Totalitarian Warfare

Totalitarian War and Ethics

Those who assert that ethics cannot exist in warfare may be alluding to what can be called ‘totalitarian warfare,’ a form of warfare that rejects any possibility of ethical action. On this account, any action in war is permissible – war is not just a breaching of the moral frontier that is said to exist between the civil and military order, but an annihilation of that frontier. All is fair in war.

The guiding proposition in totalitarian warfare is that there is no distinction between combatant and non-combatant either at home or abroad. As the military/civil divide is extinguished, all people are necessarily targets in war. Accordingly, the ideological cause of totalitarian warfare entails the complete militarization of society, particularly evinced in the twentieth century’s national socialist, fascist, and communist societies, which sought to collectivize all the citizens into one political identity, and deviance from which would punishable. However, the democratic Allied countries of World War II also moved towards a totalitarian footing, particularly in the United Kingdom which underwent a shift from a liberal economy towards a socialist oriented war economy; while an element of that move can be explained as a response to the aerial bombing and perceived threat of an imminent German invasion, there was nonetheless an undercurrent political move in the UK towards a totalitarian society in which all members of the country were assumed to be directable by political authorities and their lives and property deployable.

From the totalitarian position, the entire population should thusly be considered to be engaged in the economy of the nation – engaged as a single working entity without distinction, and that applies as much between the soldier on the front and the productive citizen in the factory or farmer in the fields as between citizens in various peaceful pursuits. It is not so much that the soldier is civilized but the civilians militarized – and hence being militarized they are thereby targets. This is the crux of totalitarian war (as opposed to total war).

When war commences the traditional demands of just war conventions (or international treaties that explicate the war conventions) assert that the non-military part of the population, or the non-combatants, are deemed to be morally illegitimate targets; that is, their status forbids soldiers to target them directly, although the difficulties of war permit indirect killing and damage to civilians when soldiers intentionally and directly are targeting enemy combatants – a problem revisited by the principle of ‘double effect’. But suffice it to say that the totalitarian mindset does away with such distinctions and accepts that all – combatants and non-combatants (workers, mothers, children) – are viable targets. Farmers feed the soldiers, factory workers produce the visible goods that serve the military directly or indirectly, the service industry likewise provides the invisible economy that props up the military. Rather than the military being construed as a distinct institution fed the surplus of economic activity, the totalitarian sees the entire economy interlinked and intermeshed inextricably so – ironically in a similar manner to that of the free market economist who describes the intricate connections between markets but with the alternative perspective that the totalitarian mindset proclaims that the economy is there to be directed for particular ends rather than a myriad of individual ends. Consequently, the entire population is militarized – even babies and children, for they are the next generation who will take up arms.

In older just war thinking, the distinction made was between the innocent and the guilty rather than the modern distinction between combatant and non-combatant; however, such a description leant itself to a totalitarian bias in that all who were deemed guilty of some predesigned fault – falling foul of religious ideals, racial types, nationality, or state interests – were hence guilty and thus condemned to be fair game for the military. The innocent were of course the aggressors, whose ‘purity’ of intent wiped their hands of the blood they shod. The reasons for such crusades or jihads, or however ideological wars may be titled, are usually complex and often transcend ideology to encompass other economic or political reasons, but from a moral point of view, the traditional prohibition on attacking civilians was rescinded in favor of an ends justifying the means ethos. Therefore, for modern thinkers, the concepts of combatant and non-combatant remerge as being the most appropriate for military ethics: a combatant is a member of the regular or irregular armed forces who is uniformed in some manner or form and who is trained to do battle. Beyond that a person is designated a non-combatant and by virtue of their status considered to be out of bounds for military action. It is this distinction that totalitarianism seeks to abandon and to return all of society into a militarized whole.

Does the totalitarian model imply a rejection of all ethics though? Not necessarily – after all, the ends to which the totalitarian state aims are characteristically moral ends, that is they reflect some kind of ideal society to which all should bow, serve, or die. In the conventions of just war this, this is described by the principles of jus ad bellum, the justice of going to war: an authority declares the justification of war on certain grounds; that war is a last resort; that there is a reasonable chance of success; that the end of the war is morally justifiable; that the means by which it is to be fought are similarly morally proper; that the resulting peace is also one that is politically or morally just. But for the totalitarian, once those conditions are met the moral veil falls and anything and everything becomes permissible for the fighting force.

Examples of totalitarian warfare are unfortunately legionary. Famously, the Roman senator declared Carthago est delenda – Carthage must be destroyed. And he meant it. When Scipio Africanus finally got the better of Carthaginian forces in Hispania, he took the war that Hannibal had brought to Italy back to Carthage – the entire city was razed and its fields destroyed with salt. It was an act of totalitarian warfare that denied the surviving population a place to live. In more recent times, the last century witnessed examples of ethnic cleansing and genocidal policies designed to remove an enemy population from an area or to wipe out the targeted population completely. Such acts are forms of totalitarian warfare that have removed the distinction between fighting enemy combatants to killing an enemy civilian population.

While militarism proposes the primacy of martial values over civilian, totalitarianism denies any duality and merely asserts the monopoly of the military over all aspects of life – none is secure from war.

How justifiable is a totalitarian ethic though? Are there any circumstances in which terminating the traditional division between peaceful civilian life and the way of the warrior may be permitted? Firstly, there are some logical problems with the position.
The argument that all partake to some extent or less in the economy that supports the enemy war machine does not stand up well to examination however, for it certainly stretches logical analysis to describe infants as playing a role in the war machine that adults (combatant or otherwise) support, and the retort that the children are future soldiers or participants in the wars of the future constitutes a fallacy of the first order: the fact that X may (or may not) become Y in the future provides no justification for treating it as if it were Y now – that you may be a future Field Marshall does not mean that you should enjoy the trappings of prestige and power now!

Nonetheless, the fallacy can be cast aside by the totalitarian supporter, who prefers not to deal with potentialities but actualities – the enemy’s newborn babies are his enemies and deserve destruction. Such an inhumane and brutal policy cannot be just cast aside as psychopathic, however, for killing children – particularly the newly born males is an unfortunate part of human history; indeed, the Bible recounts the plight of Moses’ peers (Exod. 1.22) and possibly also of the male born in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth (Matt 2.16-18). Assuredly though, the killing of innocent children breaches all ethical principles – not only are children unarmed, they are also innocent of the ways of adults and look to their protection and love, not their wrath and political machinations. The totalitarian stands guilty of murder rather than waging any form of justifiable warfare once the arms are turned on children.

Compare with Total War.

Article by Dr Alexander Moseley
Added Wed, 2 Mar 2011 00:32

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