What is Total War? Definitions and Examples

Artist's rendition of Dresden after the 1945 bombing
A visitor stands over a panorama of an artists rendering of the bombing of Dresden via Getty Images.

Total war is a strategy in which militaries use any means necessary to win, including those considered morally or ethically wrong in the context of warfare. The goal is not only to decimate but to demoralize the enemy beyond recovery so that they are unable to continue fighting.

Key Takeaways

  • Total war is a war fought without limitations on targets or weapons.
  • Ideological or religious conflicts are more likely to give rise to total war.
  • Total wars have occurred throughout history and include the third Punic War, the Mongol Invasions, the Crusades and the two World Wars.

Definition of Total War

Total war is mainly characterized by the lack of distinction between fighting lawful combatants and civilians. The purpose is to destroy the other contender’s resources so that they are unable to continue to wage war. This might include targeting major infrastructure and blocking access to water, internet, or imports (often through blockades). Additionally, in total war, there is no limit on the type of weapons used and biological, chemical, nuclear, and other weapons of mass destruction may be unleashed.

While state-sponsored imperialist wars tend to have the greatest numbers of casualties, it is not the number of casualties alone that defines a total war. Smaller conflicts across the globe, such as tribal wars, incorporate aspects of total war by kidnapping, enslaving, and killing civilians. This deliberate targeting of civilians elevates less expansive wars to the level of total war.

A nation waging total war may also impact its own citizens through a mandatory draft, rationing, propaganda, or other efforts deemed necessary to support the war on the home front.

History of Total War

Total war began in the Middle Ages and continued through the two World Wars. While there have long been cultural, religious and political norms expressing who should and should not be targeted in war, there was no international ordinance describing the laws of war until the Geneva Conventions, which created the International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

Total War in the Middle Ages

Some of the earliest and most significant examples of total war occurred in the Middle Ages, during the Crusades, a series of holy wars fought in the 11th century. During this period, it is estimated that over one million people were killed. Soldiers sacked and burned countless villages in the name of preserving their respective religions. The population of entire cities was slain in an attempt to completely destroy the basis of their adversaries’ support.

Genghis Khan, the 13th-century Mongolian conqueror, followed a strategy of total war. He founded the Mongol Empire, which grew as he and his troops spread across Northeast Asia, seizing cities, and slaughtering large portions of their populations. This prevented uprisings in the defeated cities, as they did not have the human or material resources to rebel. One of the best examples of Khan’s use of this type of warfare is his largest invasion, which was against the Khwarazmian Empire. He sent hundreds of thousands of troops across the empire to kill the citizens without discrimination and enslave others to be used as human shields in later battles. This "scorched earth" policy holds that the best way to win a war is to ensure that the opposition cannot mount a second attack.

Total War in the 18th and 19th Centuries

During the French Revolution, the Revolutionary Tribunal engaged in acts of total war, nicknamed “The Terror.” During this period, the Tribunal executed anyone who did not show fervent and undying support of the Revolution. Thousands of people also died in prison awaiting trial. During the Napoleonic Wars that followed the revolution, it is estimated that approximately five million people died over the twenty-year period. During this time, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte became known for his savagery.

People March Thru Georgia Following Sherman;Illu
People March Thru Georgia Following Sherman. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Another famous example of total war occurred during the American Civil War with Sherman’s March to the Sea. After successfully capturing Atlanta, Georgia, the Union Major General William T. Sherman marched his troops toward Savannah to the Atlantic Ocean. Along this route, General Sherman and Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant burned and sacked smaller towns in order to destroy the South’s economic basis—the plantations. This strategy was intended to demoralize the Confederates and destroy their infrastructure so that neither the soldiers nor the civilians had the supplies to mobilize for the war effort.

The World Wars: Total War and the Home Front

Nations in World War I mobilized their own civilians for the war effort through forced conscription, military propaganda, and rationing, all of which can all be aspects of total war. People who had not consented were made to sacrifice food, supplies, time, and money to aid the war. When it comes to the conflict itself, the United States initiated the four-year Blockade of Germany which starved citizens and soldiers alike and debilitated the nation’s access to resources. In addition to blocking food and agriculture supplies, the blockade also restricted their access to foreign weapon imports.

During World War II, much like the previous World War, both the Allies and the Axis powers utilized conscription and civilian mobilization on all fronts. Propaganda and rationing continued, and civilians were expected to work longer hours to compensate for human capital lost during the war.

Much like World War I, the Allies targeted German citizens to hasten the end of the conflict. The British and American forces firebombed the German city of Dresden because it was one of Germany’s industrial capitals. The bombing destroyed the nation’s railways system, aircraft factories, and other resources.

Atomic Bombs: Mutually Assured Destruction

The practice of total war, however, largely ended with World War II, as nuclear war assured mutually assured destruction. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States showed the apocalyptic possibilities of total nuclear war. Five years after this event, the International Humanitarian Law outlawed any weapons that were indiscriminate (and though nuclear weapons are not explicitly mentioned, many agree they are prohibited under this clause).

Yemenis Facing Continuing Clean Water Crisis
Total war impacts civilians as well as combatants. A little girl carries jerrycans after she filled them up with clean water from a charity pump during a continuing clean water crisis on July 24, 2018 in Sana'a, Yemen. Mohammed Hamoud / Getty Images

Conclusion

While the IHL helped curb total war by making the deliberate targeting of civilians illegal, it did not end the use of certain strategies, such as mandatory military service in Israel, South Korea, Armenia (and many others), or the destruction of civilian homes, such as in the Syrian Civil War, or the deliberate targeting of civilians in the war in Yemen.

Sources

  • Ansart, Guillaume. "The Invention of Modern State Terrorism during the French Revolution." University of Indiana, 2011.
  • Saint-Amour, Paul K. “On the Partiality of Total War.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 40, no. 2, 2014, pp. 420–449. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/674121.
  • Haines, Amy R. “Total War and the American Civil War: An Exploration of the Applicability of the Label 'Total War' to the Conflict of 1861-1865. "Undergraduate Research Journal at UCCS. Volume 3.2 (2010):12-24.