Your rating(Clear)Rate this item


There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.

on December 9, 2014
Great book.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2011
I found this book very interesting. Bell clearly knows a good deal about the subject and writes about it concisely. The book is a pleasure to read.

I do think his central premise is overdrawn. The ancien regime was the exception rather than the norm in regards to wartime strategies. Bell himself says the "religious wars" of the 17th century were anything but limited. He also makes occasional references to the totality of war in ancient times. In the Middle Ages, the Crusades (on both sides) and the French army's extermination of the Cathars were fought as total wars.

If total warfare from 1800 has become more destructive than these earlier examples, it's largely due to the fact that technological advances have made it easier to to destroy civilians and their property. The horrendous events of the two World Wars do seem to have disillusioned Europeans about the notion of total war, but they hasn't had the same effect outside the Continent.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
4 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 15, 2010
His history of the events in Europe in the late 18th century is good. His overall theories of war are worth looking into, but of course it is always good for a laugh to read an academic's take on battle. The most unwelcome part of this book is his constant potshots regarding Bush and the Iraq war. These have caused the book to age badly, and I couldn't help but cringe at some of his comparisons. This book is clearly a product of the politics of 2003-2008.

Overall, the time spent reading this book would be better spent on another.
33 commentsWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2009
Enlightenment produced new currents of thoughts that repudiated the military culture of the old regime as merely pursuit of honor and glory. According to Bell, since the religious wars, modern European states and its concomitant aristocratic culture `placed surprising limits on war' by mutually agreeing to a code of conduct to protect POWs, enemy noncombatants, etc. In a sense, the aristocratic wars were really `large-scale duels with moral issues subordinated to the thirst for honor and glory' that treated enemy as `honorable adversaries' and recoiled from inflicting needless human sufferings. Hence, Louis XIV's razing of the Palatinate particularly outraged and courted collective condemnation.

Bell singled out Fenelon and his work, Telemachus, for corroding the adhesion to the aristocratic war culture. Its exhortation of the aged-old `claims of conscience, denunciation of war and Christian pacifism' gained a huge following in France. D'Holbach's The System of Nature, another bestseller, proposed a theory of history to explain the persistence of warfare as an `incomplete embrace of modernity - to remnants of barbarism.' War was just a stage in the progress to universal peace. In the minds of the reading public, these works `transformed peace from a moral imperative to a historical one... and 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 cataclysmic social transformation of the French Revolution opened an opportunity for the execution and reinterpretation of those ideals. The Assembly debate on war and peace at the Manege underscored an acute shift from aristocratic concept of wars. Bell observed that new leaders such as Brissot `saw international relations in idealistic terms straight out of Telemachus.' The Girondins successfully made a declaration of peace but simultaneously asserted that `peoples had the right to defend themselves vigorously if attacked.' War rhetoric took a fanatical turn: `A coming `worldwide war of liberation was a holy cause; we will only be "regenerated" by blood; we need strong explosions to expel strong poison in the body of France.'

The Revolution spurred the conviction that war was `a matter of morality and not science or aristocratic art,' no longer the `chess piece maneuvers of the aristocrats.' The democratization of the hitherto aristocratic monopoly of glory and honor formed the plank of the modern culture of war. Individual soldiers and military leaders could enjoy upward mobility by battlefield achievements. The immediate consequence was the rise of `political generals,' with Napoleon being its chief representative. The glorification of war successes underscored the military's moral superiority, the heart of militarism, which 'imposed the values and customs of the military on the civilian society.' For example, the Battle of Valmy gained legendary status that reverberated in the civilian society.

The birth a total war was complete when the French army with new leaders had to quell internal and external threats. The culture of war spawned a `virtual cult of martyrdom.' The sensual treatment of young Joseph Bara's death and the Republic's reaction cultivated a demonization of the enemy and intensified the `rhetoric of a war to the death.' War assumed a religious character and termed as a 'clash of proselytisms.' The spontaneous Vendee peasant uprisings was the apotheosis of this new war. The military viewed `all Vendeans as potentially soldiers and dedicated rebels' hence this `erasure of the line between combatants and non combatants brought about the wanton slaughter of both.' Both sides adopted this total war unleashing unspoken cruelty. Evidence could be found from Calabria to Saragosa.

