Words Matter

17 April, 2008

I have just finished a very enjoyable history:  The First Total War:  Napolean’s Europe and Birth of Warfare As We Know It, by David A. Bell.  It was not quite the book I thought it would be.  Bell focused much more on the philosophy behind the way the wars were fought, rather than the battles and strategy (though he presents an admirable overview of the military side).

He traces the change in war from a game of kings and princes to the national war.  Before the revolutionary wars of the the Napoleonic era, war had involved relatively small armies and officers who approached war as a hobby — very, very few were full time officers.  These amateur armies tended to leave the civilians alone (there were many obvious exceptions, of course, such as the destruction of Magdeburg (along with the other egregious depredations inflicted upon the Germans)), and strategy involved either avoiding battle, or forcing your opponent to accept battle on disadvantageous terms.

The French Revolution began the change.  The opponents were no longe honorable.  The French viewed the royalist regimes as a violation of natural law.  The kings of Europe viewed the French as regicides deserving of no quarter.  Limited war began to disappear under the levee en masse

Napoleon, though, developed total battle.  He did not seek to force his opponent to surrender — he sought the total destruction of his enemy through maneouvre.  His brilliant victories at Marengo and Austerlitz showed that battle was no longer between gentlemen of leisure.  Battle was now, truly, dependent upon the morale of the infantry and artillery.

Bell traces this change through the speeches, literature, and pamphlets of the era.  Civilians who rebelled against the occupier became the devil. Was ceased to be limited and became apocalyptic.  It ceased to be an ordinary part of life (a minor annoyance) and became extraordinary — something abnormal.  The abnormality itself meant that war to the extreme became acceptable. Attrocities became commonplace as the enemy ceased to be human.  And war became redemptive — it was no longer evil, it was a way to combat evil, to defeat evil, and thus strenghen one’s own society.  It is, in its own way, a very frightening book.

He closes the book with a comparison to today’s ‘War on Terror’.  The apocalyptic descriptions of the war, the redemptive capacity of war (“War is terrible.  But it brings out, you know, in dome ways it touches the core of Americans who volunteer to go into combat to protect their souls: — George W. Bush, 2006), the inhumanity of the enemy, and the culpability of the occupied civilans.  Words, through speeches, newspapers, books and the internet, have created an environment similar to the one of the Napoleonic wars.  This ‘us versus them’ attitude makes torture, civilian deaths, and lying to ones own public acceptable.  Victory is all that matters.  Even if, as with Napoleon, no one knows what victory actually is.

Words matter.  They create the mental environment which a war is fought.



  1. The revolutions of America and France certainly changed the world, and warfare. It was the American Revolution that introduced guerilla warfare, was it not? The “undignified” strategy of combat taken from the indians. Napoleon of course changed warfare altogether into serious business.

    Still, these changes and the philosophy of total war and absolute vilification of one’s enemies didn’t start in this age. I’d argue more like it was awoken from a brief slumber, for certainly the ancient world was full of such thinking. Isn’t the old testament full of stories about genocide, smashing your enemies’ babies on the rocks and cutting them out of women and destroying them? I don’t think war was mere hobby nor civilly carried out in antiquity, the middle ages, nor even into the 16th century.

  2. In words and books warfare from the middle ages to the 18th Century was “civilized”. Codes of chivalry, and later the ius in bello or laws of war strove to isolate the non-combatant from warfare.

    The reality was far different, and although many battles took place far from populated areas, siege warfare and blockade punished the civilian population. War has only ever been noble in the military manuals of the time.

    The Napoleonic campaigns introduced the term “guerrilla” in the context we know it, but the tactic predates this period, and examples can be found throughout history of “irregular” warfare (which was condemned by those same writers who spoke of the noble and chivalrous “legitimate” wars).

