Cover of Intelligence in War

Intelligence in War
John Keegan
443 pages including index
published in 2003

John Keegan is one of the better known British military historians, having been a lecturer at Sandhurst before becoming defence editor at the Daily Telegraph, as well as writing a slew of books about military history. Keegan seems to write two kinds of books: the first kind follows a war or campaign in some detail, while the second takes a specific aspect of war (or even war as whole) and follows its development through the ages. Intelligence in War is an example of the second kind. As you may guess, he's somewhat of an establishment historian, accepting and understanding that war is an essential part of human nature, even if an unfortunate part. He's therefore more interested in writing how wars are fought than how they come to be. Within those limitations he's an excellent history writer, one of my favourites when it comes to military history.

Intelligence in War, as said, is typical of Keegan's work. Through the careful selection of several case histories Keegan examines the role intelligence plays in warfare and its limitations and capabilities to influence battles. Keegan distinguishes five separate stages intelligence has to go through to be able to influence a battle: acquisition, delivery, acceptance, interpretation and implementation. Due to difficulties that can arise at each stage, Keegan is skeptical about how influential intelligence is for a given battle. His main thesis is that intelligence can be useful in battle, but is rarely decisive, even in those cases which are supposed to be the examples of intelligence determining the outcome of battles. For Keegan, intelligence is only ever a secondary factor in winning or losing battles, with things like the relative balance of forces and the determination and will of the opposing troops and commanders being much more important.

His examples are of course chosen to illustrate his thesis, from Nelson pursuit of Napoleon's expeditionary force to Egypt in 1798, which is used as an example of how difficult it can be to find the right intelligence in the first place, to the German invasion of Crete, where the defenders had almost all the intelligence they could've wanted but still lost. Even battles like the Battle of Midway or the U-boat war in the Atlantic Ocean in World War II where the conventional wisdom credits good intelligence with a large role in winning them are used by Keegan to show that while intelligence did play some role, it wasn't as important as thought. For example, at Midway it was largely a coincidence that led the Americans to the Japanese aircraft carriers, when the wake of a Japanese destroyer showed American bombers the way to the carriers. And because the Japanese commander had earlier made the decision to switch from attacking ships to attacking Midway itself, the carriers' decks were littered with planes in the process of converting, making highly flammable targets for the Americans...

Keegan makes a convincing case for seeing the role of intelligence, as he puts it, as the "handmaiden not the mistress of the warrior", but this of course depends on how convinced you are by his selection of examples (and knowledge of them). As always, the problem is that history is so vast and diverse that you can prove anything, as long as you select the right examples. Distilling general rules from history is therefore fraught with difficulties, which is also the case here. What Keegan proposes seems obvious enough to me, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to judge whether or not he's right or just very careful about selecting his examples...

Even with these reservations however, Intelligence in War is still an interesting if limited look at the role of intelligence in battle. He does have an axe to grind, but he does it honestly and with some cause. Slightly disappointing is that Keegan does not look at the high level, strategic role of intelligence during an entire war, rather than separate battles.

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Webpage created 30-12-2007, last updated 01-01-2008.