Total War: Origin & Overview

Total war is a military conflict in which nations mobilize all available resources in order to destroy another nation's ability to engage in war. Total war has been practiced for centuries, but outright total warfare was first demonstrated in the nineteenth century and flourished with conflicts in the twentieth century. When one side of a conflict participates in total war, they dedicate not only their military to victory but the civilian population still at home to working for victory as well. It becomes an ideological state of mind for those involved, and therefore, represents a very dangerous methodology, for the losses are great whether they win or lose.

With the advent of nuclear weapons, the threat of total devastation to the earth and humankind through nuclear warfare in the mid-twentieth century caused a change in thinkingWith the advent of nuclear weapons, the threat of total devastation to the earth and humankind through nuclear warfare in the mid-twentieth century caused a change in thinking. Such a war does not require the mobilization of the whole population, although it would result in their destruction. Since that time, therefore, the arena of war has retreated to smaller powers, and major powers have not been involved in a total war scenario.

However, this has not necessarily reduced the casualties or the suffering of those involved in wars and the threat of widespread violence remains. Ultimately, humankind must move beyond the age of resolving differences through acts of violence, and establish a world in which war, total or otherwise, no longer exists.

The concept of total war is often traced back to Carl von Clausewitz and his writings Vom Kriege (On War), but Clausewitz was actually concerned with the related philosophical concept of absolute war, a war free from any political constraints, which Clausewitz held was impossible. The two terms, absolute war, and total war, are often confused:

Clausewitz's concept of absolute war is quite distinct from the later concept of "total war." Total war was a prescription for the actual waging of war typified by the ideas of General Erich von Ludendorff, who actually assumed control of the German war effort during World War One. Total war in this sense involved the total subordination of politics to the war effort—an idea Clausewitz emphatically rejected, and the assumption that total victory or total defeat was the only options

A U.S. poster  produced during  World War II
A U.S. poster
produced during
World War II.
Indeed, it is General Erich von Ludendorff during World War I (and in his 1935 book, Der Totale Krieg—The Total War) who first reversed the formula of Clausewitz, calling for total war—the complete mobilization of all resources, including policy and social systems, to the winning of the war.

There are several reasons for the changing concept and recognition of total war in the nineteenth century. The main reason is industrialization. As countries' natural and capital resources grew, it became clear that some forms of conflict demanded more resources than others. 
For example, if the United States was to subdue a Native American tribe in an extended campaign lasting years, it still took much fewer resources than waging a month of war during the American Civil War. Consequently, the greater cost of warfare became evident. An industrialized nation could distinguish and then choose the intensity of warfare that it wished to engage in.

Additionally, this was the time when warfare was becoming more mechanized. A factory and its workers in a city would have a greater connection with warfare than before. The factory itself would become a target because it contributed to the war effort. It follows that the factory's workers would also be targets. 

Total war also resulted in the mobilization of the home front. Propaganda became a required component of total war in order to boost production and maintain morale. Rationing took place to provide more material for waging war.

There is no single definition of total war, but there is general agreement among historians that the First World War and Second World War were both examples. Thus, definitions do vary, but most hold to the spirit offered by Roger Chickering:

Total war is distinguished by its unprecedented intensity and extent. Theaters of operations span the globe; the scale of battle is practically limitless. Total war is fought heedless of the restraints of morality, custom, or international law, for the combatants are inspired by hatreds born of modern ideologies. Total war requires the mobilization not only of armed forces but also of whole populations. The most crucial determinant of total war is the widespread, indiscriminate, and deliberate inclusion of civilians as legitimate military targets