David A. Bell tackles a fairly big concept in a merely moderate-sized book. The main thesis is that warfare underwent a profound change at the end of the Eighteenth Century that still drives how we think of it today.

Now, this has nothing to do with technical details, such as how deadly particular weapons are, or how fast an army can sweep across the landscape, or how more bigger and more complicated governments can finance bigger and more complicated armed forces. No, this is about how society as a whole views the concepts of “war”, “peace”, and the military itself.

Bell posits that warfare in Europe at this time was a relatively ordered and limited affair. Aristocratic gentlemen were expected to be well-rounded individuals, and part of that was knowledge and training in the arts of war. Men could be generals and courtiers and literati all at the same time, and this was expected of them. Contrast that to current norms where the military is almost a world apart, its own splinter society, with its own ethos and social circles. At the same time warfare has become less of a contest between limited elements of society, to being struggles between those societies themselves, with mass conscription, and the targeting of civilian populations.

Bell does well presenting the social shifts of this period, and has some very interesting things to say about the Enlightenment as something of a ‘peace movement’ that also came to embrace (in some threads at least) the idea of a final apocalyptic war to sweep aside the old order and bring about a more peaceful world (that is, a “war to end all wars”). He then traces these thoughts through Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, with the Vendee and the Spanish Ulcer coming in for especial attention.

However, I think Bell has mistaken an especially large tree for the forest. Human history is full of a tension between “total” and “limited” warfare, and what is acceptable varies over time and culture. He is so busy looking at this, fairly dramatic, shift, that he completely fails to acknowledge that this has ever been different. This weakens the overall argument and keeps it from being as informative as it might be. That said, the lens he his looking through is a worthwhile one, and this is a book to provoke thought, but it’s not as complete a package as he would like to believe.