Sunday, February 22, 2015

Edward S. Corwin and the "Totality" of America's World War II

What makes a war “total”? And how is war’s totality experienced? Edward S. Corwin, in the opening of his influential 1947 book Total War and the Constitution, turns to Deuteronomy:
Of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth: But thou shalt utterly destroy them…as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee.
The biblical reference enables Corwin to say that total war “is at least as old as recorded history.” He also finds in Deuteronomy a motive for total war. The Bible justified ruthlessness, “For…the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth.”

Total war, in this sense, went beyond domination, to elimination. Wars have been thought of as “total” when lacking genocidal objectives, however, at least for some participants. Ubiquity of violence is often a central aspect of war’s totality. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as unrestricted war, especially “war in which civilians are perceived as combatants and therefore as legitimate targets.”

Totality takes a turn when applied to the United States. For Corwin, the totality that was relevant to American law was “functional totality,” which he defined as “the politically ordered participation in the war effort of all personal and social forces, the scientific, the mechanical, the commercial, the economic, the moral, the literary and artistic, and the psychological.” Total war was when “every human element” of a society was involved in the conflict. He draws examples from nations under siege. During the War of 1793 in France, the Committee of Public Safety ordered that “young men will go into battle; married men will forge arms and transport food; the women will make tents, garments, and help in the hospitals.” Even children and the elderly had orders.

In the examples Corwin draws upon, including the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, a core experience of war’s totality was collective vulnerability to violence. Corwin doesn’t explain how totality could apply to a society distant from the fighting, like the United States in World War II (with the exception of Hawai’i). Instead, he assumes its application, as he turns to the consequences of total war for government power and individual rights.

Another logic is needed to explain an American totality in World War II: a focus on the totality of power, as compared with total vulnerability to violence. Corwin’s application of total war to the American experience suggests that totality is experienced by a collective, society as a whole, with every element in society touched in some way by war. The body that feels war’s totality is the collective, and each human body within that collective might feel only some aspect of war. Many World War II Americans felt the war’s violence directly; others felt it through their connections with loved ones deployed. For others, the impact was felt through income taxes and shortages at the grocery store. The extension of war’s impact beyond its core violence is what makes American war “total,” although this experience of war's totality cannot compare with the lived experience of World War II in Europe, Asia and North Africa.

In his analysis of individual rights in this generative work, Corwin suggests that “the requirements of total war” are incompatible with fundamental American constitutional principles. But perhaps there is something more important in Corwin that we might look for elsewhere in the history of American thought. Perhaps Corwin provides a window on the way American war could be seen as present, personal, and “total,” even though the shooting, killing and dying were thousands of miles away.

I am thinking this through for an upcoming plenary at a Duke conference on violence, and for a lecture as part of a Rutgers symposium on totality, so comments and suggestions are most welcome.

 Cross-posted from Balkinization.

1 comment:

  1. Totality in WW II meant that there was no distinction between enemy government and nation.
    We firebombed Dresden and we incinerated two cities in Japan. Those crimes (as they would be labeled today if any nation did such a thing) facilitated a debasement of American discourse and policy. Mutual Assured Destruction, massive retaliation, children huddling under desks in air trade drills, "bombing them back to the stone age" were all part of colloquial and official discourse and policy. The word genocide comes to mind as a descriptor.