This riveting and fascinating narrative charted the formation of a new war culture but the story falls short. In the introduction, Bell remarked on Americans' treatment of `armed forces with respect verging on reverence' and the apocalyptic rhetoric used in the war of terror eerily mirrored the revolutionaries. How did this modern `culture of war' metastasize and subsume into the fabric of western civilization and beyond? Bell's observations and evidence found in literature seem to support his theory but a further examination would greatly boost credibility.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 21, 2009
David Bell provides an interesting thesis through an intellectual look at the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars and their effect on European culture and thinking. The rise of militarism and the move towards modernity in the army is categorized well throughout and supported by looking at actions from Vendee, Italy, Egypt, Prussia and Spain. From brutalizing campaigns where the limited warfare of the old regime was cast aside in favor of not only large scale relentless battles but guerilla actions. The book is not simply a recasting of the great battles but combines the results of these battles with popular works of literature and theater at the time and the shifts in beliefs from the intellectuals down to the masses. Bell as always delivers a fresh look at a tired topic by utilizing the aspects of intellectual history and using them as a lens to view various events. In this case we see the development of a new type of warfare and how it crystallized in the Napoleonic era. The reason that I use the word interesting and disagree with various reviewers is that Bell thesis is not flawed but the fact that this warfare did not stick and went back to a traditional European model means it did not become dominant until later on. It planted the idea that this type of war could be waged and laid the groundwork for some of the great military minds to publish works such as On War creating new tactics and strategies to shape future wars. Overall well worth the time for those who enjoy military history or the exciting things that intellectual history can unlock when looking at a topic.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on November 3, 2008
David Bell is a leading academic historian who specializes in early modern European history with an emphasis on the French revolution. I purchased this book on a whim since the price was right. I thought it would be too technical compared to the history books that I usually read. I was surprised by how accessible and gripping the book was. My only quibble was that I felt that he should have reserved the comparisons between the current Iraq war (lots of mistakes) with the Napoleonic wars for the afterward. In my opinion they interrupted the flow of the book. On the other hand, there weren't too many of these asides.

This summer, I gave my copy to a nephew who is also a history buff.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
30 of 48 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 1, 2008
Mr VanGaalen's review is pretty much on point, but I rated this book somewhat lower due to several flaws.

First, Total War of any definition is not a modern concept, whether it developed first under Napoleon or not. The Greeks of Ionia certainly fought multiple total wars against the Persians, as did many tribes and states in ancient history. One should remember the Jews against the Assyrians and Babylonians and the disappearance of the "Lost Tribes." In more modern times, the Thirty Years War was a "Total War" for Germany in which the population fell by over three-quarters. In all of these conflicts politics and warfare were integrated and the populace was fully mobilized for war.

Our modern conception of Total War, like most of our narcissistic attitudes, tends to enhance the importance of our time in history. In a similar vein, one could argue that the creation of a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr was not to honor King, but to honor someone (anyone) from our own time -- we knew him, and were therefore more important as a result. With respect to a "militaristic" society, it can be argued that Sparta, Imperial Rome, Turkist and Mongol tribes were all highly militaristic societies that far eclipsed modern societies with the possible exception of Nazi Germany.

Secondly, the interspersing of titillating events such as the atrocities during the Napoleonic wars like castration, Napoleon's love life, and the like in the text were obviously ploys to attract a wider readership and not welcome. The author has apparently never experienced combat, otherwise he would know that dead and captured French soldiers routinely suffered having their genitals cut off and put in their mouths during their campaigns in Mexico, North Africa and Vietnam as did Americans troops in Vietnam. But even the venal American media decided to omit those details from their reporting as not adding anything to their presentations.

