The Dormancy of War

There are a number of alternate histories that place the beginnings of globalization much earlier than our current 1970s era pop-sociology conception.1 In these alternate conceptions, rather than a twentieth century phenomenon, a result of air travel or information technology, globalization is a continuous process stretching back hundreds of years, or perhaps running throughout all human history. Or perhaps it is something cyclical, proceeding in fits and starts, but the current bout only the latest in a long series.2

Another indicator here might be found in military history. We are blind to it because of a certain misnomer: only in the twentieth century are wars declared ‘world wars’ right in their titles. Ergo prior wars must have been parochial. But consider an alternate military history, more cyclical than linear. The trend in warfare towards globalization in scope (globalization as a continuation into the strategic of the tactical logic of flanking) and totalization in intensity is also long and runs a number of centuries prior to the twentieth.

Though only a European war, the Thirty Years War is often construed as the first time totalization comes clearly into view. There is a growing recognition that the Seven Years War / French and Indian War is “the first global war”.3

Battle of the Pyramids, 21 July 1798

Battle of the Pyramids, part of France’s Egyptian campaign, fought 21 July 1798, portrayed by François-Louis-Joseph Watteau

There is similarly growing recognition that the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were also total and if not global, at least on the way to global. They were the impetus for Clausewitz’s idea of absolute war. David Bell has called them “the first total war.” They were fought from Spain to Moscow, in north Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, Egypt, Syria and the Caribbean. Napoleon briefly considered marching the French army overland to attack the British in India. It was first in 1795 at the Battle of Muizenberg during the French Revolutionary Wars, then again in 1806 at the Battle of Blaauwberg during the Napoleonic Wars that the British acquired the Cape Colony from the Netherlands (at the time a vassal of France). The Mauritius Campaign was a series of naval and marine operations fought between the British and the French in the Indian Ocean from 1809-1811. In the midst of the penultimate example of first-generation warfare, France simultaneously fought a counterinsurgency war in Spain. On a brief hiatus from fighting Napoleon, Britain took on the United States in the War of 1812. The French Revolutionary War entailed the Levée en masse, the sort of mass conscription that would not be seen again until the First World War. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was comprised of 600,000 multi-national soldiers. The British naval blockade of France caused Napoleon to create the Continental System, a continent-wide embargo of Britain.

Imagine what the nineteenth century would have looked like had the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War, the Franco-Prussian War, Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, the Boer War or the Spanish-American War continued the trend from the Thirty Years War to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars to the First World War. But that’s not what happened. Instead, total war, global war went dormant from 1815 until 1914. What transpired during this period were classical wars as a continuation of politics, wars fought for limited objectives, not wars of survival and annihilation. And then, after a century of dormancy, global total war returned.

One theory is progressive. That the wars of the twentieth century were so destructive that humanity looked over the precipice and took a step back, that great power wars came to an end in the cataclysms of the twentieth century, that this is the end of history. After the end of history, there may still be limited wars as a continuation of normal politics, wars of the type of the nineteenth century, but there will never again be the absolute war that we have seen in the past.4

But perhaps war is like solar cycles, with periodic minima and maxima. There does seem to be an alteration between twenty to thirty years of great wars followed by centuries of peace (see graph below). There was the bellum phase of The Thirty Years War from 1618 until 1648, followed by a pax phase of 144 years from 1648 until 1792. The bellum phase of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars lasted the 23 years of 1792 to 1815 followed by the Pax Britannica of 1815-1914.

Pax-Bella Cycle, 1618-2013

This was followed by the thirty year bellum phase of 1914-1945. Some historians — taking as inspiration Marshal Ferdinand Foch’s assessment of the Treaty of Versailles that “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years” — have begun to unify this period under the title of the “Second Thirty Years War.” This is not an unreasonable thing to do. The first Thirty Years war wasn’t as unified as its modern title would suggest. It had its lulls and different phases involving different constellations of combatants as well.

Since 1945 we have lived in the logic of pax phase named “The American Century,” and rather than seeing it as but the latest iteration of a cycle, under our comfortable conception of progress, we imagine it as eternal: it is the end of history (Francis Fukuyama is but this iteration’s Norman Angell).

How could there be such cycles? Perhaps a century is how long it takes society to unburden itself from a particularly painfully ingrained ‘lesson of history.’ A century is the timeframe of historical forgetting. By the time the July Crisis came around, the peoples of Europe had forgotten the cataclysm of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and once more longed for war. Similarly today the United States is in the process of unlearning the meaninglessness of modern total warfare. Or perhaps a century is the durability of institutions. The Concert of Europe lasted that long. America’s international liberalism (the UN, GATT / WTO, IMF and IBRD, the EEC, NATO) will have a similar life expectancy. Or perhaps there is a relationship (that perhaps we might theorize via a Marxist- Leninist dialectical materialist mechanism) between state power shifts and economic Kondratiev supercycles.

This is perhaps preposterous. A grand narrative positing this level of law-adherence was the sort of thing that a historian of three or four generations ago could expound. But today we recognize that the phenomena under consideration are too complicated to be treated like physics, to be modeled as a variant of a sine wave. With only two and a half cycles — and a little cobbling and fudging to get even that — we certainly don’t have large enough of a sample size to induce any sound laws. Can the First and Second World Wars so easily be considered a continuity? What about the Seven Years War about which so much was made above? What about the American Civil War, often considered a preview of the totalization of war that was to come. In this regard, postmodernism, with its rejection of grand narratives is an attempt to become more scientific, more empirically grounded, is a rejection of grandiose abstractions. Today we are more prone to write off such a periodization of war and peace as merely an artifact of the evolutionary happenstance that primates have ten fingers (hence a base ten number system) rather than anything real.

But my real point here is not this particular theory, but that in our everyday thinking about this matter we’ve already taken a law and chalked it up as a safe operating assumption. Every bit as absurd as a simple cyclical theory of global war is the similarly simplistic theory of progress. I think there is a more limited point to be taken, compatible with modern sensibilities concerning the limits of historical enquiry — namely that rather than progress having safely transported us to the far shore of war, progress is as much a scientifically unsound derivation as is cyclicality and that absent human vigilance, total, global war stands ever ready to make its return.

Why does this matter? Because, again, the progressive, end of history theory is one in which many of us place a great deal of confidence. Uncontrolled escalation is a thing about which politicians no longer trouble themselves. That U.S. involvement in Syria might result in a larger conflict of the United States with Russia, or that a U.S. strike on Iranian nuclear facilities might produce a war engulfing all of Central Asia are scenarios that are beyond consideration owing to our confident, but implicit, knowledge of the laws of history.

But it should be noted how often the logic of history has covertly altered. The inflection points between the pax and bellum phases are subterranean. Its changed circumstances are only uncovered by us creatures of limited perception in out-of-control moments of shock and surprise.


  1. World Systems Theory, Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350 (1989), Andre Gunder Frank’s The World System: Five Hundred Years or Five Thousand? (1993), Kevin O’Rourke and Jeffrey Williamson’s Globalization and History: The Evolution of a Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Economy (1999).

  2. Harold James’s The End of Globalization: Lessons from the Great Depression (2001)

  3. Daniel Baugh’s The Global Seven Years War 1754-1763: Britain and France in a Great Power Contest (2011); William Nester’s The First Global War: Britain, France, and the Fate of North America, 1756-1775 (2000); Tom Pocock’s Battle for Empire: The Very First World War, 1756-1763 (1998).

  4. Another, perhaps less grandiose expression of a similar sentiment would be James J. Sheehan’s Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe (2008).