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…

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