Friday, August 13, 2004

Book Review: Intelligence in War by John Keegan

John Keegan's Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napolean to Al-Qaeda is a strangely unsatisfying book. It's quite readable, combining Mr. Keegan's unsurpassable erudition in military history with a readable format, focussing on eight episodes of the intersection of warfare with various forms of intelligence. As eight individual case studies, it's an excellent read for those looking at the tactical utility of intelligence in specific parts of specific conflicts.

Where it fails is in its attempt to form a grand framework, to analyze and illuminate the use of intelligence in strategic and theater conflicts. Because it's written as a military history, the predominant theme is how the intelligence affected the force of arms -- not how intelligence might have been used or ignored in preventing conflict or making a given conflict a foregone conclusion before it started.

This is not, in short, a comprehensive history of intelligence in war or its evolution so much as a rather selective examination of campaign warfare remarkable for how it was affected by changes in intelligence methods and their contexts in the last two centuries.

Mr. Keegan buries his lead, as it were, in the middle of the book in his concluding remarks on the great US Naval victory at the Battle of Midway:

There are no examples in military history of a state weaker in force than it enemies achieving victory in a protracted conflict. Force tells...Midway demonstrates that even possession of the best intelligence does not guarantee victory.
And in his final concluding essay in the last chapter, Mr. Keegan writes
Foreknowledge is no protection against disaster. Even real-time intelligence is never real enough. Only force finally counts.
Therein, I believe, is the essential flaw with this book. Written in the context of the continuing debate over the intelligence leading up to the Iraq war, it seems Mr. Keegan reached a conclusion prior to commencing this work: bad intelligence doesn't really matter. That all his case studies are drawn from conficts between nation-states, and the current conflict is not sucha conflict, underscores the fact that while these case studies are fascinating in their own right, they do not necessarily have direct lessons for the present nor does his conclusion about the ultimate role of intelligence have application outside the more narrow scope of small theater operations.

This weakness is particularly noticeable in the poor choice of title for the book and the weak coverage on topics that those not interested in military history per se might be looking for. Al-Qaeda scarcely gets a page; the Hussein regime in both Gulf Wars gets even less. The chapter titled "Military Intelligence Since 1945" is truly just about the Falklands War of 1982, and seems titled merely to lead the reader to expect more illumination of recent events. Much of the end of that chapter and the final chapter is a recounting of the major details of the eight case studies, as if it had been written first and then fleshed out with the case studies in detail. The cover ominously features Hitler and Osama Bin Laden, although neither figure plays much of a role in the case studies presented.

It may also perhaps be misleading to say this book is truly focussed on intelligence and intelligence-gathering. Each case study is in fact a short military history of the episode covered: Nelson's pursuit of the French fleet leading up to the Battle of the Nile; Jackson's 1862 Shenandoah campaign; the German "Cruiser War" of 1914; the Invasion of Crete in 1941; the Battle of Midway in 1942; Submarine warfare and the Battle of the Atlantic in 1939-43; the V-1 and V-2 Offensives of 1944; and the Falklands invasion of 1982. The peculiar story of intelligence in each of these conflicts is well-blended into each account, but intelligence and its methods does not take over the story.

That in essence is both the strength and weakness of this book. The tales themselves are riveting and the re-telling of them illuminating, to the point of revisionism in several instances, in the mind of an extremely wise and knowledgeable student of war. That the punchline seems to be 'intelligence good or bad doesn't make a difference in the long run' is a nearly radical conclusion. But the important role of diplomatic intelligence, of military intelligence in the context of divining the enemy's ultimate intentions and strategic goals, is not covered in this book, and that is a disappointing lacuna in the literature yet to be covered.

What truly was Hussein thinking would happen when he invaded Kuwait in 1990, and how would that have been avoided by differing intelligence analysis? Are pre-emptive wars, like the one Japan launched on the US in 1941, based on particular strategic analyses in turn flawed because they color the interpretation of tactical intelligence? Is it possible, as the Crete example suggests, and to a degree the Battle of the Atlantic (which Keegan suggests might have been won earlier had not the intelligence gathered by Ultra actually steered superior Allied Forces away from wolfpacks) that an overemphasis on protecting the source of intelligence might actually interfere with the military outcome? These are the sorts of questions I expected might be addressed by this book, but are mostly absent.

Nevertheless I would recommend this book, as long as its focus and framework are well-understood. Students of military history wil find most of the case studies famiiiar and covered in greater detail in other books, but will appreciate the interspersing of a more modern understanding of intelligence sources benefitting from years of scholarly research and reading. Thsoe with little knowledge of military history are perhaps even more likely to benefit from the episodic format. Mr. Keegan's superbly concise retelling of these major events makes even familiar history seem fresh. The reader would be cautioned, however, to place each of the case studies in appropriate context: the outcome of the "Cruiser War" of 1914 or the V1/V-2 offensive have miniscule importance in the grand scheme of history compared to the Battle of Midway.

[cross-posted to on 13 Aug 2004]

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