Re: Total vs. Limited Wars
- Jim I'm not sure we have meet but I for one would just like to say how much
I enjoy your thoughts on the war
You're the first person I know who has accepted a world view of the war and
your perception of the differences in 21st and 19th century think is
something we should all keep in mind as we portray our rolls
Please keep in mind to visit the cav if we are at any sites you are present
From: Jim Yaworsky [mailto:yawors1@...]
Sent: Sunday, February 21, 1999 1:29 PM
Subject: [WarOf1812] Total vs. Limited Wars
From: Jim Yaworsky <yawors1@...>
We are the products of the late 20th Century - a century that has
experienced several Total Wars. WW2 in particular was a fight to the finish
with the Allies consciously committing themselves to an "unconditional
surrender" demand against the Axis powers. There is considerable academic
debate as to whether this policy, especially as applied against the Germans,
resulted in some unnecessary bloodshed and destruction, and created a power
vacuum in central Europe that put us all through the nastiness of the Cold
War - although it is certainly hard to see how any sort of deal could have
been cut with a Nazi Germany led by Adolf et al.
"Total Wars" are characterized by totally unrestrained military action, the
aim being to beat your enemy down to the ground. Interestingly enough,
while some aspects of the Napoleonic Wars would fit this definition, such as
the decision by the Allied Powers in 1814 and then again during the 100 days
to insist on Napoleon being removed as ruler of France, there were numerous
examples of a lack of what we would understand as "total war" in the Allies
operations. For example, there was great care taken by Wellington, in his
invasion of France, to treat the French population in a restrained manner
and stick to the genteel "rules of war" that had prevailed during the 18th
Century: pay for food, don't rape everything in skirts, etc. The "enemy"
was General Bonaparte, not the French people. Perhaps the only army
operating - or trying to operate - on a "total war: civilian population is a
legitimate target" basis were the Prussians, who were anxious to get some
"payback" in for French depredations in Germany in the preceding years.
The classic "total war" of the Napoleonic period would be the Spanish
resistance to the French, and there are examples too numerous to mention
where the French and Spanish committed the most sickening atrocities against
each other. What brings the difference between a "total" (no rules) and a
"limited" (has rules of conduct) war in to very clear egion were
contemplating "burning out" the Canadian population along the Thames river,
to create a buffer zone, much like some British strategists wanted to create
an Indian buffer-state out of Michigan and parts of Ohio, Illinois, and
But by and large, the Anglo/Canadian and main U.S. forces were still
"playing the game" by the "rules" for most of the War.
I would suggest that our expectations of "victory" are (inevitably) tinged
by our late-20th century outlook.
Can there be any doubt that if the U.S. population had taken up the conquest
of Canada as a national crusade, that they eventually would have succeeded?
Or that the British had it in their power to attack and capture (and burn
and destroy) practically any American city or town or village within a day's
march of the sea?
The massive fortifications built by the U.S. after the war to defend their
east coast testify to knowledge by the Americans that they had been
vulnerable in this regard. Official British plans for the defence of Canada
in the 19th Century (and even in 1812) placed primary importance on the
defence of Quebec City and Halifax. The Rideau Canal was built as a supply
line away from the vulnerable St. Lawrence border route, Kingston was given
some fortifications, but the basic game-plan remained the same. The plans
for major fortifications back from the Niagara River (in the Short(?) Hills
just south of what is now St. Catherines) were never implemented. The
British realized that The Canadas would be very hard indeed to defend from
determined U.S. attack and rather than station large and expensive garrisons
in expensive fortifications, they chose to defend just a few key places in
strength and rely on the Royal Navy to ship over reinforcements in time.
Whether those reinforcements would ever be available and arrive in time (in
1813, they were - just) would depend on the overall geopolitical
situation... events in India etc. might be more important than attempting
to hold on to Canada, etc.
