Edward Luttwak, the uncontained strategist

He is a product — and the embodiment — of twentieth-century conflict

(JeRoen Murré)
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“Christ, Edward! No!” Edward Luttwak has just lunged at me with a knife in the study of the house he shares with his wife in a suburb of obdurate anonymity near Washington, DC. He is giving an unsolicited demonstration of how to most effectively stab someone.

“Let your hand go limp, then feint a punch with your non-knife hand,” he says with gusto, his left fist fluttering around my face, “then stab into the diaphragm upwards. The air will go out of them like a balloon and they’ll drop to the floor. They may live another twenty years,…

“Christ, Edward! No!” Edward Luttwak has just lunged at me with a knife in the study of the house he shares with his wife in a suburb of obdurate anonymity near Washington, DC. He is giving an unsolicited demonstration of how to most effectively stab someone.

“Let your hand go limp, then feint a punch with your non-knife hand,” he says with gusto, his left fist fluttering around my face, “then stab into the diaphragm upwards. The air will go out of them like a balloon and they’ll drop to the floor. They may live another twenty years, but they’ll certainly be out of action for the next twenty minutes.”

The demonstration has come after a brief typology of knives for my benefit — also unsolicited. (“The butterfly knife is the only knife I use when leaving the house. It’s the only practical one, you see.”) It is the type of recondite knowledge — most of it associated with violence — that characterizes Luttwak, author, thinker and, above all, military strategist, who makes his money not so much from books but from consulting for a variety of governments and high-profile individuals.

“And why do you say you’re a Jew?” he asks me soon after we sit down at his kitchen table to drink tea prepared by his Israeli artist wife Dalya. I explain my maternal Iraqi Jewish heritage and mention my relative, the historian Elie Kedourie. His eyes light up. “Did Kedourie go to the Alliance Israélite Universelle boys’ school in Baghdad?” I reply that pretty much all my family there did.

“Aha!” he says — and begins. He won’t stop talking for the next four hours. “So, it was during my first semester at the LSE, and this middle-aged, soft-looking character who worked for the American Jewish Committee came around looking for people who could drive and shoot, which I could do because I had started in the British army at thirteen.”

“You mean the school cadets, Edward?”


He continues. “This is the winter of 1960-61; the French were supposed to evacuate Algeria the following spring, but, without telling anybody, had decided to just abandon the south, which included a small community of mountain Jews. The Algerians didn’t want to let their Jews leave in case they went to Israel, so off we went to get them; it was too dangerous to stop at the roadblocks so the idea was to just shoot your way through. So when I drove, he shot; when he drove, I shot.”

He pauses. “Anyway, the point of this story is to tell you that before we entered Algeria we picked up our truck in Casablanca in Morocco — where in the evening I went to a nightclub that had this amazing belly dancer…” he drifts off momentarily. “In Casablanca, I went to the mellah [Jewish quarter] and saw this teenage Jew — within three or four years, they would all be gone — get off the pavement with his eyes cast down when saw a Muslim man walking toward him. I saw this again and again, Jews walking like beaten dogs in the middle of Casablanca, notwithstanding that there were many rich and influential Jews, some even friends of the king, in the country. It was a scene I never forgot. This is what happens to Jews without machine guns. That’s why we need Israel. The only thing to straighten up Jews is to give them machine guns.”

Another pause. “And, the point of this story is that it was this scene, this attitude of Jewish servitude, that the Alliance Israélite Universelle boys’ school was created to stamp out forever.”

From a single reference point Luttwak’s powerful, chaotic mind has unspooled via several detours to take in, variously: Algerian independence, dhimmitude, the case for Israel and Iraqi Jewish pedagogy, in a dramatic story of great erudition (and at times slightly questionable veracity) with him at its center. This convoluted anecdote is Edward Luttwak in miniature — and he, in turn, in many regards embodies the story of the postwar twentieth century.

