What is Total War?

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  • Written By: C. K. Lanz
  • Edited By: Jacob Harkins
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  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2019
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Total war is a class of warfare formally defined by scholars in the 19th century that has in actuality been practice for centuries. This class of limitless warfare involves the use of any and all resources to ensure victory and does not recognize a distinction between soldiers and combatants, and civilians and other noncombatants.

In addition to military targets, homes, hospitals, schools, religious centers, libraries and other cultural depositories may be bombed and crops burned in an effort to demoralize the enemy state. With the advent and permeation of the Industrial Revolution and the resulting increased sophistication of weapons, technology and media, total war implies that the state itself is transformed into a machine at the complete disposal of the bellicose effort.


The practice and elements of total war have evolved over time as the sophistication and availability of resources have changed and improved. The Peloponnesian War fought by Athens and Sparta from 431 to 404 BC is considered to be one of the first examples of this kind of war because it deviated from the ritualized form of combat previously favored in which the outcome was decided in one day by professional armies on a designated battlefield. In contrast, the Peloponnesian War took years to resolve, involved the mass killing and enslavement of civilian populations and resulted in near bankruptcy for the region. An additional historical example of total war is the 13th century warfare of Genghis Khan and his forces that invaded, destroyed and depopulated any city that did not capitulate.

The first and second World Wars of the 20th century are often characterized as representative contemporary examples of total war because of the resources participating nations were forced to invest. There was little distinction made between military and civilian targets as entire cities were repeatedly bombed and entire populations massacred or imprisoned. Propaganda was a major element in these wars, soldiers were conscripted, goods and food were rationed, and private and state factories were requisitioned to manufacture everything from tanks and planes to bombs. In addition, women and children became important components of the war effort in many countries involved as they worked in factories, as nurses or ambulance drivers.

Nuclear weapons have produced another shift in the practice and frequency of total war. Since a nuclear arsenal can be developed and maintained, mobilized very quickly and result in complete destruction of a region, total war can be completed with one devastating bombing. These nuclear arsenals, however, do deter major attacks on the countries holding them.


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Post 4

"If all wars were total wars I think there would be a lot less of them, because it would have real consequences if you elect someone to power who is prepared to start that kind of war."

This made me speechless. But deep down, I think you are right.

Post 3

I have friends who play the Total War series (like Rome Total War and so forth) but I never thought of it as being an actual term for a kind of war.

I'm kind of torn about it, because on the one hand it must be terrible for the people who have to live through it, but on the other hand, war is always terrible and since we no longer tend to have ritualized combat (the Cold War notwithstanding) I kind of think that all wars should be total wars. I mean, it's all too easy these days to just have your politicians press a few buttons, and send some people to war, but it doesn't affect the average person

so they don't really care. The people getting killed care, but that's all.

If all wars were total wars I think there would be a lot less of them, because it would have real consequences if you elect someone to power who is prepared to start that kind of war.

Post 2

@croydon - I get what you mean, but it's terrible either way, really. I mean, look at the awful conditions that people were subjected to back in WW1 and WW2 and they probably weren't any better back when they had ancient and medieval total wars.

In some ways I actually think it might be better to just be going about your business and then die from an unexpected attack, rather than face years and years of poverty and fear and then die anyway.

I'm just glad I probably won't have either of those things happen to me, but there are certainly places in the world right now where people may as well be in a total war.

Post 1

I remember learning the term "total war" when I was at school, but it was usually just applied to the two world wars. I didn't realize it could apply to other kinds of wars. I guess I thought it was more to do with the mobilization of the population and less to do with the threat to civilians because I didn't realize that nuclear war could count as total war either, since, even though I know it affects the total population, they aren't all needed to contribute to the war itself, if that makes sense.

It's kind of chilling that people can be killed in a total war without ever contributing to it at all.

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