Ian Garrick Mason

Book Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle -- November 2, 2003

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

John Keegan
Knopf, 387pp, $30.00

by Ian Garrick Mason

We have spent a long year positively steeped in the topic of military intelligence: a winter of disputes over the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a spring of debates over the strategy of the Iraqi army, a summer and fall of bitter arguments over the accuracy of WMD intelligence before the war and the nature of the Iraqi resistance fighting it today. It almost seems as if the tangible world of money, armies and oil has been replaced by an epistemological shadowland of what we might have known then and what we don't know now. The mind reels.

It is almost soothing, then, to read military historian John Keegan's new book, Intelligence in War, which seeks to demonstrate that none of this matters quite as much as we think. For even if an army manages to discover both the identity and disposition of the enemy's forces and its plans for action, he argues, such knowledge "is not a sufficient means to victory." Historically, the impact of other factors on the battlefield itself have outweighed the impact of intelligence gained before it.

Chance is one such factor, as Keegan's fascinating description of the Battle of Midway shows. Though U.S. naval intelligence had successfully predicted the approximate location of the Japanese task force sailing against Midway, the battle itself was a close-run thing. U.S. torpedo bombers attacked Admiral Nagumo's aircraft carriers in vain, suffering heavy losses from counter-attacking Zeroes. Suddenly a squadron of U.S. dive bombers arrived: On a hunch, the planes had followed the wake of a Japanese destroyer, and they discovered the fleet with its defending fighters stuck at an altitude suitable for warding off torpedo bombers but far too low to counter a dive bomber attack from 14,000 feet. Within five minutes, three Japanese carriers were aflame and Japan's naval strategy in the Pacific was in tatters. As Keegan writes with characteristic style, "a little less intuition by McCluskey of Bombing 6 -- and it would have been the [American] carriers of TF 16 and 17, not those of [Japan's] Mobile Force, which would have been left burning and bereft in the bright waters of the Pacific on 4 June 1942."

The most powerful factors, Keegan argues, are the most elemental: force and will. Before the World War II battle for Crete, the commander of Allied forces on the island, General Freyberg, had been given detailed intelligence on the German order of battle and the planned time of attack. But Freyberg didn't know which German units had been assigned to which targets, and was therefore unable to appropriately deploy his own forces against the threat. Though the initial parachute attack went very badly for the Germans, they were able, through an act of almost reckless will, to take advantage of a temporarily favorable situation on one airfield by landing infantry-filled gliders in the teeth of heavy resistance. The Germans secured a bridgehead, and Crete was lost.

Using his signature "case history" approach, Keegan does succeed in proving that intelligence is not the key factor in battle, in itself a healthy corrective to our modern tendency to worship information. Unfortunately, he misses the chance to prove much more. By indulging in long digressions on subjects such as the architecture of the Enigma machines, and by making the same arguments repeatedly, he wastes space that could have been used either to improve the rigor of his argument or to extend his analysis to wars such as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan -- indeed, given the debate it has sparked about Donald Rumsfeld's new "information-centric" way of warfare, the omission of this campaign is inexplicable.

Concluding that "only force finally counts," Keegan also takes his argument a step too far. In a way, it's a problem of focus: Even if "God is always for the big battalions," as Voltaire once wrote, using superior force to win battles is not the same as winning a war. Keegan's chapter on Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley shows that Jackson ran a brilliant campaign of systematic evasion, keeping a larger Union army engaged and preventing the North from mounting a united attack against Richmond, Va. -- a strategic result derived from intelligence and maneuver, not from the destruction of an enemy army.

Similarly, though Keegan is correct in identifying the importance of will in battle, he all but ignores its role in political strategy. After all, it was national will that arguably enabled North Vietnam to endure at least half a million battlefield deaths and still go on to defeat the United States. Keegan's sweeping contention that "there are no examples in military history of a state weaker in force than its enemy achieving victory in a protracted conflict" thus seems simplistic, not penetrating.

Colonel Harry G. Summers, author of a groundbreaking analysis of the Vietnam War, once told a North Vietnamese colonel, "You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield."

"This may be so," his counterpart replied, "but it is also irrelevant."

Had Keegan extended his analysis of the role of intelligence to this kind of strategic dilemma -- all the more essential in an era of "pre-emptive" war and counter-insurgency -- he might have written an important book, rather than a merely interesting one.