THE 1970s SAW the rise of a new school of strategic thought in the United States. These strategists inveighed against America's post-Vietnam loss of nerves, reflected in a reluctance to contemplate any exercise of military power, no matter what the challenge to American interests, and an eagerness to conclude a strategic arms agreement with the Soviet Union, no matter what the terms. They were at the forefront of the campaign against the ratification of SALT II, saw themselves vindicated by the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan during the last days of the 1970s and went on to provide the intellectual impetus behind the rearmament program of the Reagan administration.

Edward Luttwak is one of the most outstanding of this school. He is known for a trenchant, polemical style. This is bolstered by a wide scholarship. Where a previous generation of strategists turned to systems analysis for guidance, Luttwak is liable to turn to the experience of the Roman and British empires.

Most of these essays were written during the height of his influence from 1979 to 1983. They convey the mood of those campaigning days. These days are, as Luttwak acknowledges, almost apologetically in a preface, "so near at this writing by the calendar, yet already so remote in spirit." The book therefore is in some ways dated. It opens, for example, with "Ten Questions About SALT II" which few still ask while there is little attention to topical issues. Nevertheless, the republication of these essays provides us with an opportunity to assess the intellectual background to the shift in American strategic thinking that occurred over this stormy period.

For Luttwak, strategy is almost a creed, a distinctive way of life, and not just a generic form of practical reasoning. "The Way of Strategy is not given to all," he writes. Excluded are "narrow-minded" bureaucrats and bookkeepers. We are warned that "There is no free lunch in strategy" and that "strategy always demands far more than mere talk from those who would practice its arts."

Strategy is here something much more than an open question about the possible utility of military force in certain contingencies but a combative approach to international politics, confident in the military instrument so long as it is properly maintained and respected. According to Luttwak, the United States put itself in danger by failing to follow the Way of Strategy. At the nuclear level, the obsession with mutual assured destruction obstructed the development of options to cope with a failure of deterrence. At the conventional level, there was neglect of the most basic military skills. Meanwhile the Soviet Union was a true and accomplished follower of Strategy, even while failing in the Ways of Economics.

THE CHARGE is that the military establishment became so caught up in bureaucracy and bookkeeping that it forgot to master strategy and tactics. In an atmosphere of political complacency, the supposed imperative of peacetime efficiency crowded out the genuine needs of combat effectiveness. This was exposed whenever America's fighting men went into action. From Vietnam to the debacle of the failed rescue attempt in Iran, the United States paid the price of allowing its military goals to be determined by cost-effective procurement and convenient manpower policies, rather than by the dictates of strategy.

When the Reagan administration arrived, apparently prepared to revive America's military strength, Luttwak argued that the Pentagon must now get its priorities right. This, he wrote in one of his most celebrated essays, reproduced here, might involve more "waste, fraud & mismanagement" -- not less -- if civilian goals were not to impede the revival. Four years later, we might wonder whether evident waste, fraud and mismanagement have really been no more than unfortunate side-effects of an honest pursuit of combat effectiveness.

While Luttwak has many telling points to make about conventional strategy, his arguments are far from compelling when applied to the nuclear area, simply because the destructiveness of these weapons has made it extraordinarily difficult to consider their use in the same terms and in the same spirit. This has consequences for the overall approach to international politics. If even followers of the Way of Strategy hesitate when confronted with nuclear weapons, then their overall combativeness is going to be undermined in the modern world. Without an escape from the constraints of mutual assured destruction (not yet in sight after five years of the Reagan administration) then perhaps we are doomed to follow the Way of Caution and Responsibility.

That is true at least with the Soviet Union. Luttwak is not only interested in confrontation with the Soviet Union; he is ready to take on anyone threatening American interests. In the years since the initial publication of these essays, this stance has not become more compelling.

The market has undermined the basis for a Saudi-inspired oil embargo far more effectively than could have been done by the sort of military intervention so carefully outlined in chapter 14. Is Luttwak as sure now about the wisdom of Israel's intervention in Lebanon? He wrote in 1980 that the Soviet Union had been able "to decide the outcome of the conflicts in Angola, Ethiopia, and Indochina." But those conflicts remain undecided and Iran remains hostile to Soviet power. Perhaps the Way of Strategy is not quite so effective or rewarding after all!