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On the Meaning of Victory: Essays on Strategy, by Edward Luttwak. New York: Simon & Schuster. 315 pp. $18.95. America Can Win: The Case for Military Reform, by Gary Hart, with William Lind. Bethesda, Md.: Adler & Adler. 301 pp. $17.95. The Defense Game, by Richard Stubbing, with Richard Mendel. New York: Bessie/Harper & Row. 445 pp. $21.50. IF SUPREME Court justices are careful to read the headlines, so, too, is the literary world. Witness the effect of the Iranian revolution and the hostage crisis on publishing lists. And witness now the flood of books criticizing the American military system, condemning operational failures, inadequate leadership and unit cohesion, and -- above all -- the fascination with high-tech that fosters both runaway spending and neglect of the emotional and psychological needs of the soldier and the unit.

In this critique, there is nothing of old-fashioned pacifism or radicalism, but some whiffs of the 1970s counterculture, with its enthronement of individual values and consciousness over bureaucracy and technology. Some two centuries ago, Maurice, Comte de Saxe, wrote that ``everything important in war begins with the human heart.'' Does the Pentagon understand this?

Behind these criticisms stand, first and foremost, the Vietnam defeat; then, the Iranian rescue fiasco, the Grenada invasion, and the massacre of the marines in Beirut; and, finally, the recent procurement scandals. A public still ready to accept Pentagon expertise on military operations will not accept fraudulent shenanigans by once-prestigious companies. And Washington insiders have lost confidence in a Pentagon that kept alive the Sergeant York antiaircraft gun, a $2 billion loser.

The present outcry was presaged in 1981 by James Fallows's ``National Defense,'' a short, unpretentious and entertaining, yet meaty and sensible book that made the case for reform widely accessible. Fallows (who built on Ward Just's ``Military Men'' of 1970), put the criticism born of Vietnam in a broader framework, arguing against the bigger-is-better, more-spending, less-spending dichotomy by digging beneath the dollar sign to focus on quality and effectiveness, on the subtle factors that shape the success in combat of some weapons, units, individuals, the failure of others.

The books under review add more shells to the barrage. Edward Luttwak, whose scathing criticism in ``The Pentagon and the Art of War'' (1984) was widely applauded, has now collected his recent essays into ``On the Meaning of Victory,'' in which he insists that every means -- short of war -- be used to repel the Soviet threat. In ``America Can Win,'' Gary Hart and his defense adviser, William Lind, are moving toward the 1988 campaign by enlarging their longstanding case for sweeping military changes. In ``The Defense Game,'' Richard Stubbing, a senior defense budget official for some 20 years and now an academic, has written a low-key but highly critical inner history of the Pentagon since the 1960s.

Of these books, the most important -- though most irritating -- is ``On the Meaning of Victory,'' largely because of Luttwak's prominence as a prolific writer, a Pentagon consultant, and a forceful voice in academic seminars and television appearances.

All but two of these essays are reprints, having first appeared during 1979-83 in support of the Reagan ascendency; many were published in ``Commentary,'' whose unbridled Russophobia and contempt for liberals Luttwak has reproduced. These political overtones are missing from the academic essays he has included; though dated, these are calmer.

INTELLECTUAL recycling underlies all the essays, which -- no matter their purported purpose -- repeat well-worn themes. The Soviet Union is an empire, therefore incurably expansionist: Witness Afghanistan. The Soviet system is, however, strong only militarily, hence fragile; yet neither the will nor the ability are present in Washington for an effective anti-Soviet strategy. Nuclear disarmament is a dangerous illusion, for only such weapons can counterbalance Soviet ground forces; the use of tactical nuclear weapons can readily be controlled and need not escalate. Pentagon waste, fraud, and mismanagement are a mere bagatelle, involving relatively small sums. And -- above all -- Americans must reject the siren song of their misguided and guilt-ridden liberal intelligentsia (particularly George Kennan), and unhesitatingly use military power to maintain world order: Grenada should be applauded, Jimmy Carter's restraint in Iran condemned.

All this is presented with immense authority and self-assurance, in a flood of glittering phrases and aphorisms, wisecracks, and apocalyptic scenarios that offer some pithy insights on military matters, but otherwise fail to convince. Luttwak employs a blitzkrieg style that simply bypasses opposing arguments, while covering glaring weaknesses in knowledge and analysis with rhetorical razzle-dazzle that debaters or lawyers may relish, but that bring more heat than light to the issues.

