Edward Luttwak is a political scientist known for his works on grand strategy, military history, and international relations. Moving to the United States (US) in 1972, Luttwak received a Doctorate in International Studies in 1975 and has served as a consultant to the US National Security Council; the US Department of State; and the US Army, Navy, and Air Force.
While working for the Office of the Secretary of Defense/Net Assessment, Luttwak co-developed the manoeuvre-warfare concept. He also introduced the ‘operational level of war’ concept into Army doctrine while working at the US Army Training and Doctrine Command. Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace is a prescribed textbook in US war colleges and has been translated into several languages. In this review of Strategy, David Hood draws attention to Luttwak’s theory of strategy and its paradoxical, ironic, and contradictory logic.
Edward Luttwak’s Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace is an important work for modern strategists and military practitioners alike. The ‘revised and enlarged’ 2001 edition updates Luttwak’s original published 15 years earlier and presents a robust theory that the logic of strategy is paradoxical, ironic and contradictory.
Luttwak’s objective is to explain a universal logic of strategy ‘that conditions all forms of war as well as the adversarial dealings of nations even in peace.’ This can be done, he argues, not by examining the often ‘absurd or self-destructive’ acts of statecraft themselves in which ‘no logic can be detected’, but by examining the often unintended outcomes of those actions or inactions. Luttwak suggests that by analysing the consequences of statecraft, the paradoxical, ironic and contradictory logic of strategy becomes manifest.
The most important foundation for Luttwak’s theory is that strategy has two dimensions in which its logic unfolds. In the vertical dimension, five different levels—technical, tactical, operational, theatre, and grand strategic—interact but also conflict, because no natural harmony exists between them. In the horizontal dimension, the contest of wills between belligerents plays out through a dynamic interrelationship between action, reaction, culmination, overextension, and reversal.
This Clausewitzian struggle is what gives strategy its perverse, paradoxical logic, and it occurs across all five vertical levels. Luttwak provides several illustrations of the paradoxical logic of strategy, including the often-used adaptation of Vegetius (si vis pacem, para bellum; if you want peace, prepare for war).
The greatest contemporary example of strategy’s paradoxical logic is nuclear deterrence, where defenders must be ready to attack at all times; where being ready to attack in retaliation is evidence of peaceful intent; where preparing anti-nuclear defences is provocative; and where to derive any strategic benefit, the use of weapons must never occur.
Nuclear weapons are therefore necessary, acquired, and maintained at heavy cost, but are strategically unusable.
Luttwak organises Strategy around his two dimensions—Part One focusses on the horizontal dimension, while Parts Two and Three address the vertical dimension. The logic of strategy in the horizontal dimension is explored first from the perspective of a single belligerent. Chapter two then evaluates the logic ‘in action’. With little fanfare, Luttwak eloquently frames the paradoxical logic of strategy within the dynamic contest of wills that is statecraft in both war and peace. His description underpins the remaining arguments of the book:
There are of course at least two conscious, opposed wills in any strategic encounter of war or peace… the paradoxical logic of strategy [is] an objective phenomenon, which determines outcomes whether or not the participants try to exploit it or are even conscious of its workings… we can recognize the logic in its totality as the coming together, even the reversal, of opposites.
And this is a process manifest… in all that is strategical, in all that is characterized by the struggle of adversary wills… when the paradoxical logic of strategy assumes a dynamic form, it becomes the coming together, even the reversal, of opposites. In the entire realm of strategy, therefore, a course of action cannot persist indefinitely.
It will instead tend to evolve into its opposite… Without such change, the logic will induce a self-negating evolution, which may reach the extreme of a full reversal, undoing war and peace, victory and defeat.
The remaining two chapters in Part One analyse the paradoxical logic of strategy at the technical and grand strategic levels.
At the technical level, Luttwak observes that advancements in technology promise much, but in reality provide an advantage only for a short period, as their success and/or vulnerabilities are always countered. Counter-countermeasures then emerge as the contest of wills continues dynamically.
The result is that, paradoxically, technological advances do not normally make significant impacts—less remarkable equipment retains its (modest) utility for longer.
Luttwak does not draw the analogy, but at the technical level his paradoxical logic plays out as one form of the Red Queen Effect. To avoid being outclassed, competitors must continuously evolve in response to enemy strengths, whilst defending their own weaknesses.
Such adaptation is essential, but consumes resources and produces no long-term net benefit: ‘it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.’ Luttwak also makes an observation that should serve as a warning to Western militaries that have in recent times pursued smaller quantities of high quality, often specialised equipment to combat the numerical superiority of traditional and potential future adversaries.
Because such equipment costs more, a drive for economy in production, maintenance, and training often results. This should, however, be avoided, because the resultant homogeneity in systems means that military capability will suffer from common and hence easily exploitable vulnerabilities.
Furthermore, weapon systems that are highly specialised cannot accommodate broad countermeasures. Joseph Stalin was right—quantity has a quality of its own.
At the grand strategic level, Luttwak argues that another paradox becomes evident—political leaders, particularly in democratic states, have great difficulty in acting paradoxically in the manner required by strategy.
This is the result of several factors, including the sheer complexity in undertaking strategy at the grand strategic level, that politicians are unskilled in strategy, and the need for politicians to often act astrategically to preserve their power and authority.
