The concept of total war was put forth in writing in Karl von Clausewitz' posthumously published book On War (1832). It was used in the Spanish Civil War and World War II (Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels infamously asked a select audience "Do you want total war?" in his Sportpalast speech). In response the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 is intended to protect civilians during time of war.
See also Scorched earth.
Total war is also used to describe devoting all of a nation's resources to fighting a war. Production of civilian products and luxuries are minimized to concentrate on the war effort.
"Total war not only destroys the enemy's military forces, but also brings the enemy society to an extremely personal point of decision, so that they are willing to accept a reversal of the cultural trends... The sparing of civilian lives cannot be the total war's first priority ..." (see collateral damage).
"The purpose of total war is to permanently force your will onto another people."