Is there a Place for Total War in the Modern World?

The way America has waged war in the post-9/11 era is controversial. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere evolved into counterinsurgency missions. These efforts are “population-centric”, focused on winning locals to the coalition side. The Abu Ghraib prison abuses and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA’s Enhanced Interrogation Program, among other controversies, revealed U.S. actions contrary to such efforts. Despite the focus on COIN and civil affairs operations over the last 15 years of war, there remains disagreement as to how America should be fighting these wars. Critics of the Petraeus-Nagl Doctrine argue that America would be better suited fighting enemies such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS much as they fight against America — with “Total War.” Unable to rule out the possibility of fighting future population-centric wars, America must resolve this debate and discard Total War techniques, such as torture, and to respect human rights both because it is the more effective way to wage modern war and because the military should demonstrate American values abroad.


Total War

Total War is the subordination of political goals to the prosecution of war.  Its only options are total victory or total defeat, and it is acceptable to attack enemy states or organizations without moral or legal discrimination between combatants and noncombatants. Total War is “fought heedless of the restraints of morality, custom, or international law…The most crucial determinant of total war is the widespread, indiscriminate, and deliberate inclusion of civilians as legitimate military targets.”

In the current operating environment, total war is the use of violence that does not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. This can be the punishment of whole populations for the actions of a few, creating free-fire zones in areas with known civilian populations, or the indiscriminate bombardment of urban areas to quell resistance.  It includes taking the enemy’s family members prisoner to use as leverage or torturing detainees to gain information.

 Rather than outright acceptance or rejection of total war based on philosophy or ethics, leaders should examine its effectiveness at the tactical, operational, strategic, and policy levels.

Limited Success to Total Failure

Rather than outright acceptance or rejection of total war based on philosophy or ethics, leaders should examine its effectiveness at the tactical, operational, strategic, and policy levels.

Tactically, total war techniques have had successes. French paratroopers fighting in the Algerian War of Independence saw tactical success from the use of torture. Their techniques, vividly depicted in The Battle of Algiers, helped identify and destroy the National Liberation Front, temporarily suppressing the insurgency.  Similarly, Britain’s bombing of population centers and village burnings during the Iraqi Revolt of 1920 helped temporarily suppress an insurgency.

The United States has had more dubious results. Torture has been of questionable utility. Government spokesmen claimed CIA’s use of waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden among other successes, but the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report has cast doubt on this claim. In wars among populations, harsh interrogation techniques can produce short-term results, but may also result in the occupying force becoming isolated from the population it relies on to provide information about enemy forces.

Total war techniques have some utility at the operational level in wars among populations. The most successful forces in conflicts of this type usually focus on resolving the underlying cause of either the insurgency or the population’s support of the insurgency. But every conflict is different, so the effectiveness of indiscriminate violence and torture varies based on the particulars of the situation.

Total war loses its utility at the strategic level. Modern expeditionary forces are unlikely to experience battlefield defeats that threaten overall military failure. The internal center of gravity for states fighting expeditionary-style warfare is domestic support for the war. Domestic support is less reliable during expeditionary warfareparticularly counterinsurgenciesbecause these conflicts are usually wars of choice. When the American public learns its military is committing human rights violations, they lose faith in the righteousness of its efforts.  The French population’s support for the war in Algeriafoundered after the people learned their soldiers frequently tortured Algerians, contributing to the dissolution of the Fourth Republic. The US military experienced a milder version of this after evidence of the massacres at My Lai and Haditha and of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib emerged.

When the population loses faith in its military, the ability of the United States to successfully prosecute a war weakens as surely as if it were losing battles. Broadly speaking, harsh techniques are more effective when a government uses them against domestic actors than when an expeditionary force uses them. Domestic governments are less likely to fight wars of choice, and therefore receive stronger support from at least part of their population.

Total war truly fails at the policy level.  Just War theory states that the only valid reason to go to war is to create a better peace. If America wants to create a better peace, it needs to live up to the values and ideals it champions.  Deliberately violating America’s espoused values creates a different set of values, changing the national identity for the worse.  The desired end-state of any military action is not just defined by what happens to America’s enemiesit is also defined by what America does to itself.  If America’s national identity changes from a state that embraces freedom and human rights to that of a state willing to employ any means most convenient to win wars, the United States must question if it is a victory worth winning.


Total War’s Place

There are several arguments made to support total war.  Some attempt to use history to demonstrate that it has worked in the past, citing Sherman’s march to the sea, the strategic bombing campaigns of World War II, or the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In each of these cases the United States military did not seek to avoid offending the cultural sensitivities of its enemies and instead got down to the real business of war: Destruction.