Lastly, the left-wing author felt compelled to follow many of his politically allied academics into comparing whatever his discourse was covering to the actions of President Bush and his conservative base. All of this author's silly excursions into this polemic were off-base, and they added nothing to the discussion of the Napoleonic times versus the formal and limited warfare of the 18th century in Europe.

Clearly the author feels that the French Revolution was the most important event in history, a viewpoint often found in European historical works. The American Revolution meant little or nothing in the course of history which is dominated by Europe and its political evolution under civil (Roman) law for the writers of such works. Bell seems oblivious to the formation and role of militias since the Middle Ages, and overlooks the fact that most leaders in history have developed through military feats. Instead he subscribes to militarism as being a new feature now common in Western culture. Spare me the far-left propaganda! Bacevich's treatise is totally wrong, and yes, "...no one who has not been in combat can ever really understand 'what it is like' or how it changes a person." Obviously the author disagrees, but I fear he limits his disagreement to intellectual elites in academia (with tenure) like himself.

On the positive side, the book was very readable and his flowing treatment of the times for developing nation states, "enlightenment" and citizen involvement is excellent. I would have given Bell a "4" for this book for the historical treatment of 1770-1815 if he had been able to keep his political preaching out of the text.
33 commentsWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 2008
As a brief history of the late Enlightenment and the French Revolution: 4 stars
As a brief history of the Napoleonic Wars (only 3 of 8 chapters): 3 stars
As a coherent political theory: 2 stars

On average, this amounts to 3 stars and makes for a light readable history accompanied by some often interesting theory. However, if you're getting the book based on its title, 2.5 stars might be more accurate.

The history itself is fine, making for a broad overview with a few good insights, so my critique will focus on the theory and the parallels Bell draws.

Bell is not an idiot and seems to have a good grasp of general history, capable of soberly pointing out that the total American casualties in the War on Terror have so far amounted to less than what the Russians would have suffered in an average 6 hours during WWII. Yet he will often come up with the most inane comments to keep the book contemporary. For instance, he repeatedly states how "uncannily similar" the guerrilla war in Spain is to the current Iraq insurgency. "Uncannily similar" in what sense? The answer seems to be that they're both insurgencies - just like Afghanistan, Somalia, Vietnam, Lebanon, and thousands of other historical insurgencies. Arguably Iraq has more in common with the Jewish revolt against the Romans than with the Peninsula War. But then, of course, if he argued that, he would be admitting that fanatical insurgency predates the French Revolution by a long margin.

What he terms "Total War" is also problematic. The West has only fought a handful of total wars since Napoleonic times. Instead, less technologically advanced societies have tended to be the ones to most fully mobilize their populations in war. But is this really a modern phenomenon? Bell admits city states fought total wars in this [his] sense, but so too did tribal societies, nomadic pastoralists, and small colonies. Some of the religious wars of the 16th and 17th century seemed pretty total too. Perhaps he has things the wrong way around and it is "limited war" that needs explaining.

On the other hand, he is right to emphasise the role the French Revolution played in the military/civilian split, the advent of the literate soldier, and the rise of propaganda. He also brings up the birth of the philosophical concept of a War to End All Wars (in the non-Biblical sense, of course). Did these things lead to Total War though? He is unconvincing. Wars had already long been fought as much to eliminate other powers as for plunder or to keep a system of powers in balance. "Delenda Carthago/Carthage must be destroyed" is not a modern call to war.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on February 15, 2008
The role of War in human events has been discussed by political philosophers for centuries. David Bell describes the early French traditions in his book; today, the argument continues: Authors like John Mueller claim that war is on the road to extinction (Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War), while others, "realists", think that it's very much here to stay (The Independence of Nations). In "The First Total War", Bell describes not only the conversation but its consequences - how the discourse of Peace and War affect the practice of warfare. And Bell offers a paradoxical observation: that ideas about the obsolescence and even obscenity of war themselves cause war to be more terrible then otherwise.