Consider, for example, his argument for the inevitability of Soviet expansion, its being absolutely essential for empires to advance to protect their frontiers against incursions. Certainly this held true of ancient Rome (about whose strategy Luttwak wrote an excellent book a decade ago, and to which he refers constantly), and also of 19th-century overseas expansion, spurred on by ideas about subduing the wilderness.

But does it remain true? Are the historical analogies that Luttwak deploys valid today, when nationalism is powerful indeed in a third world whose smallest nations can attract foreign opinion and patrons to their cause?

Everyone remembers Churchill's warnings against Hitler, and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe: Luttwak knows how to rouse our fears. But 1986 is not 1938 or 1946, and distorting the historical record hardly benefits the public debate on which democracy must rely.

If Russia symbolizes traditional imperium, then the United States represents a sophisticated variant, one of bases and global forces, clients and economic power, cultural influence and ideological attraction, which makes Washington the new Rome for such Central European political intellectuals as Luttwak. There have been others in the last half-century of intellectual migration: Kissinger, Brzezinski, Hans Morgenthau, dexterous Greeks teaching an unabashed Realpolitik to the eager but uncertain Romans. Luttwak himself comes from the Danubian frontier, from the Romanian side of that harsh ethnic triangle where Romania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia intersect -- and conflict.

Roman legions once stood there, holding the barbaric East at bay. Then came Tatars, Magyars, Byzantines, and Ottoman Turks, Austrian, German, and Russian armies, too often bringing turmoil in their wake: The Holocaust and communization are recent examples. Small wonder then that Luttwak harangues Americans to toughen up, behave like Romans or Israelis, find aggressive leaders, and field lean and mean armies against all manner of barbarians: Russians, Iranians, Libyans, Syrians, and others as yet unrevealed.

`AMERICA Can Win,'' by Hart and Lind, is devoid of these mystical, neoromantic overtones. They approach military reform soberly, and pragmatically, as befits the campaign of a presidential candidate seeking support for his vision of a post-industrial America. Their inventory of our military deficiencies is thorough and devastating. The Navy should shift from costly and vulnerable aircraft carriers to submarines, the better to counter the Soviet underseas fleet. The Army requires different weapons, organization, and especially ideas, with the ponderous attrition of heavy firepower yielding to deft maneuver operations. The Air Force must lower the priorities granted long-range, strategic bombing over the close air-ground cooperation essential to the Army. The Joint Chiefs of Staff must be replaced by a true general staff, independent of the individual services, and responsible to the president. There are perceptive observations on the vulnerabilities of combat helicopters, the problems of air combat, officer education, unit cohesion, and the Defense Department bureaucracy -- everyone's whipping boy -- but not a hint of how to put through changes; presumably President Gary Hart would know.

There is something abstract, unrealistic, about these two books. The reality is that our 40 years of cold peace with Moscow is likely to continue, leaving the Air Force and Army to function largely as deterrents, while the Marine Corps, and especially the Navy, whose carriers and battleships are irrelevant to the Russian landmass, serve as the Royal Navy once did, keeping the third world in line with occasional jabs (since the Beirut massacre, no one wants face-to-face combat) -- and enjoying much of the military budget in return. While Hart and Lind simply ignore this reality, it creates difficulties for Luttwak: delighted to see the Qaddafis and Khomeinis bloodied, he also wants more American forces in West Germany.

The Army and Air Force (and the Navy's submariners) live in a psychological vacuum, forever training, testing, and thinking about an event -- a big war -- which is both unlikely and unwanted. So it is not surprising that, as Richard Stubbing describes so thoroughly in ``The Defense Game'' (note the use of the word ``game'' in the title), the budget and weapons procurement process should become less and less attuned to a war that is a distant abstraction, and more and more to the immediate interests of Congress, industry, the defense bureaucracy, and various experts and kibbitzers. Stubbing's investigation is very thorough, well spiced with clear portraits of the secretaries of defense since Robert McNamara in the 1960s, and based on personal experience; his concern is process, development, the institutional history of a subject he treats calmly and with resignation.

Clearly, our defense policy of ``more is better'' has touched bottom: public confidence has plunged, and both Congress and many younger officers -- especially in the Army -- are eager for changes which no one expects from Caspar Weinberger. Luttwak and Hart-Lind look to strong leadership in the future, but Stubbing shows that the big-spending, high-tech culture is too powerful -- not simply economically but also psychologically -- to be easily uprooted.

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