This is a deeply flawed argument. The military’s job is to use force or the threat of force to cause others to do what it wants, not just to break things and kill people. Disregarding the significant changes in media since these wars, during WWII and the Civil War the United States chose to achieve victory by destroying its enemies’ armed forces and production capacity, stripping them of the ability to resist.

The most effective methods included strategic bombing campaigns, nuclear weapons, and Sherman’s “scorched earth.” This differs from the now far more common wars among populations, particularly counterinsurgencies. In these fights, victory comes from convincing the population to stop supporting insurgents and start supporting the expeditionary force or its partner government. With victory dependent on the population’s choices, indiscriminate violence that alienates them interferes with progress. In the WWII and Civil War paradigm, America made war against an entire people.  In the modern paradigm of war among populations, the United States fights a small segment of the population while trying to turn the rest into allies.

Others argue that Total War is the only way to defeat insurgencies, and America’s military could accomplish its mission if only the American population had the will to do what is necessary.  This theory has at least two errors.  First, little evidence exists to support the idea that a military unconstrained by rules of engagement or ethics will fight more effectively in today’s environment. Returning to the Civil War and WWII paradigm, destroying the production capacity of an insurgency usually proves insufficient given their limited logistical needs. Destroying an insurgency’s armed forces through attrition does not work.  As long as there is a population and an appealing cause, there will be more insurgents.

The second error is that even if Total War works at the tactical and operational levelan uncertain claimAmericans will not support inhumane methods in a war of choice. Those proposing total war seem frustrated by restrictions and the ability of relatively weak states or organizations to defy major powers. Military and political leaders need to plan and work in the real world, not to make plans for methods that could work if only the military receives support it never will.

Total war may have its place in future state-on-state wars if the strategic calculus returns to destroying a state’s capacity to conduct war. Even in wars among populations, war is inherently violent and ugly.  If it was not, it would be called diplomacy, not war. But insisting that war must be as violent and ugly as possible is as wrong as insisting that optimism and good intentions can make it nice. Wars among populations are difficult problems that America has not yet figured out how to solve efficiently. The military needs to focus doctrinal innovation towards solving these problems more economically and effectively.  But the dialogue required for progress needs to focus on developing new techniques and theories for how to accomplish policy goals. Calls for Total War solutions that fail at the strategic and policy level will not help.


[Photo: Flickr CC: 1st Brigade Combat Team]


Captain Justin Lynch graduated from the United States Military Academy with a B.S. in Military History and commissioned in the Army.  He has served as a platoon leader in Afghanistan, a company executive officer in Iraq, an assistant operations officer, a company commander, and is currently the training officer at the Northern Warfare Training Center. He has previously written for Infantry, Small Wars Journal, andWar on the Rocks. The views expressed are his alone and do not represent those of the United States Army or Department of Defense.



  1. Joe 23 February, 2015 at 19:52 Reply

    Many would claim that the US approach to war since 9/11 has been controversial, not because it has exemplified Total War, but rather because it has exemplified careful, domestic politics-of-the-day war. Our friend Clausewitz used the term Total War to define the absolute limits of war, where every member of a nation-state society is contributing, and every weapon and tool of war is used, to defeat the enemy utterly in unconditional surrender or (better yet) complete annihilation. Thermonuclear weapons, germ warfare, it’s all on the table.

    95% of Americans feel not one feather’s touch of the wars in which we have been engaged since 9/11. Total War? Hardly.

  2. ADM64 23 February, 2015 at 20:00 Reply

    The author misrepresents our historical experience with total war, our people’s attitude towards it, and the strategic purpose of warfare. Large portions of our population would, to paint broadly, accept nuking the entire Middle East (except Israel), Pakistan and Iran and walking away. Who cares if the locals like or accept us or “do what we want.”

  3. GRV01 23 February, 2015 at 20:06 Reply

    “The military’s job is to use force or the threat of force to cause others to do what it wants, not just to break things and kill people.”

    Heinlein wrote it better.

  4. Flavio 23 February, 2015 at 20:44 Reply

    As far as popular support in the current and future wars being fought by America, we as a nation need a total re-focusing of civic education.

    Too many of our future leaders in colleges and universities spend far too much time learning about race, class and gender, as opposed to geopolitics, diplomacy, military history, statecraft and other pertinent topics to name a few. We leave too much of these subjects to be studied at the graduate level; leaving the vast majority of society and its voting block, largely ignorant of anything related to matters of war.