Luttwak was born to a Jewish family in Romania in 1942; his home region — the Banat — was never occupied by the Germans, but as the war drew to a close the Russians moved in and the family decided it was time to move on. They went to Sicily, then Milan, and then to England, where Luttwak attended the Jewish boarding school Carmel College. He joined the army cadets, ran away from school and eventually ended up at the London School of Economics (where he roomed with one of the architects of the Iraq War, Richard Perle).

One constant of these early tales — a theme that would go on to characterize his life — is violence. Luttwak was, he says, constantly getting into boyhood fights, then he was in the cadets, and then he apparently rushed off to join a British territorial army regiment and fought in Borneo in the 1960s.

Another constant is languages: he grew up speaking Romanian — which led to Hungarian — but also French “for the dinner table.” By age six he was learning Sicilian, Latin (taught in lieu of Italian) and Hebrew, taught at home. He then, of course, added English at school. He later acquired Spanish “because I spent a lot of time in Latin America” and finally, after many visits, rudimentary Japanese.

He made his name with his 1968 book, Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, ostensibly a study of coups in Africa. But, being Luttwak, he presented it as an instruction manual on how to successfully carry one off: it was a conceit that ensured its success. The book went global after it was rumored that a copy had been found on General Mohammad Oufkir’s corpse after his failed coup against King Hassan of Morocco in 1971.

Luttwak’s life’s work is an engagement with what I would call organized violence: conflict, war, coups and so on, but mainly war, which he defines simply (when Luttwak talks about what he really knows he is rarely less than to the point). “War is never a game,” he says. “War is a struggle of one will against another. War is one male fighting another male and saying, ‘I want to fight you until you say you give up.’ It is a duel on a large scale.” This statement, with its mix of romanticism and slight grandiosity, as well its reference to traditional gender roles, is typical of Luttwak, and indicative of a character and cast of mind honed by the previous century.

Much about Luttwak is anachronistic: he is a generalist in an age where it is seen as unseemly to expound on things beyond one’s narrow field of expertise. He’s an avowed proponent of hard power in an age obsessed with nonkinetic warfare. Above all, he is a self-described “grand strategist” when that subject, with its focus on the classics and, inescapably, endless male generals, is viewed as elitist and even atavistic.

If war is his subject then strategy is his expertise — he is, in the end, an intellectual, not a fighter. His other major work, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which emerged from his dissertation at Johns Hopkins, was seminal in the field, and he has made a career of it ever since. It’s been an interesting one: he has consulted for everyone from South American presidents driven to despair over drug wars to Japan’s late former prime minister Shinzo Abe — who was a friend, Luttwak tells me with pride as he shows me photos of the two of them on his computer. He lands on a photo of himself with the Dalai Lama, who sits meekly as a younger Luttwak gesticulates at him. “That’s the only photo of him listening, not speaking,” he tells me with a chuckle.

According to Luttwak, war and strategy can never be divorced: paradoxes pervade war and generate what he calls a “paradoxical logic” that underpins effective strategy. “Start at the static level of a road,” he says. “Is this a good road or bad? If it’s a nice straight, secure road, that’s where the enemy is waiting for you, so better to go round the back, through the mountains and swamps because the enemy won’t wait for you there. The good road is bad. The bad road is good.” This first, straightforward take is the static concept.

The dynamic logic is more interesting; and apparent to anyone with even a hazy understanding of military history; Luttwak encapsulates it in a single example. An advancing army will keep on winning and advancing until it is so far advanced that it has become weak. Conversely, a retreating army that has been repeatedly beaten as it retreats eventually enters its own territory, closer to its bases, supply lines and a population that supports it and opposes the enemy. The beaten army gets stronger as it retreats; the advancing army gets weaker as it advances. The more successful you are, the more strength can become weakness and weakness can become strength. This is the dynamic concept.

In war, then, “three and three and three are nine, and nine is more than six. But if you add another three, it doesn’t become more than nine, it becomes less: twelve is less than nine.” This speaks to what Luttwak calls the culminating point of success: the peak of success after which everything subsequently declines. “You can chart it on a graph,” he assures me.

