Interview with Edward N. Luttwak

Edward N. Luttwak is a  senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.  He is an expert on present day military and strategic issues, and has served as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force, and a number of allied governments as well as international corporations and financial institutions.

In 1976 he wrote The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, which examined questions about the Roman army and its defense of the Roman frontier.  He has now written The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, which has garnered much attention and strong sales.

We interviewed Dr. Luttwak by email:

Your academic work has been mostly geared towards writing about present-day military strategy. But you have now written two books that looks about the military strategy of two historical empires, with your first book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third, and with this new book, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Why did you want to examine these historical periods and write these books?

For very different reasons . The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third , is merely my Johns Hopkins PhD dissertation. At the time, I was already working part-time as a Pentagon consultant but I chose the subject because no theme in contemporary strategy was anywhere as interesting as the simple question of how Rome defended its territories (and added to them, now and then). Also, I did not want to waste my days reading the stultified & chaotically duplicative literature of “political science” in which Strategy is imprisoned, when I could read instead in the often elegant, multi-lingual literature of Roman imperial studies.

By contrast, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire is the ultimate result of crass ignorance: when I started out thirty years ago, I foolishly thought I could quickly add a Vol II to the well-received Roman book. I soon discovered that the worthwhile literature –even on the general history of the empire –was downright sparse, and that in the strategic realm the most important texts remained unpublished. Second, I discovered that instead of the great edifice of Roman imperial archeology and epigraphy with its wealth of material evidence, one had to rely perilously on narrative sources, few of them well-edited. As I pursued my much-interrupted research over the years, Byzantine studies emerged from near-nullity to make great advances which allowed me to continue –by then I was far too fascinated by the great epic of Byzantine strategic success to give up. Also, in contrast to the Roman book in which I inferred the strategy from conduct, the Byzantines had written it all down in guidebooks and field manuals, in a series of writings especially fascinating in themselves for one who has participated in the writing of modern field manuals

The traditional perception of the Byzantine empire was that they were not particularly effective in military matters. Many readers will probably be able to recall some of their significant defeats, such as the fall of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade (1204) and its later, more permanent fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. But your work wants us to focus on how the Byzantines were able to develop a military strategy that allowed it to fend off “successive waves of invaders for more than eight hundred years.” Could you tell us how do you believe the Byzantines were so successful for such a long period?

The traditional perception is flat wrong — it derives from the Enlightment’s “black legend” of Byzantine decadence (Gibbon, Voltaire et al hated their religiosity) . The eastern empire reacted to the unprecedented threat of Attila’s Huns by inventing a new strategy that saved it in the immediate crisis of the fifth century, and then (after Justinian’s short-lived reversal) and gradually evolved into an entire corpus of concepts, rules & techniques based on a single, paradoxical, principle: do everything possible to raise, equip and train (above all) the best possible army and navy, and then… do everything possible to use them as little as possible. Instead of seeking the battle of attrtition and annihilation in the classic Roman manner, every alternative was to be tried to avoid , or at least minimize the destructive “attrition” combat of main forces. Instead, potential enemies were to be dissuaded, bribed, subverted, weakened by getting others to attack them, sidetracked into other ventures; if enemy forces attacked nonetheless, they were to be contained and delayed by skirmishing, feints and demostrations while the search went on for other powers near or far willing to attack or at least threaten the enemy power; if enemy attacks persisted nonetheless, they were to be met by countering maneuvers designed to exhaust them rather that the destructive combat of main forces, the very last resort. It was not only the precious trained manpower of the empire that this strategy wanted to conserve, but also the enemy’s …because today’s enemy could become tomorrow’s ally.

Two of the most important factors for the success of the Byzantine empire was their ability to use diplomacy and intelligence. Were the way the Byzantines understood these terms or practiced them different from the way the modern world makes use of them?

Not different at all, but their importance was very different, as compared to contemporary practice , not only in the United States.  Intelligence was deemed all important as the only basis of…intelligent action; the Byzantines could not have survived for long with our mix of competent diplomacy, very competent armed forces, and very mediocre Intelligence –even plain language skills are lacking–as well as outrightly incompetent spies and covert operators (I have seen them in inaction, a sad spectacle) . As for diplomacy, for the Byzantines it was the first instrument of statecraft; in addition to other sticks and carrots, it was often powered by bribes–the Byzantines would have ridiculed Robert Goodloe Harper’s 1798 slogan “Millions for defense but not one penny for tribute” , given that there are so many pennies in a million.

Your work suggests that we should take a look a closer look at the long term military strategy of states. Should other medieval historians look into doing this, for example the strategic methods of the Abbasids or the Venetians, and if so, how would you suggest they approach this topic?

For the Abbasids there is much of great interest (they are of course encountered in my book), but the sources are very poor. For Venice the sources are splendid, the general historiography that would provide the context is highly developed, and if anyone will fund the project (incl. a sunny suite on the Grand Canal) , I am prepared to sail tomorrow to study in situ the archival evidence of how strategy was made in memoranda , correspondence, official papers (generous grantors take note: I do know Veneto..) . Seriously, there is much to be studied, including the evolution of the Venetians from insignificant Byzantine subjects to auxiliaries, then allies, then enemies, from defenders of Constantinople to its looters of 1204 (St. Mark’s has aptly been described as a beached pirate ship in stone), and there are great changes of strategic direction that are eminently worth studying.

Finally, you also wrote an article in the journal Foreign Policy entitled “Take Me Back to Constantinople: How Byzantium, not Rome, can help preserve Pax Americana” where you go on to show what lessons from Byzantine statecraft would be useful for the United States. Why did you want to write this article, and how would you respond to the criticism that the world of Byzantium is too far removed from modern day America to make such lessons valid?

I cannot refute that criticism– I can only confess: yes, I sinned against Clio who must be served, not exploited by facile historical analogies (they are all facile). I was seduced into sin by a devilishly persuasive editor, who reacted over-enthusiastically to the book and actually wrote the heading and opening paragraph…. But having confessed most humbly, I must nevertheless recognize that in extreme cases something can perhaps be learned from the Byzantines after all. For example, instead of keeping tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan at a cost of roughly one million per soldier per year, for an annual expenditure of more than forty billion dollars to fight perhaps 25,000 Taliban, the Byzantines would have sent a couple of Pashtu-speaking eunuchs to the Khyber Pass border with bags of gold to buy out and relocate Taliban leaders and followers–and they would have run out of Talibs to purchase long before spending four billion, let alone forty…

We thank Dr. Luttwak for answering our questions.

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