In “The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Warfare As We Know It” (Houghton Mifflin; $27), David A. Bell, a professor at Johns Hopkins, tries to restore military history to the center of history. This ambition may come as a surprise to amateur readers, for whom military history is probably already at the center of history. But academics tend to regard it either as old-style history, where seven key battles change everything, or as hobbyist’s history, where Tom Clancy types look up from the pages to buy Blue and Gray fighting action figures. Real history is the slow-crawl study of small changes, from clan loyalties to price ratios—gradually shifting tectonic plates that suddenly erupt into visible mountains. We see the peaks, but the movement, not the mountain, is the story.
Against this notion, Bell believes that understanding warfare, its practice and its particulars, is necessary to understand modernity—those mountain peaks really are the places that give you the longest view. He wants to make military history respectable by enfolding it into intellectual and cultural history. His subject is Napoleon’s wars, and he goes into great and often riveting detail about the tangles of Marengo and Moscow, all offered with a gift for storytelling and a flair for the weird, unfamiliar fact. (The problem that the French Army had in Russia, he points out, was not just the cold but the heat, too. It was ninety-seven degrees when the French arrived in their heavy woollens.) The thesis, though, is what’s startling: that the practice of “total war” is a modern and ideological invention, born in the French Enlightenment, and first realized fully by Napoleon—a millennial idea before it was a murderous activity.
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