Total war is a war limitless in its scope in which a belligerent engages in the mobilization of all their available resources, in order to render beyond use their rival’s capacity for resistance.
The practice of total war has been in use for centuries, but it was only in the middle to late 19th century that total war was identified by scholars as a separate class of warfare. In a total war, there is less
and sometimes no differentiation between combatants and non- combatants (civilians) than in other conflicts, as nearly every human resource, civilians and soldiers alike, can be considered to be part of the belligerent effort. >
Warfare till the end of the 19th century was still conducted between professional armies, and was relatively brief. Apart from the Crimean war of 1854-56, there were no major wars between the great powers for a century (1815 till 1914). In contrast, the conflict that began in 1914 involved all the major powers, and crucially, the entire resources of society and economy.
Although it was the French Revolution that created the first civilian army, it is only in the 20th century that the outcomes of war were aims were not confined to militarily defeating rival armies, but encompassed the economic and political destruction of entire countries.
On the one hand governments exhorted their citizens to participate in the war, and on the populations, with the aim of destroying public morale. The most glaring example of this was the use of atomic bombs by the USA on Japan in 1945.
But it was evident from the First World War, when German submarine (U-boat) warfare against commercial allied shipping was clearly meant to cripple the economy and starve the British population. The scheme nearly succeeded, for in April 1917 the British government had only 6 week supply of food-grain left in the country.
Nuclear weapons were a logical extension of an already prevalent characteristic in modern warfare, and their capacity for infinite destruction has added a new word to the vocabulary of conflict. Total war exemplified the dangerous imperial drives of the dominant economies of the capitalist world, in an age when democracy was still anathema to most ruling elites.
The concept of war changed dramatically between the French Revolution and the world wars of the 20th century. The novelty lies in how modern wars are fought, to what end, and how resources are mobilized by the belligerents. The outcome of modern war is decided not just by the strength of the armed forces, but also by the staying power of the economy.
In addition, total war is war without limit that can end only in the ‘unconditional surrender’ of the enemy. The aim is not just the defeat of the rival but the economic and political destruction of the rival country. The targeting of civilians went side by side with citizen’s participation in the war.
This idea went back to the French revolution when the first civilian army came into operation. The mobilization of mass national feelings, the ‘strange democratization of war’, gave birth to the new phenomenon ‘people’s wars.