Everywhere in strategy, there are culminating points of success. What makes German chancellor Otto von Bismarck greater than Napoleon? It’s that he understood the culminating point of success — and never overshot it. Napoleon did not. He kept winning and advancing, winning and advancing, until he got deep into Russia. His supply lines were overstretched. Winter came. And then, eventually, disaster. The paradoxical logic of strategy intervened. Nine plus three became six.

Bismarck, though, made no such error. “By 1871 he had unified Germany and that idiot Kaiser, of course, wanted to unify the German people like Italians were unified,” Luttwak says. “And Bismarck said, ‘Sorry mate, I am the guy who unified Germany, but I can’t unify the German people because then the resulting Germany would be so big that everybody else would combine and fight us to make it smaller.’ Bismarck stopped at the culminating point of success. Hitler didn’t; and today’s Germany, of course, is much smaller than Bismarck’s Germany.”

This is true strategic awareness, and Luttwak believes it’s so difficult to achieve because it’s about doing one thing when all your emotions tell you to do another. That is a common thing in strategy: “Whenever you have an emotional drive to do something, don’t do it,” Luttwak advises. “Poor Putin, who successfully got South Ossetia and then successfully got Abkhazia and he got Crimea. He then should have stopped and he would’ve been known as a great president. Instead, he tried to go beyond and now he’s in trouble.”

It is ironic to me that this most uncontained of men sees what we might call strategic and emotional “containment” as the ultimate quality of statesmanship. His study, where we talk, is a mix of rows and rows of books — usually on military and geopolitical subjects, in various languages, and including dozens of Loeb Classics (red for Latin, green for Greek) — and military souvenirs, includ-ng the helmet of a Syrian soldier he tells me he shot during the 1967 Six-Day War. “We were about forty meters from each other,” he says with pride.

Luttwak is full of these sorts of extraordinary stories. It was, he told me, during a research interview in 1969 for his book The Israeli Army that Major General Aharon Yariv of the IDF hired him to expand the geographic scope of the intelligence section of the general staff, from the original border countries (and Iraq) to take in key actors like China and Russia and Pakistan.

It was, he explains, this very same general who allowed him to reach the Sinai frontline in October 1973 — arriving at Ariel Sharon’s tent, no less, having been driven there by… wait for it… Topol from Fiddler on the Roof, who had apparently taken a break from London’s West End to rejoin the IDF as a Jeep driver when war broke out. (There was also a story about how some early work for the British security services meant that — after a series of events that I confess escape me — he was somehow able, forty years later, to help his daughter with her work status.)

I was skeptical about some of this, but some time after our interview Luttwak emailed me the acknowledgments for a forthcoming book in which he thanked Yariv, both for Egypt and their collaboration. In this sense, despite the obvious self-mythologization, Luttwak is like Woody Allen’s famous character, Zelig. He may not ape the characteristics of those around him (indeed he is always remorselessly himself), but from the 1967 and 1973 Israel wars to the Prague Spring to various South American drug wars and, over almost fifty years, the US struggle during the Cold War, he was seemingly everywhere in the history of the second half of the Western twentieth century.

When I look at him it is that violent, tragic century that I see etched like the contours of a map in many lines across his face. Even his polyglotism speaks to that age of sundered states and genocide, and of scattered Jews and, above all, of war.

“The persistence of war is an organic reality,” he tells me. “It’s our stubborn companion as we go through history — because international society is organized as states, and once you organize human life as states, you are organizing it as a mechanism that does many things but is at its heart about maintaining spatial control,” he says. “The definition of a state is something that has sovereignty within a geography, and geography by its very nature is exclusive. You can’t have two states overlapping the same property. It all starts with arable farming: this is where my field ends. This is where your field begins. That is how war begins.”

But if it’s a perennial, Luttwak fears the consequences of its disappearing in the West. This might be a good thing were it not that he believes war has powered Western civilization. Europe’s many small, quarreling little countries, he argues, enjoyed constant dynamism due to repeated wars that destroyed everything, forcing its peoples to rebuild them better than before. “And then the warriors would come home and then they would get married and the population would grow,” he adds. “Since Europe abandoned war it has stopped producing people and lost its dynamism — all to be replaced by cautious aging societies. So the secret for Europe’s dynamism was the competition of war.”

