Edward Luttwak Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Strategy: Conversation with Edward Luttwak, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University; by Harry Kreisler, March 10, 1987

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Strategy vs. Everyday Logic

Dr. Luttwak, you are a strategist. Give us a feel for that vocation. First of all, how did you become a strategist?

By accident, of course! I suppose I always had a childish interest in weapons and war. This developed into a layman's interest in military history. Then I had experiences on the scenes of war, as it were, and I started working as a defense consultant. At no time did I think of myself as a strategist, I simply found myself working on very narrow and specific military problems. The strategy came upon me uninvited, as some continuities began to emerge in all these different things and I began to see patterns in it. When one begins to understand those patterns, then one begins to have something general that one can call strategy as part of ones mental equipment.

If you were asked to give a quick sketch of what are the qualities of strategic thinking, what would your answer be?

Well, what is our normal thinking?

Our normal thinking is conditioned by our culture, our normal thinking is pragmatic. That is, we like to be businesslike in our thoughts, about everything, including problems of defense in foreign affairs. "What's the problem? What are the solutions? Let's get on with it." Now, that may or may not be a good idea in any specific case, but clearly it's not strategic. Strategic can be defined, in opposition to that, as being the attempt to uncover the general patterns which lead one to further conclusions, which may show, for example, that what seems to be the right move on this issue, at this time, today, to solve this problem, may in fact bring you to another situation which is much worse than the previous one.

What is the best experiential ground for working with theory? Is it actually having fought in war, observing wars, studying the history of wars?

I suppose one could get to it in all sorts of different ways. You could probably get to it just by shear thinking through. I only know how I got to it, and it was a mixture of all these different things. But what we're talking about is the systematic understanding of just a couple of things. One of them is that when you're operating in the realm of conflict, everything you do evokes a reaction, and that reaction displaces what you're doing. I always like to give the example of the difference between building a bridge and doing anything with strategy. When you're building a bridge, you have a river there. It may be very hard to bridge, and sometimes the river changes course with the seasons, but the river is not watching you building the bridge. It is not deliberately trying to avoid being bridged.

That is the normal situation in strategy, and therefore it is not necessarily right to do the right thing according to the common sense of the situation. Being a good engineer in dealing with rivers may not mean that you are a good engineer in designing weapons of war.

So this is a realm in which an adversary is implicit ...

Always.

... thinking and moving. So, is the analogy here a chess game? Or are you saying something different?

It would be a chess game if there were rules, but the very essence of conflict is that all the rules are abolished. It's not like business competition, because business competition has rules. There may be a fierce market share fight between two producers, and they could battle by prices, quality, advertising, promotion, and so on. But they cannot start blowing up each other's shops. And yet, that's the normal thing in war, which is that you do everything that you can to win. It is a chess game where the chess players are also allowed to wrestle one another, shoot one another, poison one another. And of course, you're not playing on the same board, on the same table, but on two different boards and each can only glimpse a little bit of the other's moves.

I want to pinpoint one other issue here. Are we only talking about situations of war, or are we also talking about war and non-war?

The logic is formed in war, but wars are rare. As a matter of fact, you can say the logic is formed in battle. Now, battles are a great rarity. During the whole Second World War, which lasted six years, the battle days were vary few and far between. War is rare as well. Everybody, more or less, tries to avoid war. We have an official, explicitly declared policy of deterrence, but all sorts of other people who don't see themselves as being nice, peaceful deterrence merchants also are trying to avoid war. In a sense, they are trying to win without having to fight for it.

What happens is that the logic is born out of battle, but then it's projected through war, and from war it's projected through normal life where there is no war, where indeed everybody might be trying to avoid war, but where people manipulate the threat of war in order to do various things (including preventing war), and where the dealings of statespeople and others are conditioned by this background of possible war.

I don't mean just the United States dealing with the Soviet Union, where the threats of war play a role, but the United States dealing with its allies. Let's say we're having a quarrel with the Common Market over chicken imports. Well, the Common Market behavior in that quarrel is influenced by the fact that there may be a war. In that war, the United States would be the indispensable patron and ally, and therefore, how they deal with us on chickens is modified by that fact. Here is an imagined war playing a role in the matter. As soon as this war, however improbable, enters into this equation, with it enters the logic of war, which is different from the logic of everyday life.

How is this logic different? It's not common sense. You're saying that there are certain rules that derive from its uniqueness.

