ten years of non-war and non-peace of recent memory, deaths with which a late U.S. Secretary of State could live.

Joseph Stromberg holds the JoAnn B. Rothbard chair in history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Reprinted with permission from


  1. Richard M. Weaver, “Southern Chivalry and Total War,” in George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson, Jr., eds., The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver (Indianapolis: LibertyPress, 1987), p. 167.
  2. J. W. Garner, quoted in Elbridge Colby, Capt. U.S. Army, “Aerial Law and War Targets,” American Journal of International Law, October 1925, p. 710.
  3. Thomas Nagel, “War and Massacre,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Winter 1972, p. 127.
  4. Ibid., p. 129.
  5. For excellent reconstructions of the grounds of political ethics, see Frank van Dun, “Philosophical Statism and the Illusions of Citizenship: Reflections on the Neutral State,” in Boudewijn Bouckaert and Annette Godart-van der Kroon, Hayek Revisited (Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar, 2000), pp. 89–108, and Murray N. Rothbard, “War, Peace, and the State,” in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2000), pp. 115–132, and The Ethics of Liberty (New York: New York University, 1998).
  6. Nagel, p. 139.
  7. Ibid., p. 140.
  8. Ibid., pp. 133–34.
  9. Ibid., p. 141–42.
  10. Ibid., pp. 137–38.


December 2002

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