Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda

by John Keegan
ISBN: 1552632199

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A Review of: Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda
by Brian Fawcett

John Keegan is the most gifted military historian-in any language-of the last thirty years, and arguably, of the last century. The Face of Battle (1976) which analyzed three seminal battles across Western history beginning with Agincourt in 1431, following with Waterloo in 1815 and culminating with the Somme in 1916, altered the way war was regarded by refusing to separate the strategic elements from the human ones. Keegan has insisted, as his primary intellectual stance, that war always has a human face, and his genius lies in his ability to reveal it without obscuring it with statistics or sentimental pathos. His most recent masterpiece, The First World War (1998), instantly became the authoritative text on that conflict, and did much to settle it as the event in the 20th century through which all others must be filtered in order to fully understand the century's trajectories. Of his other books, Warpaths: Fields of Battle in Canada and America (1995) is of special interest to North American readers because nowhere is to be found as elegant and clear a distinction between what is Canadian and what is American as Keegan offers.
In that elegance and clarity of distinction lies the secret of John Keegan's reputation. He is not merely a fine historian. He possesses one of the most concise and discriminating minds of our time, and writes some of the most elegant sentences to be found in contemporary literature. At the center of his talent is a unique ability to invoke the physical realities of whatever field he scrutinizes without losing sight of the intellectual complexities that lie hidden within. A John Keegan book on the subject of quilting bees or auto manufacture would likely be no less fascinating than his military histories. He is, in short, a great writer, in the broadest sense of that term.
Intelligence in War follows a plan that will be familiar to Keegan's readers. He chooses a series of battles across history to illuminate his subject, which is a relatively simple one: how useful is intelligence in war? The battles he chooses begin with Nelson's pursuit-and destruction-of the French naval fleet in the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It ends, not surprisingly, with U.S. President George W. Bush's War on Terrorism. Between those two historical points, he analyzes Stonewall Jackson's maneuvers in the Shenandoah Valley during the American civil war; the actions of German Admiral Von Spee in the South Atlantic and Pacific oceans in 1914-and the British response-during the advent of wireless communications; the successful German airborne invasion of Crete in 1940; the Battle of Midway in 1942; and the allied successes in deciphering enemy codes during the Second World War that resulted in the Cold War intelligence apparatuses we're still living with.
The narratives Keegan builds around each of these events are chosen to demonstrate the limitations and characteristic failures of military intelligence, not to elicit a sense of Darwinian growth in their sophistication. As Keegan puts it, "It has become part of the conventional wisdom that intelligence is the necessary key to success in military operations. A wise opinion would be that intelligence, while generally necessary, is not a sufficient means to victory. Decision in war is always the result of a fight and in combat willpower always counts for more than foreknowledge."
Intelligence in War isn't likely to be seen as his best work, but the book is eminently readable and relevant. Keegan has a rather unorthodox and surprisingly polemical point to make with this book, and is one that won't likely sit well with conventional Western intelligence networks. Keegan believes that those networks have been floundering since the end of the Cold War because they're equipped with intellectual steerage systems as slow and cumbersome as a battleship's steerage, and thus have been prone to pursue what the onboard technology was originally designed to combat-political and military apparatuses as monolithic as their own. Most technical systems tend to look for the things they were designed to detect and combat, but here, with the Soviet Empire gone, Western intelligence has been at a loss as to how to deal with the rise of fundamentalist-based terrorism.
Keegan chooses Nelson, who operated without the assistance of conventional military intelligence as we understand it, as the emblem for the book. There's a reason for this choice, and it isn't sentimental. Nelson was often months away from command direction in Britain, and he rarely had exact knowledge of his enemy's whereabouts. Thus, he had to rely, in Keegan's terms, on other means: "inspirational powers of leadership, lightning tactical instincts, ruthless determination in battle, incisive strategic grasp and a revolutionary capacity for operational innovation, all combined with complete disregard for his own personal safety in any circumstance" Keegan also notes that Nelson was "a first-class intelligence analyst," and that his decisive pragmatism has virtually disappeared within the West's intelligence community, which has devolved, in the absence of an enemy that plays by the rules established over a half-century of competitive dtente, into finger-pointing bureaucracies that are too slow and timid to cope with the enemies it faces. He suggests, in his concluding chapter, that the War Against Terror can only be won by infusing the West's monolithic intelligence apparatuses with the sort of ruthless pragmatism and decisiveness typified by Nelson.
His polemic, accurate or not, is certainly timely, and it does offer the clearest explanation I've encountered for the intelligence failures that enabled the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center to succeed. Keegan doesn't directly discuss them and it's even less clear whether he thinks the subsequent aggressive response of the Bush administration has been accurate or relevantly decisive. The failure of U.S. intelligence to pinpoint the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden almost 30 months after the attacks, and its egregious intelligence blunders in Iraq, are clear evidence that it continues to maneuver with the dexterity and swiftness of a battleship in a bathtub.

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