The War of 1812 was an unwanted side-show to the British and they were happy
enough to end it when they did. At various points of the war, some
strategists, administrators, and politicians might have flirted with ideas
of trying to adjust the U.S.-Canadian border by annexing northern Maine, or
parts of the largely uninhabited frontier areas of the midwest and upper
Mississippi. In the end, it was far more important to stop this irritating
This decision had more to do with factors in Europe and Britain than the
situation "on the ground" in North America. Such factors as the fact taxes
were too high in a war-weary U.K. and the british army was necessary back in
Britain to pose a credible factor in the British/Austrian/French "alliance"
to stop the Russian/Prussian powerblock which was trying to grab large hunks
of Poland and Germany. The Brits hadn't fought the French for 20+ years to
stop them from dominating Europe, just to have Alexander, Tsar of Russia,
step in to Napoleon's shoes.
And of course, there is also the factor that very few people in Britain
cared enough about what was going on in North America to get very excited
about prospects of "re-conquering" large tracts of bush, etc.
I am reminded of the Michigan/Ohio "border-war" over Toledo in the 1830's(?)
when a fairly narrow strip of land on the north bank of the Maumee river was
awarded to Ohio instead of to Michigan. The Federal government gave
Michigan some land to compensate it for giving up its claim - the ENTIRE
NORTHERN PENINSULA of what is now Michigan (i.e. the lands between Lake
Superior and Lake Michigan)!!! Literally many thousands of square miles of
bush were considered to be necessary compensation for a few hundred square
miles of partly-developed land. This gives some idea of attitudes
prevailing at the time, because I believe Michigan still thought it had
gotten screwed! Why would British negotiators looking at very large-scale
maps of wilderness get very excited about what they were doing?
The Americans had many war aims, one of which was the conquest of Canada.
The advocates for attacking Canada no doubt believed - and assured the rest
of the American establishment - that it would be an easy task. Hey! - they
gave it a shot a few times, and it turned out to not be. It turned out to
be more effort than the American government in late 1814 was willing to put
One side can start a war (although ultimately the other side always has the
choice of surrendering instead of fighting so in a sense it always "takes
two to tango") but it definitely and always takes both sides to formulate a
peace in a "limited war".
The Americans in 1814 could see no point in continuing the war either. The
predictions and expectations of both sides had started very divergent from
each other (which is, of course, what started the War in the first place:
only idiots or people left with no other option start a war they KNOW they
are going to lose) but as events confirmed or negated those predictions and
modified expectations to a more realistic level, the two sides found
themselves prepared to negotiate a peace treaty.
This is a totally normal process and I don't recall a clause in the Treaty
of Ghent wherein either of the parties was formally required to take on
blame for starting the war or acknowledge that they had been bested...
Unlike a "total" war, which ends in complete victory for one side and
complete defeat for the other (although the cost of victory can be so high
as to make it almost indistinguishable from defeat...), it was (and is -
witness the Gulf War of 8 years ago, or the Falklands of the '80's)
perfectly normal for a "limited war" to end with each side somewhat happy
with what went on - or at least, as in the case of the Falklands, even the
loser accepting a "limited" military result without insisting on a fight to
Should the Brits have "nuked" Buenos Aires if Argentina had not
unconditionally surrendered? Insisted that the Argentinian navy and air
force surrender their hardware at Port Stanley like the Allies made the
Germans surrender the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow at the end of WW1? I
don't think anyone would assert that the Brits wimped out & let the
Argentinians off the hook too easy, would they?
As each side was fighting for its own unique reasons, it is even possible
for both sides to consider they "won", with varying levels of 'objective'
validity to those claims. Just check out Iraqi versions of the Gulf War:
they stood up for Arab pride against the might of the arch-devils!
But to say the word "objective" validity, as opposed to "subjective"
validity, is to perhaps touch the very heart of this little debate we've
Ultimately, for the participants in a war and their immediate heirs (which
all of us are, to a varying degree), it is virtually impossible to have
anything but a "subjective" opinion. War is just too intense and searing of
an experience for any nation to be viewed in a completely objective manner
by its citizens.
Mayhaps when we eventually contact the Vulcans, Mr. Spock will have a look
over the evidence, and give us an objective critique of who won the War of
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The War of 1812: In Europe, thousands fought over the fate of hundreds of
square miles: in North America, hundreds determined the fate of THOUSANDS of