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How to Plot Your Takeover

Coup d’Etat, a Practical Handbook

by Edward Luttwak
Knopf, 209 pp., $4.95

Ever since Machiavelli intelligent observers have exploited one of the most effective stylistic devices of nonfiction, the contrast between the official versions and the realities of politics. It is an effective device for three reasons: because it is easy (all one has to do is use one’s eyes), because political reality is notoriously at variance with the moral, constitutional or legalistic claptrap which surrounds political actions, and because, more surprisingly, the public can still be readily shocked by pointing this out. Mr. Luttwak is obviously an intelligent and excellently informed observer. One suspects that, like Machiavelli himself, he enjoys truth not only because it is true but also because it shocks the naïve. He has therefore laid out his very able little book on the coup d’état as a manual for potential putschists.

In a way this is a pity, for it both diverts attention from the real interest of the work and somewhat biases his argument. Though it will no doubt be recommended reading in courses organized by the CIA or other bodies with an interest in the quick and efficient overthrow of inconvenient governments, it will not tell experts in the field—and in many countries these include every army and police officer from lieutenant upwards—much that they do not already know and practice, except perhaps to apply some economic rationality to post-coup repression (see the useful Appendix A). Plotters with a literary turn of mind may also benefit from the author’s concise, devastating, and very funny analysis of the different types of communiqué announcing that the country is about to be saved. But on the whole Luttwak’s information, which has shock value in London or Washington, is common knowledge in Buenos Aires, Damascus, or even Paris, where people’s reaction to the appearance of armored cars at streetcorners is based on experience. Those who are most likely to make coups patently don’t need Mr. Luttwak to tell them how.

Who are they? Coup d’Etat makes it clear, and its author knows, that they belong to a rather restricted group, since coups are made by armed forces and practically never by anyone else. This imposes both political and technical limitations which exclude most of us. In spite of Mr. Luttwak’s suggestion to the contrary, coups are not politically neutral. Though officers—and therefore coups—can occasionally favor the Left, the circumstances when they do so are comparatively rare, and not by any means universal even in the underdeveloped world. Unfortunately the author omits to discuss these conditions. The general bias of both officers and coups is in the opposite direction. “Bonapartism” normally tends to be a political move to the conservative side, or at best a corporative self-assertion of the armed forces as a special economic and professional pressure group within the status quo.

Social revolutionary regimes, keenly aware of this ever since the days of Napoleon I, have therefore always (at any rate up to Mao Tse-tung) been the firmest supporters of civilian revolutions and civilian supremacy in politics; even to the point of sacrificing the powerful publicity value of successful generals, to which presidential elections in the USA and elsewhere have long borne witness. The ideal role of the army in classical social revolutions is negative: it ought at the crucial moment to refuse to obey the old regime and after that preferably disintegrate. The Left which puts its trust in progressive soldiers (as in Cuba in the days of the young Batista, and up to 1964 in Brazil) has been more often than not disappointed. Even genuinely red armies are traditionally viewed with caution. When revolutionary regimes need marshals, they have in the past preferred to put civilian party leaders into uniform.

The technical limitation on prospective organizers of coups is, that relatively few people are in a position to subvert the required group of officers. (Non-coms are less promising, and the subversion of troops produces not coups but revolutions.) About the only civilians who can do so are already in government—the country’s own or that of some dominant or influential foreign power, or that of some vast international corporation which can occupy an analogous position in relation to a poor and backward state. Such people can organize a coup comparatively simply and rather effectively, and perhaps for this reason the process is too uninteresting to detain Mr. Luttwak, though it has probably produced more actual coups than any other. Also, of course, it offers little scope for the native self-made coup-leader unless he has first got to the top in his country’s politics.

Anyone else who tries must, as the author shows convincingly, be on such terms of powerful solidarity with his potential recruits as to be able to rely on their discretion even if they refuse to join him. The best way to get on such terms with them is a) to be an officer and b) to share with the other potential plotters some strong emotional bond such as belonging to the same family, tribe, sect (generally a minority sect), ritual brotherhood etc., or the comradeship of a regiment, military academy, club or even of ideology. Of course in countries with a long tradition of coups all officers will consider plans for one as potentially successful, and will therefore hesitate to disclose them. Once, as in the classical Iberian pronunciamento, the tacit convention has been established that men on the losing side will not be seriously penalized (after all, they might be on the winning side some day), the risks of committing oneself to an uncertain adventure are further diminished.

Still, the number of those in any country who can set out to plan a coup with any hope of success is almost as limited as the number of those who can become important bankers. The rest of us had better stick to different kinds of political activity.

But if we can dismiss Coup d’Etat as a manual for plotters, we can appreciate it as a contribution to the study of the structure of political power. A coup is a game with three players (we omit the dominant foreign power or corporation which may hold an effective veto—or the trump cards). These are the armed forces which can make it, the politicians and bureaucracy whose readiness to accept it makes it possible, and the political forces, official or unofficial, which can check or checkmate it. For the success of a coup depends essentially on the passivity of the existing state apparatus and the people. If either or both resist it may still win, but not as a coup. The Franco regime failed as a military putsch, but won after a civil war. Mr. Luttwak has some very interesting things to say about each of these three.

