Paradox in War
Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.
by Edward N. Luttwak.
Harvard University Press. 283 pp. $20.00.
Among civilian defense analysts, Edward Luttwak has no peer. In part this is because he is quite inimitable. Educated in Sicily, England, Israel, and the United States, fluent in half-a-dozen languages, he has written, among other things, a practical guide to the conduct of coups d’état; a history of the Israel Defense Forces; a volume on military technology; and a learned treatise on the grand strategy of the Roman empire which was well-received even by peaceable classicists who did not know quite what to make of this irruption from the world of Washington consultants. In that latter capacity, Luttwak has played a greater or lesser role in shaping government views on such matters as counter-insurgency and reform of the Joint Chiefs of Staff system. As a periodical writer (notably in COMMENTARY), he has helped shape the public understanding of how well or, more often, how poorly the American defense establishment has performed.
Unpredictable as ever, Luttwak has now published a book quite unlike any of those mentioned above and several others unmentioned. Strategy is at once an amazingly ambitious and an oddly modest book, an attempt to lay out a complete theory of its subject while remaining diffident about its implications for policy. Indeed, in one of the book’s most interesting chapters Luttwak asks, quite sincerely, “Is strategy useful?” and gives a number of reasons why we might think it is not. Although he cites a contemporary problem—the defense of NATO’s central front—to illustrate his conception of strategy, he does so for heuristic purposes only. Strategy is an exercise in theory, not a policy critique.
In his preface Luttwak reveals that the book is the product of a long and tortuous set of reflections which he has found it difficult to render in satisfactory form. Indeed, Strategy shows little of the sardonic humor or confident pugnacity which many readers have come to associate with Luttwak; its tone is profoundly sober, and occasional infelicities of style suggest that this work trickled rather than flowed from the pen. Yet precisely these same qualities make it perhaps more intriguing and thought-provoking than some of Luttwak’s earlier works and, one suspects, may make it more durable as well.
Two themes animate the entire book. The first, and most novel, is what Luttwak refers to as the paradoxical logic that governs all of strategy, a kind of inverted reasoning which pervades all warlike activities and which contrasts sharply with what he calls “linear logic,” that is, common sense. In the topsyturvy world of strategy, to be too strong is to be weak, to succeed is to pave the way for failure, to take the most direct path is to ensure the longest and costliest journey. For example, common sense might dictate that the best way to defend a country is by ranging forces along its borders, thereby preventing an enemy from ravaging the lands which lie beyond. In point of fact, however, defense in depth, allowing an enemy to penetrate unprotected settled areas, may prove the best way of defeating him by sudden counterattack; deliberately to make oneself vulnerable is thus to make oneself strong.
The paradox applies even to weapons: a device which is extremely useful early in a conflict soon becomes useless and ultimately dangerous. As an example, Luttwak points to the rearward-looking radar developed by the British for their bombers in World War II. Initially this radar warned pilots of the approach of German fighters; then the Germans jammed it; then German night fighters learned how to home in on the radar, completely defeating the purpose for which it had been invented.
The central cause of this paradoxical logic—and I have not done justice to the imaginative and wide range of historical examples Luttwak invokes to illustrate it—is the fact that in war one deals with an opponent who reacts. War is most emphatically not like building a bridge over a treacherous river. Dangerous as that latter enterprise might be, a river does not consciously devise novel means to wash away abutments, drown construction workers, and generally thwart the engineer.
Alas, suggests Luttwak, democratic states have particular difficulty in adjusting to the paradoxical logic of strategy, because so much of their daily life is governed by linear logic. In his view, this accounts for the well-intentioned but thoroughly wrong-headed proclivities of earnest systems analysts, well-meaning bureaucrats, and zealous Congressmen who dabble in the study of security. By contrast, the Hegelian dialectic of Marxism-Leninism makes strategic thinking easier for our opponents.
