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The Strategy Of Survival
A lifelong student of military history and affairs says that nuclear weapons have made the idea of war absurd. And it is precisely when everyone agrees that war is absurd that one gets started.
July/August 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 5
Edward Luttwak is the author of nine books on the art of war, and he pronounces with startling confidence on a great array of events, as the titles of his works suggest. One is The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, another The Grand Strategy of the Soviet Union. His most recent book is last year’s Strategy (Harvard University Press).
Luttwak was born in Arad, Transylvania, in 1942. His family emigrated first to Palermo, Sicily, in 1947, and then to England, where he was educated at Carmel College and the London School of Economics and took infantry training with the British Cadet Corps (“it’s one of the reflections on the general decay of military practices through a period of forty years of peace,” he says, “that in the 1950s Britain gave schoolboys more weapons training than a U.S. infantryman now receives under the standard course”). He published his first book, Coup d’Etat, when he was twenty-five, and, after moving to America, took his doctorate from Johns Hopkins. He has worked as an analyst and consultant for a variety of institutions, including the Defense and State departments, and he is currently affiliated with the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.
Although Luttwak would no doubt argue that war, as a sphere of intricate, impressive, and profoundly dramatic human endeavor, is worth studying for the most disinterested reasons, he has in fact devoted much of his life to helping his adopted country prepare to defend itself on NATO’s central front. It is there that the conventional forces of the Soviet Union are commonly believed to have amassed a decisive superiority, there where her armored divisions are thought to pose the most profound wartime threat to her adversaries.
Luttwak has written extensively on the possibilities of defending that border, and in his thinking on this subject he uses history in the most practical manner. To him the past is a great book, and its contents constitute the sum of knowledge necessary for the achievement of a concrete task. When he consults volumes of history, Luttwak seeks urgently needed lessons from them.
The specialist literature cascades over the available surfaces in his study, and although the Loeb classics are generally those bearing on his trade, a copy of Diogenes Laertius suggests a man broad enough in learning and old-fashioned enough to read Greek for the pleasure of it.
Luttwak lives with his wife, Dalya, and their two children, Yael and Joseph, in Chevy Chase, Maryland, where this interview took place.
How did you happen to become a specialist in military matters?
Well, I can give you a jocular answer. It may contain some seriousness. I was born in Transylvania, an exceptionally contested part of Europe. Transylvania is contested today. I was born in the midst of the Second World War, the greatest and most sinister of wars known to Europe, a catastrophic war, in which it was not merely defense lines that were torn down or territories that were invaded but rather a substantial demolition of European civilization accumulated since pre-Roman times. Obviously I was not a direct observer of this, but I sensed it.
Immediately after the war my family moved to Palermo, in Sicily, which was at that time in a state of endemic civil insurrection. One of my earliest childhood memories in Sicily is of driving on a weekend, an unnecessary drive for unnecessary fresh air, this being a central European concept rather mechanically applied to Sicily, where the air was all fresh in those days. We were going to Montelepre, which was the headquarters of the bandito Giuliano. My father fondly imagined that this picturesque region was just the place to take the family, and we drove right past an armored car of the Italian carabinieri that was still smoking by the side of the road, in the wake of a clash of armed bands. So the jocular answer to your question is that someone born in Transylvania and brought up in Sicily would naturally be oriented toward the study of conflict.
But my interest began as an interest in military history and developed professionally. I may have written all sorts of books with expansive titles like The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, but the professional work I did was in the narrowest area possible. I worked for years with the US. Army Training and Doctrine Command, developing among other things the concept for the new light-infantry division. And that was not just abstract thinking; it was a lot of detail work, like deciding whether mortars should be put at the company or the battalion level, contending with terrific problems like the fact that every battalion has by law to have a chaplain and that every chaplain has to have a driver, so there you have two spaces lost to the battalion, and you’re trying to keep it slim—that sort of stuff.
First I saw these as problems of action. Then I realized that they were problems of concept. And I suppose that in later years I realized that these concepts were themselves driven by fundamental premises.