The most fundamental, of course, is that the logic of everyday life, common sense, is causal, linear. If something is good, it's good. It could be better. If something is bad, it's bad. It could be worse. If one thing worked today, it's going to work tomorrow. In war, all these things are wrong. I always like a simple, practical example. If you want to advance to defeat an enemy, and you have a nice, broad, well-paved, straight and short route, you never take that route. You go over the mountains, on a circuitous highway or even a poor path. Why? Because if you do the right and proper thing, the common sense thing in war, then the enemy will be waiting for you and he will defeat you. In order to prevail, you have to go against common sense, systematically, in every choice.

In fact, the key characteristic of the logic of strategy is that it's paradoxical and contradictory right through. And it affects everything -- like in deterrence, when we say, "We don't want war, that's why we have to be ready to attack at any time." What is the use for nuclear weapons? It's a weapon you never use. If you use it, it is useless. I don't think we recognize the degree to which this contradiction, paradox, pervades everything that strategy touches. It is only rarely visible, but in fact, that is the logic of strategy, and it pervades everything.

This difference comes from the fact that your adversary is always doing what you're doing. That is, watching you, reacting to it, so that you're in a constant state of mental alert.

It's not just alert. It's a question that if you do anything that is linear or common sense, predictable, it must fail because it can be anticipated. He can harness all his energy to prevent the accomplishment of what you are doing. That is why, as a rule of thumb in war, whenever you have to ask yourself what will this person do, ask yourself what would common sense suggest and do the opposite. That's a first step in being there. It is, of course, fundamentally different, because we have been trained since childhood to develop our common sense, and extend it and apply it. A lot of people fail in war simply because they can't screw their heads around and suddenly adopt a whole new set of mental habits.

As I hear you speaking, the image that comes to my mind is Errol Flynn in Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men, alert to changing situations, ready to move in an unexpected direction. Now, in reality and over time, our wars are not fought by bands of merry men, but rather bureaucracies, large bureaucracies, and what I hear you saying about the strategic situation strikes me as very incompatible with the ways of military bureaucracy.

Yes, it's true that there's always this problem and that's why, when we examine what happens in wars, we always say that so and so won because he was more flexible. The Germans were able to outmaneuver the British again and again in North Africa because, although both were large bureaucracies, one was more fluid than the other.

But let's not stick to the image of maneuver and agility. There's a much more fundamental logic. This logic has a much more fundamental effect. Take, for example, the question of designing bases and facilities. Let's say you need a place where you repair and recondition your tanks. Now, if you apply common sense logic, the logic of peacetime, what you want is to take a facility, equip it as well as you can, staff the people as well as you can, and this is your repair facility. If you are operating a truck fleet, you have a central repair facility where you repair all your trucks. [But] if you are operating a tank fleet and you have a central repair facility, you are making a terrible mistake. What you should really have is nine or ten or fifteen of them, very dispersed, because otherwise the enemy can prevent you from fielding tanks more than once just by knocking out the one facility.

Now, what is it that drives the civilian operator to have one facility? Economies of scale, the savings of not having to have heavy equipment at each of these places. Let's say you have to have testing equipment that you only need quite rarely, but when you need it you need it, and now because you have seven different facilities, you need seven different expensive sets of testing equipment. Economies of scale, efficiency of the design of the facility. This is where common sense drives you. And what you need for war is the opposite.

In our time, the man who was going to revolutionize the Pentagon was Robert McNamara, and he attempted to bring in efficiency criteria. By your standards, his efforts were bound to fail.

There were always, of course, efficiency tendencies in the system. McNamara was not the first person to come out of the business community and go into the Pentagon. We had a great many of them before him. But, it is true that McNamara's advent to the Pentagon came with a lot of fanfare, and also came with a lot of people. He brought a lot of famous whiz-kids and so on. And what happened was that they tried to implement efficiency measures against a resistant military bureaucracy. The military bureaucracy did not have the gumption or the mental equipment to say, "Wait a minute, we're not resisting because we're hide-bound reactionaries, we're resisting because it's a wrong concept. What you call 'cost-effectiveness' and 'efficiency' is driving us toward doing things that would be great if we were in the civilian world; but we're not. You're driving us toward narrowing down a number of different fighters to one or two, which is very smart if you're trying to get homogenization for civilian production, you have to focus on one truck and produce that. It's wrong in war, where the enemy will be able to use the weak points that any machine has, and exploit them." They just resisted as a bureaucracy, and what happened was that we had a lot of efficiency solutions put into the Pentagon in fact, and they were very harmful. Because, whereas they were indeed efficiency improvements, they were not war-effective.

Next page: The Mistake of Efficiency

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