    They say the pen is mightier than the sword. Perhaps more accurately the pen precedes and instigates the sword. From Cato’s “Carthago delando est”, to Hitler’s Nuremberg Rally, to the writings of Islamic extremists and declarations about “weapons of mass destruction” in recent years, words certainly galvanise and embolden the combative spirit, to the detriment of humanity. Although war was always harsh, there is something to be said for the days when fighting was carried out purely to achieve an objective, and the entire population was not demonised as a mortal enemy.

    I’ll have to check out that book (((Billy))), thanks for the thought-provoking post. Julia sent me this post, you probably know me better as “the Ethical Husband”!

  3. Philly: Due to sinus medications, I am pleading guilty of blogging under the influence. Northeast PA is not, repeat not, a good place to be if one is allergic to tree pollen, specifically red maples. The nice red tint the ridges have up here can bite me. I don’t think I was clear in relating his progression of ideas and themes. I agree wholeheartedly with the premise of your comment. However, I think that Bell was comparing the Napoleonics to the early-modern and late-medieval warfare patterns. He traces quite well how the amateur officer corps (nobles were good at being part-time officers) combined with small armies made up of mercenaries and limited national armies progressed through the words of the French Revolution into national armies with professional officers. In addition, during this relatively short period, wars stopped being ‘king x versus king y’, or ‘king a versus recalcitrant duke b’ and became national wars.

    The guerrilla warfare aspect of the American Revolution was negligable. The British certainly did not react to irregular light infantry with the barbarity of the French occupying Italy or Spain. The whole ‘shooting from behind hedges while the British marched in formation’ is certainly an exageration. In fact, the British began supplying a light infantry company to each battalion for harrassing fire and scouting. Most of the battles of the American Revolution were between regular armies fighting in the same way that the armies did during the Napoleonic Wars.

    That said, I agree that vilification of civilians crops up again and again and again through history. However, prior to the wars of Napoleon, unless the troops (or mercenaries) came through your town, most people in a country could have cared less that there was a war. Once the people stopped being serfs (or some other polite way of saying semi-free) and became citizens, all the ‘civilising’ of the last three or four hundred years went out the window.

    I like your term ‘reawakening.’ It resonates with me and with what Bell wrote. But I think the reawakening of racial and national hatreds can be directly traced to the newspapers and pamphlets of the era. Citizen, save your country. The idea that a non-noble could even be a citizen was novel.

    Thanks for the comment, Philly, as always, you spotted the (medication induced) holes in what I wrote. I still recommend the book, through. His conclusions really do resonate through today.

  4. Paul: thank’s for stopping by. So you’re the husband of the ‘broad-arsed sauropod woman? (her phrase, not mine).

    “Perhaps more accurately the pen precedes and instigates the sword.” Well said. Bell traces the uses (and misuses) of the written and spoken word and their effect of creating a separate military society and a mindset of total war.

    The books a good read. Not only is it well argues, but the guy can actually write (more along the lines of Tuchman in her prime, not Sidney Fey (sp?).

  5. That is very interesting, and not something I had ever thought about. It makes perfect sense after reading your post, though. If you think about the War of the Roses, or the Hundred Years War, these were wars that went on for generations, and the common people (for the most part) were relatively unaware. I remember reading (maybe it was a Tuchman book) that many of the minor nobles, villagers and serfs were unaware of who the king was for the most part during the War of the Roses. And cities in northern France were switched from English to French hands so many times, most people in the town didn’t even know what country they were from.

    A glaring difference in this type of warfare, however, is the type meted out during the Crusades. The massacres inflicted by Richard I of England were brutal and definitely affected civilians. Also, the Spanish and Portuguese were pretty barbaric when conquering the new world. It seems that Napoleon, and the French Revolution, made Europeans see other Europeans like they used to view only different ethnic populations.

    I haven’t read the book (but I definitely need to check it out) but it would be interesting to see how and why that transition happened. Thanks for the great post:) (that’s why I love atheist websites…everyone is so cerebral)

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