    The average American has no understanding of the realistic capabilities or lack thereof of our military, the motivations of our enemies, or of the intricacies required to fight said wars. Unfortunately many are much more knowledgeable about the plights of a myriad of minority categories when studying the social sciences.

    The focus of study is not a zero sum game, but in order to have a society capable of making decisions of the voting booth, decisions affecting the outcome of conflicts, we must devote much more effort to educating said society about warfare and statecraft.

  5. Flavio 23 February, 2015 at 20:59 Reply

    Recent political discussions about the use of bayonets, the size of our navy, or the inafmous “boots on the ground”, only highlight either the ignorance of our leaders or their dumbing down of crucial matters to a public unisterested and ignorant of their own lack of knowledge in issues so crucial to nations.

    “Boots on the ground” is the epitomy of this dumbing down, our leaders either do not understand the concept of combat or the role of infantry forces, or worse yet, conciously count on the public’s ignorance of the topic.

    We live in times where airpower and “special forces” are seen and used as silver bullets to all problems requiring the application of force.

    • James B. 23 February, 2015 at 21:06 Reply

      The clearest example of total war was World War II in the Pacific, where the US strategy could be expressed as “Plan A: kill Japanese until they surrender, Plan B: see Plan A.”

      This worked because we had the resources and will to pursue such a blunt plan. We had the military capability to deliberately encircle and annihilate the Taliban’s forces and the Iraqi army, which would have dramatically reduced the recruiting base for resistance movements, but we did not have the political will to conduct total war.

      Total war as we understand it is a very European construct, and it produced a very Western way of fighting which is not well suited to limited warfare, because it treats all wars as fundamentally the same contest of populations and industrial bases. Assuming that European-derived strategies of war will be effective against societies who don’t play by Western rules, or even understand those rules, is unwise.

      Sun Tzu had it right: we must know both what we want in a war, and what our enemy wants, so that we can best convince them to accept our view of the world. Just killing everyone is inefficient and messy.

  6. Gerald A 23 February, 2015 at 23:38 Reply

    As an Intelligence Officer trained in COIN, read both books by John Nagl, and works that represent Petraeus’s theory on COIN I have to say CPT Lynch completely misses the Total War definition and Nagl and Petraeus’s theory. In no way do the current fights in Iraq or Afghanistan represent the American Military conducting a Total War fight. Yes all options for war are on the table and at different times in the war most of those options have been utilized however these fights cannot be described as Total War. Nagl/Petraeus’s theory that you can use all options comes with the caveat that the Military uses those options to isolate the insurgents from the population. Collateral damage is a major factor in the decision making process in both Nagl and Petraeus’s theories, in fact anyone who has had to give a targeting brief knows they have to answer the questions of how many Noncombatants may get hurt.

    If someone wants a reference to Total War compare Iraq/Afghan to the Dresden bombings in WWII. Would anyone even think of presenting a Dresden style bombing in today’s AOR as a viable operation? The S3/XO that offers that plan after MDMP would probably be looking for a new job if they actually did. Additionally, referencing acts like those that took place at Abu Ghraib as part of the Military’s Total War plan is equivalent to calling Edward Snowden an NSA Public Affairs Officer; in no way were those tactics the “plan” of the Military. In fact the prosecutions of those involves reflects the fact that the Military does not condone those incidents.

    As far as the way to conduct COIN in these types of environments someone first needs to crack the nut on what some call “Expeditionary COIN.” Looking at most of the examples in history such as the British in Malaysia, the US in the Philippians, the French in Algeria, they are all examples of nations fighting COIN in a land they previously “governed.” They are situations where the Host Nation has a relationship with the nation that is trying to destroy an insurgency. However, when you look at Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, you see a nation that has limited partnership with the Host Nation trying to instill rule of law. When you’re a nation coming into a conflict that has little contact or relationships with the Host Nation it is not as simple as isolating the insurgents from the populace; you must first garner the respect of the populace to allow you to govern. Take for example Germany or Japan after WWII, on some level both populations accepted the fact that we were going to govern them. Afghanistan and Iraq were completely different environments, both nations we moved in, conquered their government within weeks, kicked out everyone in power and handed authority to the opposition. And post WWII with the Marshal Plan, America has been seen as a blank check, nations don’t have a need to destroy an insurgency because while there is an insurgency there is money flowing; when the insurgency goes away so does the money. Look at both Vietnam and Afghanistan post 1980’s when the American’s stopped funding the Host Nation because our enemy was “routed.”

    Just my two cents.

