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THE PENTAGON AND THE ART OF WAR : by Edward N. Luttwak (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 338 pp.)

February 17, 1985|RICHARD EDER

If hawks have fleas, Edward Luttwak is our superhawks' superflea. His "The Pentagon and the Art of War" was written too soon to comment on President Reagan's decision to raise the military budget while cutting most other things. Quite plainly, he would have applauded it, though not so as to appeal much to Cap Weinberger. "You need even more money," one hears Luttwak telling our defense secretary, "and whatever you get you will spend wrong."

Washington being what it is, it is not inconceivable that Luttwak will deliver the message in person. He is a senior fellow at Georgetown's Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a somewhat maverick member of the town's hard-nose wargame set. Someone once said of the Soviet Union that "It is not Left but East," and one could say of Luttwak that "He is not Right but West." Far West, circa 1882; you see him trotting through the saloon doors to lower a plugged nuclear disarmer from his pommel and a Pentagon general from his cantle.

And just because of this vantage point, and because he writes incisively and wittily, Luttwak has some lucid things to say about the Holy Swamp that absorbs so much of our national wealth and so little of our national awareness. His analysis of our country's war machine recalls another machine devised a quarter century ago. It had 4,000 moving parts and its function was to do nothing. To which one commentator properly remarked: not so--3,999 parts do something, it is only the 4,000th that does nothing.

Luttwak's portrait of our military establishment is that of a great hive of purposeful activity whose means have become so complex and expensive that its end--fighting wars--is fogged. Mainly, this fogginess consists of a bureaucratic difficulty in bending the political and conceptual habits of a rich country's armed forces to the military practice of adversaries who fight poorer but harder. In Vietnam, in the bungled Iran rescue attempt, in our military programs in Central America and even in the "successful" Grenada operation he sees a tendency to redefine reality to fit our tactics instead of the other way around.

El Salvador, Luttwak notes, exemplifies our attempt to equip a Third World Force to fight off an insurgency. We provide such complex and fragile weapons as the M-16 rifle and the M-60 machine gun. "The military bureaucracies," he writes, "obdurately refused to adjust their standard table of equipment to fit the local situation, as if the very complicated, very delicate equipment of the richest armed forces in the world just happened to be right for the very poor and ill-trained troops of El Salvador."

Something beyond military choices are involved here, something to do with national character. To a non-specialist, the military statistics and arguments furnished by Luttwak are hard to judge; what is of more interest are the habits of mind that he discusses.

Luttwak is something of a romantic, clearly. His ideal army is some unlikely amalgam of the British and the Israelis. Leanness, imagination, the ability to improvise, and old fashioned esprit de corps and a loyalty to one's fellow fighters. He deplores the tendency to rotate officers and enlisted men so rapidly that attachment to a unit--a regiment or battalion--is lost. Instead, he writes, there is careerism. During the Vietnam War, commanders of combat units were switched every six months at the expense of morale and efficiency, and mainly so that as many as possible among the swollen ranks of Pentagon colonels could get a mark for battle experience in their promotion records.

The romanticism can be bloody-minded. For the containment of guerrillas, he is dubious about helicopters and gun ships and proposes, instead, "a great deal of patient static defense with the occasional ambush of a betrayed guerrilla band and the harsh punishment of civilians." It sounds like the Black and Tans. More suggestively, perhaps, he wonders whether emphasis upon safety in maneuvers is not depriving them of their usefulness. "Realism is dangerous," he writes. One of Luttwak's complaints is about the excessive number of middle- and upper-grade officers in relation to troops. There are 140 major generals, he points out, and only 17 divisions for them to command. He allows that there are many important staff and administrative functions to fill. Still, he argues, the abundance of colonels has set up unnecessary layers of bureaucracy that stultify the decision-making instead of assisting it.

He writes of a deficit of strategic and tactical thinking. Our officers, he argues, are managers rather than warriors. At West Point, there is no department of military history, he writes. Congressional hearings spend weeks discussing equipment and only a few hours on the strategic justification for such equipment. The real waste in the Pentagon, he argues, is not cost overruns or fraud, it is the billions appropriated to weapons systems for which there is no thought-out rationale.

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