Luttwak looks at contemporary militaries — and the politicians who command them — and sees a huge and sharp decline in the tolerance for casualties. In the past, he observes, if a Russian general lost 10,000 men before breakfast, it didn’t particularly hurt his career. Now, though, he says ruefully, Russian generals are more sensitive to casualties and when attacked will withdraw rather than hold the line at all costs. Bill Clinton, he points out, abandoned Somalia because three people got killed.

These are all reasons why Luttwak believes we live in what he calls a post-heroic era. The urge for young males to test themselves is another perennial in his world view, though with wars in decline and the status attached to them much diminished, they choose instead to throw their energies into things like extreme sports. “I was very disappointed when I suggested to some young Italians that they could have a great experience by going to Ukraine and volunteering,” he says. “Some people thought I was joking, but I wasn’t,” he adds, once more ruefully.

It is perhaps inevitable then that the post-heroic age has brought forth the post-heroic soldier. Luttwak looks around and sees a warrior class (not to mention the CIA, a particular bugbear of his) that is palpably unfit. For Luttwak, this is exemplified by US general David Petraeus, a man he says “has never had the rifle in his hand, never shot at anybody, never been shot at” — unlike, of course, Edward, who has experienced both in, apparently, multiple continents (the last time he fired a gun in the field was, he tells me, just a few years ago).

He sees the deleterious effects of generals with no experience of mass industrial war — which is to say twenty-first century generals — in Russia’s invasion of Europe’s biggest country, Ukraine, with a very small army. Luttwak sees this initial mistake then compounded by additional operational mistakes based on what he calls the “perversion” of a whole generation who never held a rifle but were instead obsessed with so-called fourth generation and hybrid warfare.

He continues. “People like Petraeus were wrong on Afghanistan and kept getting the American state to do more to train the Afghan army, which was never anything but a racket. It was nothing but fraud from the first day — and then-vice president Biden said so and was ridiculed by people like Petraeus and opposed by the people now in the White House who said, ‘you don’t know anything about Afghanistan.’ Well, he knew one thing, that the army was a fraud.”

Luttwak sees the failure of Afghanistan as a result not so much of historical forces or the terrain but of various generals like Stanley McChrystal, who were simply unable to tell “real soldiers from phony ones.” To make his point he reaches for a historical analogy: when World War One started, the Belgians, the French and the British had a lot of combat experience in colonial wars, while the Germans had no combat experience at all. It took several months for the British and French in Belgium to understand that any officer with colonial experience was a menace because they all tried to fight as they had in Africa and India, but against a mechanized enemy. In his telling, Petraeus and McChrystal were modern-day Field Marshal Haigs, unable to effectively fight the wars they were tasked to lead.

It’s odd to hear Luttwak, a man who has so little time for the left, speak favorably about a Democratic president, until it occurs to me that Biden, too, is very much a product of the twentieth century. He doesn’t have anywhere close to Luttwak’s brains or learning, but both men were formed in the postwar and Cold War worlds. Both have little time for modern doctrines they see as frivolous or useless. They are not totally wrong either — Putin’s invasion of Ukraine last February shows that he had once more embraced hard power over hybrid, or at least, more non-kinetic, warfare. Though it was clearly an error to do so.

Luttwak is a man who, with his migrations and obsessions, finally, emerges from the crises and traumas of the last century. It is these that he carries within him, and that continue to inform his work, as the second decade of this century descends once more into crisis and trauma.

If he is an intellectual addicted to real world experience, he is also a recognizable type from Western history: the Wandering Jew. Luttwak’s intellectual touchstone is war, and he considers it through the lens of history, and its attendant, strategy. And because he is now an American, he has monetized his wanderings and obsessions into consultancy. There can little be more emblematic of the late twentieth-century West than that.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2023 World edition.