Rating: 4 out of 5.

In a way, I consider the last few weeks of reading Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn to have been a pleasant indulgence.  Fantasy was my first true love in reading, even if it was the Little House on the Prairie series that pulled me into reading anything substantial; before that, all I would read were these little nonfiction pamphlets on things like circuits and zoology that were mostly pictures.  It will probably always be my true reading love, no matter how much I enjoy classic science fiction, or am endlessly fascinated by the things I learn in the historical and nonfiction pieces that I read.

As they say, however, variety is the spice of life, and the herb is time, so while we ponder what the protein of this peculiarly seasoned dish of life might be, I knew fully well that I would be reading several nonfiction books after finishing my semi-accidental trilogy read.  I was even looking forward to it, though I had yet to decide what I would read.  Eventually, I settled on Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook , which has been on my reading list for so long that I no longer remember how it landed there in the first place.  While it may not be a fantasy novel, it was absolutely an interesting book, and an excellent transition back into the “real world.”

That title is no understatement.  Bloodied copies of this book have been purportedly discovered amongst the most worn possessions of failed coup leaders, which Luttwak is quick to disclaim as being evidence that they did not amply take to heart his text’s lessons, and not a suggestion that his instructions are flawed.  I’m inclined to support his assertion, as while the book can be quite granular in its instructions, I could well see it being difficult to properly execute all of these steps, and even a coup attempted perfectly compliant with these instructions might not succeed if certain pieces don’t behave appropriately.

This might be a good time for a disclaimer: I am not advocating for a coup d’état.  I don’t have any intentions of staging a coup, of participating in a coup, or of supporting a coup, anywhere.  Just as the author asserts that he originally wrote the book as a piece of political science attempting to explain the phenomenon that is the coup d’état, which he found other treatments failed to do adequately, I read this book for its historical and political science information, not for the ‘practical handbook’ side of the equation (although I would be curious to know how the author came up with the quite brilliant idea of framing his academic examination of coups as a self-help book for would-be coup masters).  The closest I intend to follow this book’s instructions is in having my characters conduct more realistic government overthrows if the book and the plot and the world are appropriate for such a maneuver.  Hopefully that will assuage the worries of any intelligence analysts who flagged this post; there’s no need to add me to any lists.

Speaking of the world being appropriate for such a maneuver, one of the most immediate and useful pieces of information in the whole book was a discussion on just what constitutes a coup d’état.  The definition, according to Luttwak, is quite distinctive, and cleanly separates coups from other forms of government overthrow, like revolutions, civil wars, insurrections, putsches, and foreign takeovers.  Three main factors make coups distinct in this paradigm: they are fundamentally non-ideological and serve purely to elevate the coup leaders and their associates without an associated significant change in governance, when properly executed they ought to be bloodless or close to it, and they are inextricably dependent upon the modern bureaucratic state apparatus.

 So yes, while you might have preconceived notions of coups as violent overthrows of the rightful government by the evil forces of the far right military generals, I’m afraid that would actually be considered a putsch.  You probably also have notions about what sorts of countries are likely to be susceptible to coups: they’re probably in places like Africa, South America, and the Middle East.  While some of the Middle Eastern events could arguably be called something other than coups, that debate is beyond the scope of this post or of the book; I have several entire books on my reading list specifically studying the complexities of that region and why it has its current characteristics.  More interesting to me were the mentions of coups in places that you probably don’t associate so readily with coups: places like Spain, or Italy, or even France (if I recall correctly, although I also think that particular coup failed).

Which bring us to the conditions that make a government ripe for a coup, which seems to be one of the main reasons that Luttwak wrote this handbook, and his discussion provides several fascinating insights.  Key conditions he identifies include: an illiterate and/or poorly educated populace unaccustomed to political involvement, a complex state bureaucratic apparatus, and a minimally legitimate/active current government leadership.  This is quite illustrative, I think, of why many of the states where a US-style constitution was put in place failed to become successful and stable democracies and ultimately fell victim to coups and other forceful changes in government.  It also prompts the observation that, while today the post-colonial movement is viewed as a moral awakening, at the time it was a more economic consideration: the European colonial powers were broke following World War II, and could no longer sustain their colonial investments.

Mostly I’ve focused here on the theoretical discussions that this book includes about the underpinnings of coups, but it’s not referred to as a “Practical Handbook” for nothing; Luttwak is unafraid to dig into the gritty details of such technical matters as recruiting participants in your coup, avoiding the local intelligence services, picking and prioritizing targets, assembling a timeline, composing teams, and even where to place roadblocks.  He provides thorough examples and references, and case studies of both successful and failed coups.  The book as a whole is addressed and written as if the reader were in fact trying to plan a coup and conspiring with the author, and it is structured accordingly.

I don’t know if you looked at the title of this post and thought that it looked like an interesting book, or if you thought more “what crazy thing is he reading now,” but it really was a fascinating, and surprisingly quick read.  Again, I don’t encourage you to plan to overthrow your government, but I do encourage you to read this book.

One thought on “Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s