From Prussia to Israel and Back: Military Strategy in the Age of Data


Edward Luttwak

On behalf of ORTEC, Mathijs Rotteveel spoke with Edward Luttwak. The highly regarded military strategist and consultant to governments around the world, is currently a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C. and has just authored the book “The Rise of China vs. the Logic of Strategy.”

Over the past four decades, Edward Luttwak has made provocative and often deeply original contributions to multiple academic fields. He has published articles on a wide range of topics including: military strategy, Byzantine history, the US invasion of Iraq and economics. He recites poetry and talks economics in eight different languages and owns an eco-friendly ranch in Bolivia.

Talking Strategy

Today, he’s talking strategy. In particular, military strategy implemented in business operations, which according to him, is a really peculiar thing to try. Of course he knows Henry Mintzberg’s definition of strategy: “Everything that’s important is strategic.” That doesn’t mean he agrees with Mintzberg. On the contrary, according to Luttwak, “First, I think strategy is only used in conflicts. Logical strategy tries to understand the logic of conflict. Strategy won’t help you in a factory or in the daily running of your shop. When you run a shop – and with any successful business – there are rules. There could be a tough fight about market share between two shops. They’ll battle over quality, prices, advertising, promotions, etc. But, you cannot shoot your competitor. In war that would be a normal thing to do. You would do everything to win. War is a chess game during which you can poison your opponent. So, when you are a great player in business competition, it doesn’t say anything about your strategic capacities and vice versa.”

Understanding the Opposition

The most important aspect of conflict strategy Luttwak says, is to understand the opposition. For him, that’s the key point that makes the difference between victory and defeat: proper assessment of the enemy. “To get to know your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses you have to overcome the barrier of conflict,” he says. “And you have to feel at least some kind of sympathy for him. This usually does not happen during conflicts. Most people develop violent prejudices preventing them from properly investigating the enemy, who consequently will be able to hide its strengths and weaknesses.”

The fact is that in daily life armies rely on predictability and stability. This is a huge and unnecessary problem according to Luttwak. In his opinion, the best soldiers are the most creative ones. Not the ones that battle with the most aggression but, the ones who think about how to win wars without big sacrifices.

“If your enemy has a strong cavalry and weak infantry: be creative and bring the battle to the mountains,” states Luttwak. “That’s bad for the horses…they won’t be able to move swiftly up and down the hills. Army leaders should force their officers to be creative. Instead of making useless rules and structures they should force officers to become interested in the enemy. In order to find their strengths and weaknesses they must read their poetry. That’s a huge challenge in current military education.”

Asked about the best, the most creative, armies in military history Luttwak elaborates about the experimental qualities of the Roman army. “In every corner of the empire, the Romans adapted the best features of their enemies. The famous Roman sword comes from Spain. The slingers and people that handled them, came from the Balearic Islands near the coast of Spain. And, the light cavalry came from the Mahgreb, in Northern Africa.”

Von Clausewitz

From the Romans Luttwak leaps 1800 years to that other legendary military force: the Prussians. General Carl von Clausewitz (1781-1831) serves as one of Luttwaks favorite intellectual examples. “At the end of the nineteenth century the Prussians had a brilliant organization, including a liberal culture. Military thinker Von Clausewitz was a regular visitor of the same Berlin salons the great composer Felix Mendelssohn frequented. As part of the cultural elite, he and other Prussian generals were creative and open minded. That’s the main reason for their extraordinary victories during the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. Afterwards, that they became obnoxious and arrogant and lost a lot of their creative thinking.”

Fast forward a few centuries and Luttwak concludes with the modern Israeli army. As an example of its creativity, he describes how an Israeli civilian that invented what we now call a drone. “He heard on the radio that an Isreali plane was shot down above Egyptian territory killing two pilots. Soon after, he learned that this plane was only carrying a camera to spy on the Egyptians. He ran to a store to buy a Sony camera. In one day, he attached the camera to his sons model airplane and took it to the Israeli army. Nine months later the first Israeli military drone was flying in the air.”


It’s all about the will to innovate, adds Luttwak, and the need for all people in an organization to keep that goal in mind. “They have these green boxes in the Israeli army. Everyone who sees something stupid puts in an idea – which, when good – goes all the way up to the top. They have a green book with all the rules and regulations. When a new idea gets adopted they publish the idea in that book. Going forward, we are going do it another way. Thanks to soldier…” It sends a message to your soldiers: everybody with a good idea is taken seriously.”

Luttwak adds that many armies have tried to copy the Israeli’s, but most of them got stuck in their own bureaucracy and were not able to fulfill promises made to their employees. “It’s about the way you do it,” Luttwak says. “The American army and the NSA can learn a lot from the Israeli army. Take the NSA-scandal, about the gathering of telephone data. They should have used their intelligence before collecting everything.”

Luttwak tells the story of the famous mafia don, John Gotti, who in the sixties never used a phone. “That’s why the federal cops had to extensively wiretap every place he was known to frequent in order to get enough evidence to convict him. Today, the New York Police Department listens to many phone conversations. This way of investigating is much more important and complex. Everybody understands how a gun works. Not how computers or phone tapping works.’

What Luttwak doesn’t understand is why the NSA and the American police forces don’t use their eavesdropping activities in a more intelligent way. Why they leave “so much money on the table.”

One Dimensional Data Gathering

“It’s a banal thing the authorities are doing now. They gather information in a one dimensional way. What they should do, is also feed the other side with parts of information, with lies. Give the opposition misinformation. Do not only gather info, but feed them and let them think they are winning. First set a clear strategy, then use the available instruments to get to your goal. That’s the way great armies like the Romans and the Prussians did it and the Israeli’s still do. In the US it’s the other way around: they gather as much data as possible and then they’ll decide what they want to do with it. That’s obviously not the way to go.”

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Mathijs Rotteveel
Dutch journalist and author working and living in Ireland.


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