Luttwak’s second theme concerns the five levels of strategy: technology, tactics, operations, theater strategy, and grand strategy. Any military problem must be examined at all five levels, because success at one level does not necessarily translate into effectiveness at another. Thus, a guided antitank missile can be negated by tactical responses (e.g., use of artillery to suppress the missile’s operators or smoke to blind them) or operational ones (concentration of an attack along a single axis of advance). Since the paradoxical logic of war operates at all five levels, and since these levels continuously interact with one another, we are left with a terribly difficult intellectual problem. As Luttwak himself puts it:
We can no longer visualize strategy only in its horizontal dimension, as an agitated sea in which the waves and counterwaves of the paradoxical logic tend to nullify one another, in a perpetual striving for an impossible equilibrium. Nor can we see strategy as a multilevel edifice, offering a different truth on every floor. We must instead contend with the complexity of combining both images in our minds: the floors are no longer solid but in agitated motion, sometimes to the point of breaking into one another, just as in the dynamic reality of conflict the interactions of the vertical levels themselves combine and collide with the entire horizontal dimension of strategy.
A convoluted description, perhaps, but no more so than the reality it seeks to describe.
Luttwak freely concedes the very large intellectual debt he owes to Carl von Clausewitz, whose masterpiece On War remains to this day the greatest book on the theory of war. In particular, he builds on the understanding of the relations among levels of conflict which Clausewitz advanced, and he pushes further Clausewitz’s emphasis on the importance of interaction as the key to understanding war. In some important ways, however, Luttwak departs from Clausewitz’s teaching, and concerning nothing is this more true than the role of politics in war.
“Grand strategy,” Luttwak writes, “also exis’s outside international politics, for it comprehends the highest level of interaction between any parties capable of using unregulated force against one another.” (To illustrate the point, he concocts a story of two thugs in a night fight in a dark alley.) Clausewitz’s view was rather different: war is a unique form of struggle because of its political character, and politics is an affair of states. In contrast to Luttwak and others, Clausewitz held that the theory which governs war is different in some respect from that which governs games of conflict (like chess). Moreover, it follows from this that the highest level—call it strategy or grand strategy—must dominate all the others. Where Luttwak gives the title “Outcomes” to the part of his book dealing with grand strategy, Clausewitz would probably call it “First Principles,” and place it (as in fact he did) at the beginning rather than the end.
Luttwak’s departure from Clausewitz may seem more dramatic than perhaps it really is, for he tacitly acknowledges the preeminence of grand strategy, and he is nothing if not politically astute. Nonetheless, the difference is real. It is evident also in his development of the notion of the paradoxical logic of strategy, a theme not entirely foreign to Clausewitz, but hardly at the center of his thought. Clausewitz’s work is characterized by a deep appreciation of the value of common sense and a mistrust of that brand of cleverness which seeks to evade the realities of war in a vain search for magical formulas. Moreover, reflection on military history suggests that some of the greatest commanders and armies have concentrated directly on the fundamentals of a problem and solved them in a very commonsensical way—Ulysses S. Grant is a case in point, the Israel Defense Forces another.
Luttwak is at pains to point out that conscious use of the paradoxical logic of war, or what he calls “relational maneuver,” is not the same thing as mere cleverness or an aptitude for stratagem. He also cogently observes that every ruse in war—including surprise and deception—carries very real costs. Nonetheless, by insisting as forcefully and persuasively as he does on the dominance of paradox in war, he runs the risk of rendering the whole subject even more mystifying than it need be. There is a danger, indeed, that a careless reader may become so enamored of standing sense on its head that he will fail to see the reasoning which undergirds Luttwak’s analysis.
But even if one cannot fully accept Edward Luttwak’s arguments in this book, such disagreement in no way detracts from its merit. It is a subtle work, counterintuitive without being perverse, heterodox without being outrageous. It is a book which will still be read years from now, not because of the author’s celebrity but because of the many insights it contains and the hard thinking it will assuredly provoke.