Readers with less than fond memories of Edward Luttwak’s tendentious Commentary story of a couple of years back, “Why We Need More Waste, Fraud, and Mismanagement in the Pentagon,” will be surprised by this book, which is first-rate. Luttwak’s great strength is that he really knows what he’s talking about—by virtue of the quality of his sources and the years he has devoted to the subject, he’s absolutely not blinded by the smokescreen of manly technobabble that emanates from the Pentagon. Much of the ground Luttwak covers will be familiar to those who follow the foibles of the military. Weapons are gold-plated past the point where they work; the officer ranks are swollen with ticket-punchers; interservice rivalry is the real determinant of how things are done; the Grenada operation was a military embarrassment dressed up as a great victory for public relations purposes. What Luttwak adds to all this is a tone of complete authority. One has the feeling that he knows the difference between the real screw-ups and the things that can be made to look like screw-ups, but aren’t really. He also deserves credit for being a member of the small band of conservative military experts (George Kuhn of the Heritage Foundation is another) with the guts and the knowledge to attack the Reagan “rearming of America” as the greatest government spending spree of all time, devoid of military logic. In particular, it’s refreshing to find a mil-symp who sees through John Lehman, the secretary of the Navy, a master of the Washington game who has walked away with the store budgetarily for the strategically questionable goal of a 600-ship Navy.

Two quibbles: First, Luttwak is extremely wary of the military reform movement and of cutting the defense budget. In this he reflects the views of the thoughtful, concerned officers who seem to be his main sources. These people feel that the reformers are wolves in sheep’s clothing—that is, liberals whose real goal is to eviscerate the military (in this view, that’s what all liberals want). In the Pentagon, there is the feeling that if one wants to criticize the F-15, or the Aegis cruiser, or the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, that’s fine, but one has to prove one’s bona fides by saying the budget still needs to be bigger. There is still an extremely strong us-against-them feeling in the military, accompanied by a sense of life on the outside that’s hazy at best. Typically, smart military people (and Luttwak) will wave off any concerns abut the deficit by saying, “cut welfare” or “not our problem.” The cultural divide between military and civilian is by now practically the main impediment to reform. If the like-minded inside and outside the Pentagon could ever get together, they’d be unstoppable.

Second, Luttwak’s solution to the mess, a “national defense staff” that would replace the Joint Chiefs, is a good idea—there’s plenty of reason why so many people want to abolish the Chiefs, who tend to be just lobbyists for their services—but it’s outweighed by the weight of the condemnatory detail that has gone before. Luttwak has done such a good job of convincing us that the Pentagon is rotting from top to bottom that he makes it hard to believe that one simple change is the answer.

Nicholas Lemann

Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker. His most recent book is Transaction Man.