Luttwak cautions that the pursuit of logical national interests can produce undesired strategic consequences:
The consequences of the pervasive contradiction between commonsense [national] aims and [paradoxical] strategic logic… has made history into a record of the follies of mankind… Attempts to project linear logic into the realm of conflict, in search of commonsense cooperative solutions, are fairly frequent.
If we want peace, why not simply have it?
If we agree that weapons are costly and dangerous, why not simply disarm?… of course it is not intellectual error that induces these attempts… but rather the acute temptation to escape from the cruel paradoxical logic.
Other strategists acknowledge the same phenomenon, but in differing lights.
The logical, common sense approach to statecraft described by Luttwak is analogous to that element of Carl von Clausewitz’s paradoxical trinity—policy—that subordinates war to reason. Contrary to Luttwak, however, Clausewitz argued such rationality had a crucial and positive effect on strategy, without which war could approach an otherwise theoretical level of unconstrained chaos, having no strategic value.
Even the ‘first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman [had] to make’ was predicated on the employment of a rational decision-making approach, without which ‘establish[ing]… the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature’ would be impossible.
Like Clausewitz, Colin Gray suggested that rationality at the political level was important.
Gray went further, however, taking an opposing view to Luttwak on the existence of rationality at the political level. Gray argued that there is no ‘Great Objective Strategic Person’ and that defence professionals could be ‘driven to despair by the lack of strategic reason and rationality in public policy’ (emphasis added).
Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow’s work on US decision-making during the Cuban Missile Crisis strikes a more nuanced middle ground, arguing that rational decisions were possible at the government level, but equally likely were non-rational, even paradoxical, decisions, underpinned by organizational or political factors.
For Luttwak, the inability of politicians to act paradoxically—and hence strategically—explains why wars are so often won by the belligerent who can apply superior resources.
Because the quantity and quality of weapons is not a matter of strategy—a linear, economic logic applies to their use—when politicians fail to understand, or choose not to apply strategy, the belligerent that is able to apply superior resources will likely be the victor.
It follows that when neither side acts strategically, the results of statecraft can often be determined in advance by simply identifying who is able to apply the greatest resources.
This is a worrying claim for democratic middle-powers like Australia in the current strategic climate.
Irrespective of, or in some cases despite, grand strategic behaviour, Luttwak suggests that war must eventually turn into its opposite, because it consumes and destroys the material and moral resources needed to keep fighting.
Paradoxically, if measures are applied to end war ‘prematurely’, such as the prevention of military imbalances, humanitarian interventions, and even forced armistices, peace will be driven further from view. In times of peace, the same paradoxical logic conspires to encourage war, for example when a lack of defensive capability invites conquest; or because cultural, economic, social or other changes alter the conditions of strength that previously assured peace.
In war, the capacity to wage further war is ultimately limited by war’s own destruction… In peacetime, by contrast, [almost] every form of human progress… tends to increase war-making capacities, and not in a symmetrical way, thus disturbing the military balances that once kept the peace. If peace did not induce war, there would be no war – for war cannot perpetuate itself.
Part Two of Strategy deals with the lower four levels of the vertical dimension. Success at each level relies on different factors.
At the technical level, weapon systems interact which makes estimating the outcome of any discrete contest relatively easy. These results are, however, the least important strategically because success at one level does not assure success at the next. At the tactical level, skill, leadership, unit cohesion and fortune become important.
At the operational level, particular styles of warfare play out. Attrition fails gracefully but can only succeed cumulatively, whereas manoeuvre fails catastrophically but can succeed with little resources being expended.
The more manoeuvrist the operational style is, the more important is the operational level. At the theatre level, the mobility of forces takes primacy in shaping strategy. Because ground forces are relatively slow, theatre strategy is more relevant for the land domain than it is for air and maritime domains.
Part Three of Strategy is dedicated to the grand strategic level of strategy.
This is the only level where ultimate ends and means are both present. Luttwak suggests that grand strategy can be viewed as ‘a confluence of the military interactions that flow up and down level by level, forming strategy’s “vertical” dimension, with the varied external relations among states forming strategy’s “horizontal” dimension.’
Strategy provides a powerful theory through which to comprehend the nature of strategy.
It also provides a different way to view strategy, compared to the works of other strategists such as Colin Gray, Lawrence Freedman, and Joseph Wylie.
The value of understanding such differences is in broadening our strategic perspective thereby allowing us to interpret circumstances using different lenses. Colin Gray argued that strategy, like war, has an enduring nature but a changing character. Luttwak’s theory suggests that strategy’s changing character is the result of its paradoxical logic.
Perhaps the most fundamental paradox of all is also a sombre irony of the human condition. War and peace are intimately connected; one cannot exist without the other. The paradoxical logic of strategy applies to both.
Wing Commander David Hood is an Aeronautical Engineer working for the Royal Australian Air Force. He holds a Master of Gas Turbine Technology (Cranfield, UK) and a Master of Military and Defence Studies (Australian National University). Wing Commander Hood is currently Commanding Officer of Air Training and Aviation Commons Systems Program Office (ATACSPO).
This article was published by Central Blue on April 19, 2020.