There are two ways of thinking of Bell's book: you can read it as a pretty straight history of The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, a little strange in its focus but that nonetheless covering most of the basics, or as an illustration of the main idea: That one of the great renovations of the French Revolution was instituting a view of War as abnormal and unnatural; And, ironically, that this de-legitimization of War made the Wars of the French Revolution into modern - total - wars, much worse than the wars that came before.

Under the Ancient Regime, wars took place regularly. The European powers constantly fought one another. Every decade, at least one major European power fought another, and usually, more than one. The wars were perceived as a natural, inevitable part of international politics: Indeed, warfare had been the raison d'etre of the stae. War had been celebrated in Art, Literature and Poetry, and the great deeds of Kings and Generals universally acclaimed.

But with the Enlightenment, a new brand of thinking came into being: the view of war as unnatural, an abomination. Philosophers like Voltaire and the Baron d'Holbach and popular writers like Archbishop Fenelon argued not only that was is evil, but that it is on the way out: That the growth of commerce, and the increased knowledge and sophistication of mankind means that war would cease.

The French Revolution unleashed these ideas upon the world. The Revolutionaries, with faith in the rights of man, heralded a new age of perpetual peace. But first, the reactionary, counter revolutionary forces had to be destroyed...

For the irony is that the very visions of perpetual Peace led with them the willingness to achieve it regardless of the means; Thus the wars of the ancient regime which were limited and under control were replaced by mass scale feasts of destruction.

To put it in game theory terms (Which Bell doesn't do), the aristocrats who ran pre 1789 armies expected repeat engagements. They have had an incentive for moderation because they knew moderation would be returned. Cultural factors - such as the similarity between aristocratic leaders on all sides of the conflicts - helped enforce the moderation.

After the Revolution, France's new leaders did not expect repeat engagements: they believed in total defeat for the enemy, followed by eternal peace. Partially as a result of this new outlook, wars became a grim, disastrous affair. In the war against France's foreign neighbors, an element of moderation remained because of fear of reprisals. But when destroying internal enemies, no such checks existed: the wide spread destruction of the Vendee region, the heart of the counter revolutionary forces in France, is shocking. "The Vendee was not a genocide, but it nonetheless stirs memories of recent genocidal horrors". (p.184).

This theme sums up the first half of the book, and it might have ended here. Instead, Bell continues to chronicle the events of the Revolution, and the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte. Here Bell's thesis is less clear, and the historical elements of the narrative move to the stage's front.

The argument Bell offers in this section is about the culture of the warrior not the horrors of warfare. Before the ancient regime, to be a solider - to be a commander - was part of the persona one wore. No full time professionals, Ancient Regime aristocrats took soldiering as one of the many facets of their personality. They danced; They wrote poetry; They seduced ladies; And they made war.

With the revolution, soldiering became professional. The army became separate from civilian life, housed separately in barracks and perceived as a different quality than the civil society. Indeed, only in the time of the French Revolution did the terms "Civilian" and "Military" come to detonate the different classes of people.

Napoleon, as the first political general, knew how to use the difference between Civilian and Military spheres to his political advantage. If Civil society seemed corrupt, selfish and incompetent, Napoleon appeared an embodiment of the military spirit - brilliant, powerful, successful, loyal and patriotic. "What have you done with the France that I left you so brilliant?" he asked before taking power. "The Republic exists almost nowhere but in the armies" he claimed. His soldiers called upon him to take the mantle for the good of the country. "General, you have saved France... now save the Republic!" (pp. 218-222). Could he do anything but heed the call?