  7. CHIguy-CV-6 24 February, 2015 at 01:12 Reply

    The most effective offensive moment for US policy since 9/11 was ON 9/11….when citizens of Kabul, knowing their overseers had sheltered and financed the men who just killed 3,000 Americans, were loading trucks and cars with belongings and, convinced that American bombs…perhaps nuclear…were about to turn their city to dust, headed for the hills. Liberal New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman gloated at the exodus: “Let Them Fear Us” was the headline over the first column he wrote just blocks from the new and hideous smoking pile in Manhattan. Just the thought of the United States actually fighting what WE would define as a Total War….one where the 60 year old moral and strategic limits we place on ourselves…emptied a city.

    We fought something close to Total War in Afghanistan for three months. We dropped Daisy Cutters instead of precision munitions. We used B-52 strikes instead of Apache Hellfires. We turned Taliban prisoners over to the Northern Alliance, who stuffed them alive into steel shipping containers and drove them around in desert heat until they were dead, while we looked the other way.

    We , together with our in country allies, also essentially destroyed the Taliban as a fighting force. In three months.

    That’s when reality set in: Total War is far too efficient. It costs too little and ends too quickly. No massive contractor built camps, no billion dollar supply agreements, no airlift contracts for our airlines……Ike’s military industrial complex salivated at the thought of a long drawn out, monumentally expensive fight in the mountains….then felt robbed when our anger got the best of us and we actually fought to win….quickly. Mercilessly. It could be argued that Iraq was their consolation prize awarded by an Administration that was caught off guard at what some bearded Special Forces on horseback could do with a wing of BUFFs and no particular concern about who got obliterated.

    The author is correct. Total War is obsolete….not because an over communicated, hyper informed American public will lose a taste for it after a few ugly stories. But because it simply is no longer a good business model.

  8. Death 24 February, 2015 at 05:50 Reply

    There is only one thing savages understand – force. Feel-good prescriptions for “winning hearts and minds” and handing out soccer balls are worthless. People act on the basis of interests. Civilized people might be reasoned with; savages cannot. Until the savages feel the cold, hard steel of force and come to learn that they will suffer immense pain until they change their ways, they will continue to propagate their wanton destruction. The weak-minded will call me a monster. Those who have seen the truth will know a short, harsh war will save lives and result in less total suffering.

    • Ron 24 February, 2015 at 22:10 Reply

      My head exploded every time I hear some pundit or GOFO say we cannot kill our way to victory. Having participated at various levels in the killing chain since, 9-11. Yes we have killed people, but far from attempting to kill our way to victory; we killed in a focused, precision manner always mindful of the collateral effect. So much emphasis has been placed on the collateral effect we kill only a small percentage of the positively identified targets.

      So the last 13 going on 14 years have not been an example of attempting to kill our way to victory but were instead and example of trying half measures, while explaining away why the full measures would not work.

  9. Iconic 1 March, 2015 at 02:23 Reply

    To understand the type of warfare necessary numerous factors come into play. The desired primary outcome, the acceptable outcome less than the primary one, the objective need for the desired outcome, the level of savagery the opposing command structure is willing to fight with, the level of savagery you are willing to reach in response, the perspective of the non-combative community on both sides and what type of warfare they think is being fought…..etc.

    In our opinion “Total war” can be reduced to an incident or relatively few incidents instead of a continuing combat theater.

    The necessity for such an incident can be explained by the pyramid theory of human organizational structure. Take WWII Japan as a example. Being a very defined and strict hierarchical society, the general population, from those right near the Emperor down to the very least social level fervently believed in their God-Emperor and in their divine mandate as a nation. Despite exponential losses in the South Pacific this belief remained solid though all levels of Japanese society. It became necessary to look for a definitive wedge, a “total warfare” incident to separate the population from their belief in the top of the pyramid, the political leadership. That wedge turned out to be the atomic bomb. It is a testament to the strength of the belief system in Japan that it effectively took not one but two bombs to separate the political support of the population from the leadership.

    With Islamist insurgencies the pyramid is upside down. Fighting for “hearts and minds” is as unsuccessful a strategy with insurgencies as it is with a right side up pyramid enemy. They are driven by a theological mandate, with varying degrees of support for violence as you go up from the pyramid tip through the strata of the social order it operates in. It becomes imperative to target not so much their leadership but their symbols, because their symbols are the tip of their pyramid.

    For Islamists this would be places more than people. Mecca, Medina, The Dome of the Rock. Destroy these and yes, you would stir the pot for a bit, but the overall effect would be a complete revelation to the rest of the Muslim sympathists that their cause is invalid.

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