The Double Life of a Military Strategist

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Anyone who writes a book called Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook is bound to be an interesting individual, but Edward Luttwak goes so far as to lead a double life as a public intellectual and an operator:

There’s one thing Edward Luttwak wanted me to know, before he asked if I had a cell phone, and if so, could I turn it off and remove its battery, presumably if improbably so that he couldn’t be traced. We were sitting in his office library in his family’s sprawling Victorian home in suburban Chevy Chase, Md., full of books from floor to ceiling in Greek, Latin and from the modern era, volumes by Clausewitz, Walter Lacquer, Theodore Draper’s account of Iran Contra and thousands of others. These included a recent U.S. Military Balance survey, cataloguing the F-14s, F-7s, Phantoms and every other significant piece of military anti-air equipment estimated to be held by Iran — statistics that Luttwak looked up and ticked off during the course of our interview.

“I am an operator,” Luttwak said.

Indeed he is, one who carries out field operations, extraditions, arrests, interrogations (never, he insists, using physical violence), military consulting and counterterrorism training for different agencies of the U.S., foreign governments and private interests. When we met, in February, the Drug Enforcement Agency was his latest client; Luttwak says he went to Colombia to help arrest and deliver a couple of Mexican drug runners wanted by the DEA.
Why is this 65-year-old intellectual — on the editorial boards of Harper’s, Britain’s Prospect and France’s Geopolitique, an emeritus fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — still in the business of arresting fugitives and interrogating drug dealers, I asked Luttwak. It was evident he didn’t even believe in some of the missions he was doing (the drug war is futile, he howled, a fraud, and the heads of the DEA know it’s a fraud). Is it a thrill? Luttwak admitted, that yes, it’s thrilling. He enjoys the physical thrill of it all.

Born to a wealthy Jewish family in Arad, in Transylvanian Romania, in 1942 during World War II, Luttwak and his family fled soon after to Italy, where his father started one of the first Italian plastics factories. At the age of 9, he was sent off by his family to a Jewish boarding school in London, where he would later attend the London School of Economics. Given his background — part cosmopolitan, part refugee — from all over Europe, it’s no surprise that Luttwak speaks a half dozen languages fluently and with evident pleasure (his phone message at home is in three languages). He still travels frequently to Europe, South America and Asia for his consulting assignments. In addition to their Maryland home, Luttwak and his wife, sculptor Dalya Luttwak, also own an ecologically friendly cattle ranch in Bolivia. (Luttwak, who told me he conducts his family’s Passover Seder in the ancient Aramaic, says he doesn’t consider himself religious, but enjoys the traditions.)

Luttwak’s career as an international defense consultant, military strategist and operator, was launched when, in 1968, as a 26-year-old graduate of the London School of Economics, he wrote what would become his seminal book, “Coup d’etat: A Practical Handbook,” about how countries and groups can both launch a junta and protect themselves from one, and which, Luttwak noted proudly, is still in print some 40 years later. “This short book is…wicked, truthful, and entertaining,” the New Yorker wrote in its review of “Coup,” which has been printed in 14 languages. Recruited to Johns Hopkins after advising the French, Israeli and other governments on military matters, Luttwak earned a PhD in international relations and started consulting for the U.S. Department of Defense, military services, the National Security Council, State Department and nascent U.S. special operations command. Soon he was doing actions for, among others, the undersecretary of defense for policy in El Salvador.

(Hat tip to Joseph Fouché.)


  1. I wonder if Luttwak gets asked for his autograph when he’s doing an interrogation or extradition.

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