The French Revolution doubtlessly changed Europe and the world in various respects. Bell's focuses on the transformation of warfare and of the military, of the birth of the professional soldier and the soldier cum political hero. And he offers an imperfect but lively history of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era, including short summaries of the major battles. Both intellectually exciting and historically illuminating, it should appeal to the expert and the neophyte alike.
0CommentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on February 27, 2007
We have grown accustomed to viewing the World Wars of the 20th century as the first total wars in modern history, for they required the total mobilization and militarization of the societies involved. Their accompanying ideologies, fascism and communism, were appropriately called totalitarian since they left no aspect of society unaffected. Now historian David A Bell has written a new and different history of the Napoleonic Wars (1792 - 1815) arguing that they were in fact the first total wars.

In his introduction, Bell tells us that he is borrowing techniques from intellectual history to write a military history. Traditionally military historians have restricted themselves to accounts of battlefield tactics and weapon systems. Bell is attempting to go further in showing that the ideals of the Enlightenment played a role in what he calls the first total war. He believes that the French Revolution - the apotheosis of the Enlightenment - radicalized people's ideas about how and why wars should be fought.

During the time of the ancien regime - which is Bell's main standard of comparison - wars were limited and short-lived. They were fought according to established rules and usually to defend the honor of this or that aristocrat; in fact, many times the armies were made up of mercenaries. The philosophes of the Enlightenment such as Kant, Diderot, d'Alembert, and the Marquis de Condorcet were certain that with the advent of reason wars would be a thing of the past. As late as 1790 Robespierre was declaring in the Assembly that the French nation had no desire to engage in war, that to invade another country and make it adopt their laws and constitution was the furthest thing from their minds.

Much changed in two years. By 1792 there was growing opposition to the revolutionary government in Paris, especially in Vendee. The government decided to put down this rebellion with a degree of brutality not seen before. They conducted a scorched-earth policy that spared no one. They made no distinction between combattants and non-combattants. The dogs of war had been unleashed to save the revolution and to obliterate any dissent.

Bell explores the nature of total war and how it feeds on itself. Once the military becomes front and center of the government, war becomes unstoppable. All of the nations resources and efforts went to the Grand Armee to create an empire in places as far as Egypt and Russia.

In his retelling of the Spanish campaign, Bell attempts to draw a parallel with America's intervention in Iraq. To an extent there are some parallels. Napoleon claimed to be bringing Enlightenment ideals and reform to Spain, yet the insurgency would have none of it. This, however, is a distraction from Bell's thesis; whatever else it is doing in Iraq, America is not conducting a total war. This is a very restrained and cautious use of military power. In fact, Napoleon's excursion into Spain was somewhat cautious to be called total war.

When contrasted with what transpired in the preceding century and what the philosophes predicted, the Napoleonic Wars were barbaric and total, but it is still not clear how they were different from, say, the Mongol invasions of the Middle Ages or the military expeditions of Alexander the Great. Its seems that the so-called total wars of Napoleon have been done before. The total mobilization of people and resources is as old as human history. Mutual and absolute hatred for the enemy is a timeless emotion. Bell's argument that hell hath no fury like a citzen's army is reminiscent of Victor Davis Hanson's thesis in Carnage and Culture, and it is as unconvincing.

Bell's book provides much food for thought on how quickly circumstances can change from permanent peace to permanent war without pinpointing exactly what triggers the change. Paranoia, perceived threat,and survival are all factors in the devolution of high ideals to base hostility. And why armies of citizens driven by Enlightenment ideals fight more effectively than previous armies is still unanswered. However, Bell makes a robust effort with this original work.
11 commentWas this review helpful to you?YesNoSending feedback...
Thank you for your feedback.
Sorry, we failed to record your vote. Please try again
Report abuse
     
 
Customers who viewed this also viewed
The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France
The Terror: The Merciless War for Freedom in Revolutionary France by David Andress (Paperback - December 26, 2006)
$12.61


The Napoleonic Wars (Cassell History of Warfare)
The Napoleonic Wars (Cassell History of Warfare) by Gunther Erich Rothenberg (Hardcover - December 31, 1999)
 
     

Send us feedback

How can we make Amazon Customer Reviews better for you?
Let us know here.