He is probably at his best on the professional soldiers, members of that curious esoteric world which has so little contact with the civilian world, and works in such different ways. The non-professional soldier, the conscript or temporary officer, or in most cases the policeman, however heavily armed, tends to react much more like the civilians to whom he will return or among whom he operates. Separated from the rest of society by a life consisting (in peacetime) of fancydress, instruction and practice, games and boredom, organized on the assumption that their members at all levels are generally rather stupid and always expendable, held together by the increasingly anomalous values of bravery, honor, contempt for and suspicion of civilians, professional armies tend almost by definition to ideological eccentricity.

As Mr. Luttwak rightly reminds us, the politics of officers’ corps are frequently quite different from those of their civilian masters, generally being both more reactionary and more romantic. They are, moreover, untrained and unaccustomed to cope with unusual situations, and therefore naturally seek to assimilate them to usual ones. As the author does not fail to note, one of the most convenient mechanisms for explaining away unusual situations is to see them as just another example of the mess politicians are always making. The situation of professional officers is indeed paradoxical: it combines collective power and individual unimportance. After thirty-five years Germany has not yet quite recovered from the transfer of a few hundred scientists from German to foreign laboratories and universities. Yet time and again armies have actually had their effectiveness improved by the mass emigration, expulsion or other elimination of their senior officers—so much so that one is tempted to believe that few wars can be won unless the military leadership is first purged. But the political power of scientists is negligible, whereas in the right circumstances a half-dozen colonels can overthrow a government.

Bureaucracies have been more written about, and most of us have more continuous experience of them. So Mr. Luttwak’s observations on this subject will probably bring the pleasure of recognition rather than that of illumination. Still, two of his points are always worth remembering. The first is that the only methods that have ever been discovered for controlling the Parkinsonian tendency of bureaucracies, public or private, to grow into infinity, are themselves bureaucratic. One such method consists of setting up another department “which fulfills its instincts by opposing the growth of all other bureaucratic organizations,” a role usually played by the financial bureaucracy; another relies on each empire-building department to do its best to keep its potential rivals in check.

The second observation is that bureaucracies are essentially Hobbesian institutions, which cannot be relied on to defend existing regimes once they suspect that the victory of a new regime is probable. This applies to the police as much as to all other parts of the state apparatus, though with some qualifications. However, Mr. Luttwak fails to note that this does not make them politically neutral. Neither army nor police opposed any resistance to the overthrow of Fascism in Italy, but as recent events in that country demonstrate, the persistence of the apparatus of the Fascist era makes the solution of fundamental problems in post-Fascist Italy almost impossible. Marx’s observations that revolutions cannot simply “lay hold of the readymade state machinery and wield it for its own purposes,” however anxious it may be to be taken over, makes even more sense today than it did in 1872.

Lastly, Mr. Luttwak’s comments on political organizations and movements are original and instructive. Essentially, he argues, we must distinguish between movements geared for real action and those which have settled down to symbolic action such as the organization of voting, the ritual of institutionalized bargaining, or verbal political conflict. Faced with a coup d’état the British Labour Party would be certain, the British Trade Union Congress nearly certain, to do nothing, though the National Union of Students might take to the streets, however ineffectively. On the other hand the major Italian trade union federation, linked with a Communist Party, with a long tradition of political strikes and, what is more important, of liberation from Fascism by direct mass action, could not be relied on to remain passive. Neither could insurrectionary parties, though of course many once insurrectionary organizations have either turned into machines (i.e. distributors of favors and jobs). Or, like some Communist Parties, they may have allowed long political stability to atrophy their capacity for rapid action. Also, insurrectionary parties have the disadvantages as well as the advantages of centralization: once decapitated, they drastically and very rapidly lose their effectiveness.

So far as the special case of coups d’états is concerned, the distinction between political movements which move and those which don’t is sufficient. For in the most favorable case a coup can be defeated by any sign of organized resistance, which immediately reveals the weaknesses of the bid for power, and may also give time for the rest of the armed and civilian apparatus to decide that there is no cause to change sides. In much less favorable cases it may still confront a weak, uncertain, or patchily established new regime with effective resistance. But the interest of Mr. Luttwak’s observations is far wider than this. We are living in a period when various forms of direct action in politics are once again becoming significant in the developed countries. In these countries both the official doctrines of politics and the practical know-how of people in public affairs exclude the politics of extra-legal power. The old have forgotten that governments can be overthrown, or dismissed the possibility from their minds, the young merely believe that they can, but have no idea how. In these circumstances any work which realistically discusses the seizure of power as an operation is particularly helpful.

Mr. Luttwak’s little book should therefore be immensely useful in bringing up to date the political education of all age groups. Students of international affairs, and especially the Middle East, about which the author appears to know a great deal, will also appreciate his remarkably good information. He can be read with pleasure, both for his dead-pan style and above all because he demonstrates that big problems can be adequately treated in short books, if the writer uses words to express thoughts rather than as a substitute for them.

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