Commentary Magazine

The Pentagon and the Art of War, by Edward N. Luttwak

Of Arms & Men

The Pentagon and the Art of War.
by Edward N. Luttwak.
Simon & Schuster. 333 pp. $17.95.

Edward Luttwak shows what can happen to a great nation's military when its leaders cease to behave as if war were a real possibility. Prominent among the consequences is a system of higher command that corrupts the officer corps, and may be impervious to reform save by a catastrophic experience of military defeat. Luttwak's book is about how our military system turns abundant talent and money into a machine that performs poorly.

Luttwak does not explain why the Pentagon has ceased to believe in victory; his book is not meant to be an inquiry into ultimate causes. Rather, it is a description of the contemporary Pentagon's two most salient features: the glut of senior officers, which destroys morale while causing a thousand inefficiencies, and the lack of any authority over the four military services able to conceive strategy and to enforce priorities. The book also describes how these two features affect our armed forces' ability to do their job, and their cost. Finally it prescribes a reform: the creation of a general staff to remedy the services' collective incoherence. Luttwak believes this reform would naturally lead to other changes, including a reduction in the ratio of senior officers to troops, and therefore to radical increases in military effectiveness and efficiency.

In true Aristotelian fashion, Luttwak begins by immersing the reader in the particulars of our armed forces' most typical performance: Vietnam. Never in our history were so much blood, treasure, and dedication so utterly wasted. Each “community” within the armed forces sought the bureaucratic rewards that representation in Vietnam would bring. Each plied its craft unguided by any overarching plan that would give significance to the general effort. So, over the course of a decade, thousands of senior American officers lived in luxury in Vietnam, and spent their tours primarily protecting the interests of their parent communities in Washington. Command of operational units was changed as often as every six months for the avowed purpose of allowing as many officers as possible to “punch tickets” for higher jobs. In Luttwak's words: “So it was that institutional self-indulgence deprived the United States of any true chance of success.”

Luttwak emphasizes that the military alone was responsible for our performance in Vietnam. Interference by civilians certainly did not improve matters, but it was not civilians who compelled the military to divide spheres of operations among the services with scant regard for results in the field, or to operate in ways that destroyed the troops' morale. Nor did civilians compel senior officers to put their careers above their duty to their men and to victory; no senior officer resigned over the conduct of the war.

After Vietnam, the services did not change their ways. The rescue mission in Iran and the invasion of Grenada, according to Luttwak, were planned and carried out by a combination of the services ill-suited to the task at hand. They were supervised by a chain of command that exercised control without responsibility. The flood of medals that followed these operations could not conceal their tragic flaws.

Luttwak argues that the services live in peacetime by the same procedures and priorities that have served so badly in war. They fight for the roles, missions, and budgets that produce generals' and admirals' billets. They also operate bureaucracies that appear to develop and procure weapons primarily to satisfy themselves. Yet ironically, though the Pentagon is bloated and inefficient, the United States does not have nearly enough military power—a recent set of tables developed by the Department of Defense and comparing U.S. and Soviet forces by category, from intercontinental missiles to tanks, shows the U.S. outnumbered by ratios that average five to one. The Department has claimed that these odds are compensated for by intangibles like superior leadership and organization, but it has singularly failed to substantiate this claim with concrete evidence.


Why has the wealth of resources and talent at the Pentagon's disposal brought forth so little? In a chapter entitled “The Materialist Bias,” Luttwak argues that the explanation is not to be found in “fraud, waste, and mismanagement”; these abuses add up to a very few percentage points in the budget. The problem is more serious. So long as one looks at military forces from any perspective other than the achievement of victory in war, one is certain to misunderstand them and to waste one's money. The source of our current troubles is that generations of senior civil and military officials have sought to “manage” the Pentagon according to criteria unrelated to war. It is this that accounts for the fact that the U.S. armed forces have too many chiefs, a surplus which has made the development of weapons far more expensive and time-consuming than need be.

The price of new weapons now includes much more than metal and microchips; it includes mandatory “inputs” from all of the “technical communities” in the Pentagon that want to justify their involvement in the project. The specifications for a weapon are thus driven by bureaucratic force to unnecessary complexity. The price includes the “stretch-outs,” the “re-scoping,” the mandatory design reviews and conferences, the armies of consultants, the airline tickets, the hotels, and the expense-account lunches that the system makes necessary. That is why the Army and the Air Force have gone without a new tank and bomber, respectively, for a generation. That is also why the new models will not be produced in numbers comparable to those of the Soviet tanks and bombers, or even of the older American weapons they replace.

Perhaps the main cause of all this, in Luttwak's reading, is the lack of any overall strategy. The reasons for this lack of strategy are many, but one is surely that no part of our military organization has been given the task of formulating strategy, or the authority to enforce it on the procurers of weapons and on the managers of men. Layers of command are superimposed on one another, producing multiple labyrinthine chains of command, none of which can issue in a set of men with the ability and the responsibility to prepare for war—much less to fight.

