Among contributors to the debates over the military policies of the Reagan Administration, Edward Luttwak has emerged as a major apologist for building up American military strength. His reputation is of brilliant if often caustic analysis, given to going directly against the grain of the assumptions of major policy elites. "On the Meaning of Victory" provides a sampler on widely ranging themes from Luttwak's writings during the period 1979-83.
Luttwak's style is highly polemical, and nearly every chapter in this book is tied closely to a particular set of circumstances. The result is somewhat anachronistic, with Luttwak writing hotly and energetically about this or that issue left behind years ago.
Yet despite the faults of the editing, the book displays a well defined thematic unity, centering on Luttwak's insistence that American policy makers must learn to think strategically about this country's position in the world and what it hopes to achieve relative to the Soviet Union. For him it is the grossest kind of folly to engage in criticism of American military policies and decisions affecting them without such an overall vision.
Compared to most other contemporary analysts writing on military affairs, Luttwak plays the hedgehog, in philosopher Isaiah Berlin's phrase, to their fox: He has "one big idea," that of thinking strategically, to their "great many little ideas" about specific numbers of missiles, costs of this or that weapon, and so on.
The policy-makers in the Soviet Union, he argues, by contrast with those in the United States, have a clear strategic conception. "The Russians have a strategy, and it is an imperial strategy of classic form": theirs is a military empire which must always be thinking ahead to acquiring new territories so as to protect those already acquired. Such is the nature of the Soviet threat, and the United States must recognize it in order to frustrate it. "(T)here is no symmetry of effort between Americans who so reluctantly use a small fraction of their vast wealth to acquire military power and a Soviet regime which imposes enormous sacrifices on its own people and colonizes others in order to increase its military power."
Luttwak's hard-line strategic depiction of the Soviet Union is what puts him most at odds with his opponents. He wants more, not less, "waste, fraud, and mismanagement" in the Pentagon, because military effectiveness is usually purchased at the price of efficiency. Effectiveness also requires that military personnel be trained in the arts of war, not civilian skills like personnel management; that they be formed into cohesive units, not rotated frequently to "get their tickets punched."
Do we want to minimize the danger of war with the Soviet Union as much as possible? Then the answer, responds Luttwak against the arms controllers, the freeze movement, and the Catholic bishops, is not to reduce nuclear arms, for if nuclear weapons were somehow "uninvented," the Soviet Union, with its massive conventional military power, would almost certainly use it to effect against Western nations. It is wise policy for the United States to maintain nuclear forces, both for our own defense and for that of Europe, since the threat of their use denies the Soviet Union the possibility of a relatively cheap conquest.
Is nuclear war bound to escalate to global holocaust? No, Luttwak answers, because prudence would prevent this on both sides of the conflict. Prudence also requires that we maintain a nuclear deterrent to offset the Soviet advantage in conventional forces.
Yet the goal Luttwak defines is not merely to have a reactive strategy, which even if successful would leave the United States always responding to Soviet initiatives. Rather "the meaning of victory" is to be able to take the initiative in the relationship with this aggressive imperial power in ways designed to diminish its ability to threaten the rest of the world.
The chief fault in this collection of essays is its execrable editing. Its chief value is that it draws together in one place some of the best examples of the thoughts of a premier hawk among contemporary civilian military analysts, revealing the fundamental strategic significance of the assumptions behind the arguments he has advanced.