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Military strategy as a system of thought and a theory of action

By Leonard Bushkoff / July 29, 1987



Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, by Edward Luttwak. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press. 283 pp. $20. That the United States has become a global military empire since World War II is clear, though the absence of conquest and annexations may camouflage the fact. Roman and British analogies are irrelevant to a loose structure of anticommunism, economic interchange, and hegemony by acquiescence, even invitation. Nevertheless, the US now has some 280 overseas bases, military obligations to about 60 countries, overwhelming superiority in sea and air, and a right-wing constituency for military activism.

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That this empire lacks a grand strategy beyond third-world expeditions and a knee-jerk containment of communism is also clear. Liberals are relieved, fearing a rationale for interventionism; conservatives bemoan that very lack. This vacuum is linked to deep-seated conflicts over what the US should be - and do - in the world.

But there is also the narrowly pragmatic, insular, and antitheoretical orientation of American life, which the military reflects; the assumption that war is a distasteful anomaly, whose study requires apology; and the further assumption that victory derives from sheer material power, which renders strategic nuances irrelevant.

Hence, we have such negations of strategy as the special pleading of Adm. Alfred Mahan for sea power and Gen. Billy Mitchell for aerial bombing, concepts very attractive as - alleged - shortcuts to victory. Hence also, Generals Pershing, Marshall, and Eisenhower (though not Patton or MacArthur) focused on attrition, on war seen as a kind of engineering project, one of applied firepower, rather than the military art conceived in, say, today's Israel. Such an outnumbered and besieged state must rely on brains and imagination over brawn, maneuver over attrition.

War as an intellectual enterprise underlies ``Strategy,'' itself a tour de force, brilliant - though elusive and overly complex - by Edward Luttwak, who has striven mightily in 15 years as an author and occasional journalist, consultant, and think-tank gadfly to give intellectual respectability and stature to military issues.

Put aside his Russophobia and liberal-bashing in Commentary, the talk-show bravado, and the simplistic contempt for third-world radicalism. Consider instead that, by sheer force of intellect - though not always of judgment - Luttwak has made himself the right man in the right place at the right time. Benefiting from the Vietnam fiasco, he has tried (along with the British historians Michael Howard and John Keegan) to demystify matters military, renouncing its jargon and macho banalities, and making it accessible to anyone willing to read - and think.

In ``Strategy,'' Luttwak has reached beyond haute journalism to address strategy as a system of thought and a theory of action. This is not a crib sheet on countering the Soviets, but military epistemology, with Hegel and especially Clausewitz (witness Luttwak's analogy to household frictions) as its models, and the famous British military critic Liddell Hart as its predecessor. And it is addressed less to the Pentagon (though NATO's front in Germany is often mentioned) than to academics, to logicians, mathematicians, philosophers, and, indeed, anyone attracted to the interplay of abstractions.

These operate at five levels: technical, tactical, operational, theater, and grand strategy. At every level, Luttwak condemns the linear, ``straight-line logic,'' by which, for example, some experts have argued that the cheap, hand-held antitank weapons used so successfully by Egypt in the Yom Kippur War of 1973 signify the demise of the tank, and thus - eureka! - of Soviet offensive power.

Not so fast, Luttwak counters. Such weapons are cheap precisely because of their limited utility (as with the long-forgotten torpedo boat) and are easily countered, as the Israelis demonstrated in Lebanon. Tanks are expensive but versatile and dynamic, indispensable for the big battle. So don't fall for technical gimmicks and quick fixes; let the ``star warriors'' pay heed.

Luttwak is arguing for war as an essentially intellectual effort, its essence being thought, not materiel, and its difficulty for Americans being their confusion of the two.