Just War Part 12: Total War

Billy Mitchell

General William “Billy” Mitchell, sometimes called the Father of The U.S. Air Force, flew against Germans over France in World War I. He returned home convinced that air power would make land and sea power obsolete in future wars. Fighting wars from the air, he also predicted, would make “total war” unavoidable.

Total war is war in which nothing and no one are off limits – an entire population is involved in battle. Like Douhet, Mitchell argued that intentional attacks upon civilians were pragmatic. Mitchell defined a combatant not as someone who attacks but as anyone who can be attacked. Because everyone in a nation contributes in some way to the sustaining of the military, and because everyone is within reach by air, everyone within a nation is a combatant and is a potential target of attack.

When superiors disagreed with Mitchell, he went on the offensive, accusing them publicly of “incompetency, criminal negligence, and almost treasonable administration by the War and Navy departments.”(1) Mitchell was court-martialed for insubordination. He resigned instead of accepting punishment. But his writing and postulating on the rules of war continued and greatly influenced the next generation of U.S. military leaders.


In the 1930s, the primary source of American air power doctrine was the Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) at Maxwell Field outside of Montgomery, Alabama.(2) Like Douhet and Mitchell, the captains and majors on staff at ACTS believed the advent of air power inevitably meant future wars would be total. Unlike Douhet and Mitchell, these men were in positions to write doctrine and create the ethics and agendas of a major fighting force.

The ACTS faculty ignored the traditional definitions of combatant and non-combatant on the grounds that in total war such discriminations were impractical and obsolete.

[ACTS staff demonstrated a] refusal to make any distinction, from the point of view of strategy, between armed forces of the enemy and the civilian population and industrial structure which support those armed forces.”(3)

Unlike Douhet, the ACTS staff did not target civilians in order to bring down the enemy through terror and collapsed morale. They targeted civilians as a way of destroying the enemy’s economy, which would force surrender. They believed the modern industrialized economy’s parts were arranged in such a symbiotic way that it would collapse entirely if one part was destroyed (3). This was an ideal task, they believed, for air power. If bombers could get to and destroy a nation’s industrial complex, they reasoned, enemy forces would be unable to fight back without its sources of supply and production.

It is clear that between the world wars military thinkers had largely rejected the traditional criteria for just war. Technological advancement had occasioned a profound moral shift.(2)

When World War II began America would be forced to choose between this new ACTS ethic of total warfare and the tradition of just war.


  • 1. Footnotes to American History by Harold S. Sharp, The Scarecrow Press, Inc., Metuchen, N.J., 1977, pp. 430-433
  • 2. Louis A. Manzo, Morailty in War Fighting and Strategic Bombing in World War II (Air Force Historical Foundation, 1992)
  • 3. William R. Emerson, Operation POINTBLANK: A Tale of Bombers and Fighters in Readings: Book 2 Military Strategy Analysis DS 611 (Maxwell AFB: Air University, 1988)