Book Review: The Age of Total War: 1860-1945 by Jeremy Black

The notion that a book is “thought-provoking” is often thrown out there for works of non-fiction, and of those that are described as such that I have read most very seldom are.   This book is different, Dr. Black has written not so much a history as a treatise challenging historians, particularly military historians, to reexamine the history of conflict in the examined period with the idea of total war uppermost in their minds.   It seems a counter-intuitive thing to do at first, but he provides plenty of examples of why the wars under consideration were not total or were only partially total at best.   This includes World War II, which was total in some aspects but limited in others.

The biggest distinction the Dr. Black makes in discussing totality in warfare is the difference between war aims/victory conditions and the methods used to wage war.   He posits that while war aims are sometimes total, such as seeking the destruction of the enemy or the dissolution of their state, the methods of war making have often been far from total.   Even the most brutal of wars between nation states are often not total as the combatants do not actually seek the physical destruction of their enemies.   He actually points out that it is most often revolutionary or sectarian conflicts where the physical destruction of opponents is a goal and uses the examples of Rwanda in 1994, 1990’s Bosnia, the German suppression of the Herero in the early 1900s, and many of the wars of decolonization in Africa and East Asia as examples, many of which fall outside of the period examined.

This is a global history of the period to an extent, but there is an emphasis on wars that occurred within Europe simply because so much more is known about them.   He examines the conditions in these wars and discusses the ways in which they were and were not total.   On of his most interesting discussions in the book is a wide-ranging discussion of fighting quality in his chapter on WWII and the way in which that aspect of the war has been under served in the literature.

He closes the book with a discussion of totality in the Cold War period and looking forward and the way in which the entire concept of total war needs to be reexamined and that military history needs to get away from just examining the wars of Europe but also look at the rest of the world.   It is a telling observation that in English language history’s the rest of the world is virtually ignored unless a western nation was engaged in the conflict with Israel being the exception.

In closing, Dr. Black has produced a book that should inspire even the most casual of students of military history to reevaluate the way in which they think of total war.   This book should be on the shelf of every student of military history but particularly that of those talking heads that go on news shows and fatuously offer their supposed wisdom about warfare for the masses.   An excellent and yes, thought provoking book, I highly recommend it.