The problem of leadership which Luttwak describes analytically might also be described figuratively. Imagine an editor of a high-school newspaper walking into the Pentagon to interview the man in charge of winning the next war. If the editor were well connected, he might have an audience with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), this country's senior man in uniform, who heads the organization which nominally controls the Unified and Specified Commands, which in turn nominally control all our fighting forces. But the chairman would quickly point out that he does not actually control anyone. The joint staff he nominally heads is composed of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine personnel, all of whom are promoted or demoted at the pleasure of their services.

The chairman would tell the young man to take his questions to the Unified and Specified Commanders. But they, in turn, would tell him that they have nothing to do with the development of weapons, tactics, or strategy. In fact, their job is to coordinate the operations of the military services in the field, just as the JCS coordinates the services in Washington. The commanders would say, too, that the careers of their subordinates do not depend on them, but on the individual military service. A war, they would say, would be fought by Army troops under Army command, Navy units under Navy command, and so forth. Their job would be to coordinate.

Convinced that the substance of American military power lies in the services, the editor would next ask the service chiefs about their responsibility for planning to win the next war. That is the job of the JCS, they would reply. By now, the editor might be able to retort: “But the JCS is just a meeting place for the four of you. Everyone I've met is a coordinator. Is anybody responsible?” The answer would come quickly: in our system of civilian supremacy the Secretary of Defense is responsible, and, of course, the President.

The Secretary of Defense would smile indulgently at the editor's question. Certainly he is responsible for winning the next war, he might say, but it is a purely formal responsibility. The office of the Secretary of Defense assists the services with research, development, procurement, logistics, legal services, and policy guidance. But it would not dream of planning or executing operations. That is the job of the JCS and the services.


In short, although many in the Pentagon are assigned the job of wielding power over what is bought, and over the bureaucracy, none is given the responsibility for achieving military results. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the Pentagon's main business, day in and day out, is nothing but the budget process—a complex series of bargains among the various communities that make up the services, and their allies in the White House and Congress, over who gets how much. Although the budget's annual presentation to Congress is accompanied by dire warnings and slick brochures about Soviet military power, no one involved in the process is under the illusion that talk of “the threat” is anything other than ceremonial; the battle is fought on the basis of sheer bureaucratic horsepower.

Hence the need for reform. Luttwak's proposal, though the details are complicated, is at heart simple: make some body of men responsible for fighting and winning wars, and place all higher headquarters, in the field and in Washington, under their command. In brief, a General Staff. Is this a good idea?

One wonders how far the effects of such a reform would carry. Surely even the present, inherently inefficient system would work much better than it does if a President, or a Secretary of Defense, chose to focus the attention of the men in charge on their jobs. After all, the present organization of the Pentagon does not force senior officers to behave as they do. It is simply one incentive among many. The Pentagon has worked under the current JCS system since 1947, but was not always so mindless of war as it is today. Development and procurement of new weapons was not always so slow, and “managementitis” was not always so virulent a disease.

The present state of things grew up along with changes in our military culture vigorously promoted by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1961-1968). Like Machiavelli's Prince, McNamara broke old careers—and career paths—and made new ones. Activities and attitudes that before 1961 had been tickets to oblivion became the hallmarks of personal success. McNamara brought hundreds of people into the defense establishment, many of whom have made it what it is today. What McNamara did has not been undone, and will not be undone until a person arrives in that post possessed of as much vision and willfulness as was he.

The trouble with Luttwak's book, which masterfully describes a whole series of moral, political, and organizational problems, is that it proposes a one-dimensional solution that does not do justice to the complexity of the analysis. Take the Pentagon's questionable ability to meet this country's need for protection against Soviet ballistic missiles. For a variety of reasons—doctrinal, political, and organizational—we allowed the Soviet Union to build up a lead in accurate, “silo-killing” missiles that is now beyond our ability to erase. Indeed, the military does not propose any plan to erase it. Any attempt to do so would be very costly, and would upset long-term agreements among the services for sharing the defense budget; it is thus beyond the limits of practical discussion. We have but one way open to us to overcome this intolerable predicament: build defensive systems that will decrease the value of Soviet missiles.


Unfortunately, as even the most casual observer of the Pentagon can see, our military establishment is not only opposed to taking money and emphasis out of current programs for the sake of strategic defense. It is actually incapable of building anything new, quickly, on a large scale. Luttwak shows convincingly that even small, relatively uncomplicated research-and-development ventures are turned into long-term, high-tech, expensive endeavors. It is thus not surprising that the Pentagon has inflated the technical requirements for anti-missile weapons. Although any missile ever built or designed could be destroyed by currently available lasers, the Pentagon has stipulated that we should not consider producing any anti-missile laser until it can burn through missiles at least 1,000 times as “hard” as current missiles. Such lasers may or may not be available in the next generation; by that time, the Pentagon may well have invented a new “requirement” even less likely to be met. In this way an inherently complex and costly project has been transformed into an impossibly complex and costly one.

It is difficult to see how the creation of a General Staff, by itself, would correct such propensities. Edward Luttwak's The Pentagon and the Art of War is an indispensable beginning to a full-scale debate over what ails our military establishment and what can be done about it; one only hopes that it will lead to that urgently desired thing itself.

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