Sunday, May 13, 2007

Total War

In my previous post regarding the Armenian Genocide I asked when is anyone going to make Spain accountable for the crimes committed by a number of its governments against the Basque people. Well, how about this article published by the Boston News:

War without limits

New scholarship on the origins of 'total war,' from the French Revolution to World War II, helps explain the war on terror

By Christopher Shea | May 13, 2007

Sometimes it seems as if the country has fallen into a high-stakes, all-consuming global conflict, and sometimes it seems that nothing has changed at all.

In the war on terrorism, American soldiers and intelligence agents are active on every continent. At home, our cities gird themselves for a major attack. The country, Vice President Cheney and others argue, faces an "existential" threat. We are pitted, one contributor to The Wall Street Journal wrote, against "an enemy who will stop at nothing to achieve world domination and force a life devoid of freedom upon all."

Yet most Americans live very much as they did before Sept. 11.

To historians, the situation poses an intriguing paradox that has sparked fresh interest in the concept of "total wars," conflicts that burst through the old boundaries of fighting and came to define warfare for at least the first half of the 20th century. The idea was first articulated during the mechanized horror of World War I, but historians today are pushing for a deeper understanding of the phenomenon, an effort that may yield insights into the conflicts unfolding today.

Two scholars have just published studies -- one on Napoleon's Europe, the other on the annihilation from the air, by German bombers, of the Basque city of Guernica in 1937 -- that trace the roots of total war. These works, and others, argue that total wars have been, in part, a product of modern technology (poison gas, bombs, etc.) and the modern economies that can produce these weapons on a mass scale. But, this burgeoning work suggests, total wars are also very much a product of modern ideologies that contribute to the idea that a nation at war should hold nothing back.

"I think the rhetoric that is used today has opened us up into being dragged deeper and deeper into a series of conflicts," says David A. Bell, a historian at Johns Hopkins University and author of "The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It."

In his book, Bell stresses how ferocious nationalism and revolutionary fervor led the French to view their enemies as people who needed to be exterminated, not just defeated -- a decisive shift from an earlier Great Power style of warfare. The conscription of hordes of French civilians into the army, too, swept away aristocratic traditions that placed certain limits on war's conduct. Anti-revolutionary opponents, whether French peasants or Austrians, were now "sanguinary hordes," "barbarous," and "vipers": all deserved disembowelment.

It's that kind of invective Bell has in mind when he hears phrases like "the evil ones" today.

Omer Bartov, a historian at Brown who specializes in 20th-century European conflict, says he partly agrees with Bell's broader thesis: French mass mobilization and all-or-nothing ideology were harbingers of future total war -- but only harbingers. "Total wars don't just mobilize people -- they mobilize all the resources of the nation-state," he says. "That can happen only after the industrial revolution."

Bartov's own work stresses those mechanical and industrial aspects of total war. In "Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation," for example, he argues that many aspects of the Holocaust -- poison gas, mass slaughter, bureaucratic efficiency -- built on "innovations" of World War I, for him the first true total war.

Ian Patterson, a Cambridge University literary critic, points to Guernica as the source of a different innovation in the evolution of total war: primal fear of death from the skies. Armies bombed civilians during World War I, but not efficiently. In "Guernica and Total War," he argues that it was the Spanish Civil War, and specifically the attack on Guernica, that created the template for the later bombings of London, Dresden, and Hiroshima.

At Guernica, whose horrors were immortalized by Picasso, German pilots even lingered to strafe the civilians (and sheep) who fled the firebombing. Guernica, Patterson says in an interview, "brought home to people that there wasn't anybody anywhere who wasn't vulnerable, who wasn't potentially part of a future war."

One of the central questions of the new scholarship is how far back the idea of total war can be pushed -- how widely it can be applied without rendering the concept meaningless, according to Roger Chickering, a military historian at Georgetown University who has co-edited several volumes on total war published by Cambridge University Press, the most recent of which is "A World at Total War" (2005).

The wholesale slaughter of World War II confirmed that a new kind of conflict was at hand, but 20th-century historians have also read the total-war concept not just back to the French Revolution, but also to the American Civil War (with special reference to the North's industrial might and William T. Sherman's march to the sea), and even the Philippine-American war. Chickering believes the term captures something new, and freshly horrifying, about modern conflict, and yet has also written that the concept inspires "bombast, confusion, misinterpretation, and historical myopia."

Patterson believes that it is an important idea. Underwhelmed by American attempts to minimize civilian casualties during its 2003 air attacks on Baghdad, Patterson writes: "The U.S. military's strategy of 'shock and awe' in its attack on Baghdad in the Spring of 2003 suggests that the same approach is still around in the 21st century."

But William M. Arkin, a national security and human-rights fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard, says that Patterson's equation of Guernica and Iraq is not just factually obtuse but morally counterproductive. Post-Vietnam updates to the Geneva Conventions have explicitly banned the targeting of civilians in bombing raids, and make doing so a war crime. The comparison of Baghdad to Guernica, because of the obvious hyperbole, implies that the new Geneva rules have made no difference, that moral progress is impossible in the conduct of warfare.

"When we run around imagining that militaries are still living in eras of total warfare and Dresden and carpet-bombing," Arkin says, it "dilutes the pressure that constantly needs to be brought to bear on states to behave in a modern way."

The better message, in his view: The era of total war is over, period.

Too bad Bush, Blair and Aznar do not agree with Mr. Arkin.

Anyway, there you have it, seems like there is plenty of documentary evidence to take Spain to task for its crimes against Euskal Herria.

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