great wars of the twentieth century can be classified as "total wars" not because of their far-reaching effects, although many of them have been global wars. Rather, the term "total war" refers more to the all-encompassing effect of war on the cultures involved. Total wars alter civilian mentality and ideology in a way traditional wars do not. Patriotism and nationalism are by no means new concepts; nor is taking civilian casualties a new practice. But since World War One, total wars have taken on new meanings and transformed political ideologies.
The term "total war" seems to have originated during World War One, when the idea of a "People's War" gained popularity. As burgeoning nationalism changed the face of European geographical boundaries, national identities fostered a fresh sense of patriotism. The 19th century saw the unification of Germany following a series of battles that incidentally led up to the First World War. By mid World War I, the notion of total war consumed military ideology. It entailed the same cultural psychology as patriotism: an almost spiritual devotion to the national cause. For example, German civilians rallied in favor of their government like they hadn't prior to unification. Combined with this extreme civilian backing of the national government during war was an equally powerful military philosophy. War would be waged not just on the enemy government but also on the enemy civilians. Civilians were guilty by association.
This blatant disregard for civilian life was not in itself new; ancient societies had no qualms about raping enemy women or enslaving enemy children. But technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution allowed for incidental, accidental, or deliberate civilian casualties. Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution created a domestic situation that favored a burgeoning middle class. "Total War" entails broad-based domestic support on many levels, including economics. Citizens backed their government's warfare by proffering ideological, sociological, psychological, and economic support. Urbanization increased the dissemination of war propaganda and progressive technologies like radio furthered the possibility of total war.
New technologies also directly impacted the proliferation of total wars during the first half of the twentieth century. Airplanes more than anything else contributed to the direct annihilation of entire cities and towns during the Second World War, for bombs were dropped without discrimination. The loss of non-military personnel was written off as necessities of the war effort. Whereas a Christian-based mentality shunned civilian deaths in the notion of "Just Wars," prior to the turn of the century, the Industrial Revolution caused the general population to forgive random acts of brutality. The British carpet bombings of European cities and the United States attacks on Japan are prime examples of the growing acceptance of this kind of total war.
Conscription, a relatively new practice, mirrored an increasing gap between warrior and civilian during World War I and II. Whereas the army was traditionally viewed as a distinct social class, conscription permitted (or forced) the working classes to participate in the defensive or offensive efforts of entire nations.
The European political climate also contributed to total war ideology, especially during the Cold War. A deep-rooted belief in good-v-evil fuelled a fire that perpetuated total wars on a massive scale. The invention of the atom bomb and nuclear proliferation among world superpowers bred a climate of unrest and fear that fostered ideological dualism. Good-v-evil and us-v-them mentalities led to an increased acceptance of total war doctrine during the Korean and Vietnam wars. Political propaganda promoted these views, too. Once the door to civilian casualty was opened, the United States government could rush into the widespread, brutal treatment of their South-East Asian enemies. Whereas Europe and the United States both acted in killing civilians during World War I and II, the U.S.A. brandished its superpower weapons during the Cold War to annihilate villages in Korea and Vietnam. Using tools like napalm, the United States army blindly attacked the enemy and deliberately and purposely blurred the distinction between military target and civilian town.
The bilateral wars in South-East Asia differed from the World Wars on several fronts. During World War I and II, international alliances enabled individual nations to propagate attacks on civilian populations. Allied nations self-consciously acknowledged the unfortunate necessity of waging war on an entire culture. Korean and Vietnamese civilians embodied the communist "evils" that America hated. The government influenced its citizens to support its ideals and the ideals of a total war. The propaganda entitled the U.S.A. To attack any enemy population because of the assumption that civilians helped to support antagonistic governments. The combination of near-universal American support for its country's cause and the acceptance of enemy civilian casualties made the Korean War a definite total war.
Vietnam posed a different, more difficult philosophical conundrum. The conflict there woke up the world to the obvious drawbacks of total war in general. As domestic support for the war waned, the fabric of total war would begin to fray. A total war cannot by definition be total if the majority civilian population does not support it. In hindsight, the Vietnam War helped alert the United States and the rest of the world to the dangers of waging total war. Not only is blind faith in government potentially dangerous to our touted, celebrated freedoms -- the blatant killing of civilians alters a culture's moral fabric. The majority of a population supporting the killing the majority of a foreign population entails unconscious genocide.
This military strategy also threatens individual cultural expression, as each nation hopes to obliterate the enemy. Civilians are included in the mass rubric of "enemy," and therefore are fair target. Moreover, civilians are viewed as potential weapons of the enemy government. Therefore, in order to secure military victory, the aggressor must cut off water, food, and electricity from civilians. This method of total warfare became salient during the latter portion of the twentieth century. Even though the ravages of Vietnam ushered in a generation of conscious objectors, the United States boldly took advantage of their dominant world position.
The government of the United States purports the "Doctrine of Good Intentions," never claming to deliberately harm civilians. But whatever happens in love and in war. If in Iraq, for instance, millions of people are harmed by the political sanctions, then so be it. All this is performed in the name of the common good. The righteous cause justifies any harm, which is deemed unintentional and accidental. The ends justify the means. This philosophy pervaded during the war in Vietnam but did not take solid root in the American psyche. There is still hope for a moral outlook after decades of total war.
Total war in the latter half of the twentieth century implies projection and scapegoating that dangerously approaches Nazism. Weapons of mass destruction in our hands are no problem; these same weapons in their hands are evil. Expecting other nations to do the bidding of the United States, the government demands unconditional surrender. This radical shift in military ideology expands the definition of imperialism from geographic aggression to presupposed cultural superiority.
The idea of "collateral damage" that sprouted during the Gulf War in the 1990s reflects the total war ideology. The United States seems to be subtly inserting its cultural values into their attempt at economic dominance. The casualties of these total wars are civilians who are unfortunately caught in the crossfire. Effective propaganda campaigns demand total acceptance of the war, at the risk of being labelled unpatriotic or even a traitor. Total war ideology, however, is subtler than this. It is disguised in a cloak of morality and good intentions. So long as American intentions are just (to promote democratic, humanitarian values) then civilian deaths are duly justified. The ancient ethics of the warrior class are usurped by a devious capitalism.