The First Total War by David A. Bell

The First Total War

by David A. Bell

Published by Mairner Books

420 pages, 2008




Another Look at War

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


I wanted to write about David A. Bell’s The First Total War the very week the paperback became available back in January. I would have to, but for a single detail: when the paperback went on sale in the middle of that month, I was not quite to the middle of the book. Let’s face it, even going in, you’re not anticipating a breezy read. What I hadn’t anticipated was just how fascinated I’d be, not only with the material, but with Bell’s handling of it. After all, this is the age of Napoleon we’re talking about. Much has been written about the period. And, to be honest, for one reason and another I’ve read a lot of it. Yet nothing prepared me for Bell’s take.

In The First Total War, Bell suggests that though in the self-involved current age, we tend to think about the century just past as the one that caused all the trouble, it was the Napoleonic era that laid the groundwork for war as we would all come to know it. Or, as Bell himself says in the introduction:

Here, then, is the essential argument of The First Total War. The intellectual transformations of the Enlightenment, followed by the political fermentation of 1789-92, produced new understandings of war that made possible cataclysmic intensification of the fighting over the next twenty-three years. Ever since, the same developments have shaped the way Western societies have seen and engaged in military conflict.

And though that sounds as though it may a dry book make – and if we consider the fact that the author is, after all, a scholar – please keep in mind that the introduction intends to set things up only. The book itself… well, it often sings. Let’s look at the very first paragraph at the very first chapter:

Corsica, 1768. He is twenty-one years old, and beautiful. He has soft, fair skin, delicate red lips, seductively lidded eyes, and a trim, lithe figure. He wears an expensive, exquisitely tailored uniform, with a large white feather stuck rakishly in his hat. His name is Armand-Louis de Gontaut, but he is known by his title, as the duc de Lauzun. He is heir to another dukedom and to one of the largest fortunes in France.

Bell is the historian’s historian. Or perhaps, he is the historian for everyone. He has a grasp on the way things were and how it all fits together, but he owns the gift of being able to share it with us in a way that comes alive and lives and breathes and, as is the case here, he can even take both of those abilities, and mix in heretofore unconsidered ideas.

Does it sometimes seem as though Bell tries to reach back and forth through history with a little too much ease? Do the conclusions he draws seem too compelling, drawn as they are perhaps by the Bell that has written for Time and Slate and The New York Times and not the Bell who is the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities at Johns Hopkins. But, of course, they are one and the same. If nothing else, The First Total War provokes thought. If you’re lucky, as was I, it will bring you new perspectives while taking you too long to read. | February 2008


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.