Saturday, December 09, 2006

Pg. 69: "The First Total War"

David A. Bell is Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Johns Hopkins University and a contributing editor for The New Republic.

His new book is The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It. I asked him to apply the "page 69 test" to it; here is what he reported:
The First Total War is a book about the transformation of warfare in Europe during the lifetime of Napoleon Bonaparte (the mid-eighteenth century to the early nineteenth), and the consequences of this transformation for the present day. It first examines cultural changes in the way war was conceived, as the thinkers of the Enlightenment challenged aristocratic societies that had taken war for granted. It then shows how, as a perverse consequence of these challenges, the wars that broke out during the French Revolution turned far bloodier and more destructive than their immediate predecessors, culminating in the triumphs and catastrophes of Napoleon Bonaparte's empire. For this reason, I argue, the conflicts of 1792-1815 collectively deserve the title of "the first total war." I suggest that ever since, visions of total war and perpetual peace have been tightly linked to one another, and that we have great trouble conceiving of war in a non-apocalyptic way.

Page 69 of the book comes in Chapter II, which deals with the Enlightenment critiques. The page itself is devoted to the French thinker Baron d'Holbach, whom I present as emblematic of Enlightenment thought on war. I discuss the way d'Holbach (unlike earlier, Christian thinkers) saw mankind as naturally peaceful, only driven to war by ill-intentioned rulers. I then move on to the way he rubbished traditional aristocratic notions of military honor. I concede that he was hardly the first to do so, and quote Shakespeare's Falstaff on the subject: "What is that honor? Air… Who hath it? He that died o'Wednesday." But I add the following:

"But d'Holbach developed the critique with unprecedented thoroughness and psychological insight. 'What does this honor consist of' he asked […] 'Of ridiculous vanity, of imaginary advantages, titles and sounds' […] d'Holbach dripped scorn on 'the commanders who, by their luxury, liberality and sumptuous meals […] drench a mob of do-nothing servants in abundance while the exhausted foot soldier goes wanting.' What did such monstrous extravagance signify if not a pathetic attempt to compensate for the aristocrat's personal inadequacy? Honor, in short, had degenerated into a pathology: 'the fear of being despised, because one knows that one is, in truth, despicable.'"
Many thanks to David for the input.

Click here to read an excerpt from the book, and here to see page 69.

Among the advance praise for The First Total War:
“A page turner.... Everyone who hates wars ... should read these pages.”
--Patrice Higonnet, Harvard University

"Thoughtful and original.... Bell has mapped what is a virtually new field of inquiry: the culture of war."
--Steven L. Kaplan, Goldwin Smith Professor of European History, Cornell University

“A mesmerizing account that illuminates not just the Napoleonic wars but all of modern history… it reads like a novel."
--Lynn Hunt, Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History, UCLA

"A terrific book, fresh, original and compelling. . . a brilliant account of a fundamental historical transformation.”
--Keith Michael Baker, Stanford University

"The First Total War is a fascinating and brilliant work of history. It offers a giant insight ... into the strange and scary dialectic of innocence and violence, the dream of total peace and the outbreak of total war."
-- Paul Berman, author of Terror and Liberalism
For more information about the book, visit David's official website and his blog.

He is a contributor to The New Republic's Open University blog.

Bell's previous books are Lawyers and Citizens (1994) and The Cult of the Nation in France (2001).

Find more of David Bell's selected reviews and essays here.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Brett Ellen Block, The Lightning Rule
Rosanna Hertz, Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice
Jason Starr, Lights Out
Robert Vitalis, America's Kingdom
Stephen Elliott, My Girlfriend Comes To The City And Beats Me Up
Colin McGinn, The Power of Movies
Sean Chercover, Big City, Bad Blood
Sigrid Nunez, The Last of Her Kind
Stanley Fish, How Milton Works
James Longenbach, The Resistance to Poetry
Margaret Lowrie Robertson, Season of Betrayal
Sy Montgomery, The Good Good Pig
Allison Burnett, The House Beautiful
Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History
Ed Lynskey, The Dirt-Brown Derby
Cindy Dyson, And She Was
Simon Blackburn, Truth
Brian Freeman, Stripped
Alyson M. Cole, The Cult of True Victimhood
Jeff Biggers, In the Sierra Madre
Jeff Broadwater, George Mason, Forgotten Founder
Alicia Steimberg, Andrea Labinger (trans.), The Rainforest
Michael Grunwald, The Swamp
Darrin McMahon, Happiness: A History
Leo Braudy, From Chivalry to Terrorism
David Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie
Leah Hager Cohen, Train Go Sorry
Chris Grabenstein, Slay Ride
David Helvarg, Blue Frontier
Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria
Bill Crider, A Mammoth Murder
Robert W. Bennett, Taming the Electoral College
Nicholas Stern et al, Stern Review Report
Kerry Emanuel, Divine Wind
Adam Langer, The Washington Story
Michael Scott Moore, Too Much of Nothing
Frank Schaeffer, Baby Jack
Wyn Cooper, Postcards from the Interior
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov
Maureen Ogle, Ambitious Brew
Cass Sunstein, Infotopia
Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden
Paul Lewis, Cracking Up
Pagan Kennedy, Confessions of a Memory Eater
David Greenberg, Nixon's Shadow
Duane Swierczynski, The Wheelman
George Levine, Darwin Loves You
John Barlow, Intoxicated
Alicia Steimberg, The Rainforest
Alan Wolfe, Does American Democracy Still Work?
John Dickerson, On Her Trail
Marcus Sakey, The Blade Itself
Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province
John Gittings, The Changing Face of China
Rachel Kadish, Tolstoy Lied
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue