Wednesday, July 01, 2009

09.20 Intelligence In War by John Keegan

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda (2003) by John Keegan
Trade, Vintage Canada, 387 p.

This is one of the more recent books by Keegan, a leading British military historian. I suspect that he was asked to put something like this together to tie in with the Iraq War and the heightened public interest in all things "intelligence".

Keegan's thesis here is that intelligence in war is secondary to force. The general thrust is that one side in a conflict may have superior intelligence however that may not give them an advantage if the other side possesses a stronger or better run army. He writes, "[...] it strikes this author that the organization of intelligence-gathering and subversion within the same body is undesirable. Subversion is a weak way of fighting, differing from conventional warfare by the total unpredictability of its results; moreover, in a democracy, it is always liable to disavowal by legitimate authority and denunciation by authority's political opponents. Intelligence-gathering, by contrast, can yield conflict-winning outcomes and , if securely and soberly conducted, is an activity only those of ill-will can condemn.
Yet, in the last resort, intelligence warfare is a weak form of attack on the enemy, also. Knowledge, the conventional wisdom has, is power; but knowledge cannot destroy or deflect or damage or even defy an offensive initiative by an enemy unless the possession of knowledge is also allied to objective force."

The book is structured as many Keegan books are with chapters advancing chronologically. He sets forth a number of examples to advance his overall thesis. Napoleon, Stonewall Jackson, a discussion of wireless intelligence, Crete and Midway during WWII. The penultimate chapter, which I found the most persuasive, concerned the battle for the Atlantic during WWII. The Allies had cracked German codes using Enigma and yet loss from U-Boat attacks remained high. German naval tactics were initially superior and even though the Allies knew they were coming they couldn't do anything about it.

The final chapter is also very interesting and concerns the German secret weapons that were developed near the close of WWII. The V-1 and V-2 rocket that were designed and deployed from Scandinavia and later France had been known about in bits throughout their development. Intelligence=gence came from various sources - human intelligence, aerial spy photos, etc. The Allies however, were never able to put all the pieces together and predict what was going to happen until the rockets started landing. In the end though it didn't matter because the war was effectively over.

Overall, not a bad book but by no means close to being one of Keegan's best efforts.

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