Keegan, John. Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda

Keegan, John. Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda

David A. Smith

Keegan, John. Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. New York: Knopf, 2003. 387pp. $30

Among many military historians, the release of a book by John Keegan is cause for celebration, and the sentiment is not altogether out of place. Keegan’s prolific output of insightful studies, reaching back to his seminal Face of Battle (1992), has won for himself devotees from both the academic and public sectors. In his latest book, Intelligence in War, Keegan returns to the distinctive format he used in The Face of Battle, dividing his study into several vignettes from a broad range of military history–what he labels here as “a collection of case studies”–organized, in this case, to highlight the effect that good intelligence has on military operations, and the general role intelligence plays in underpinning the effectiveness of armed forces in the field.

Beginning with Admiral Horatio Nelson’s chase of the French Mediterranean fleet in 1798, Keegan goes on to discuss the role of intelligence in Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign of 1862, the British navy’s search for Rear Admiral Maximilian von Spee and his ships in World War I, and the battle of Midway, the German assault on Crete, and the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II. In each of these, we see how the gathering and the use of intelligence–two very different acts–affected the action. As usual, Keegan’s narrative skill sets the stage succinctly for his discussion. We feel how heavily the unknown weighs on the commanders, Nelson especially, and how at times they were bogged down sorting through an overabundance of intelligence, especially after the advent of wireless communication, to divine the plans of the enemy. Commanders had to deal with many possible answers to difficult questions, usually with only one being the right answer. Intelligence, we realize, works to weed out possibilities and narrow the options.

A book-length study of how crucial intelligence is will almost inevitably run the risk of elevating this one element above all other elements in a successful military operation. “If only this commander had known about the enemy’s troops,” we might find ourselves saying, or, “If only his spies would have alerted the admiral to his opponent’s plans the outcome here would surely have been different.” To his credit, however, Keegan avoids this determinism that would cause us to think that with good intelligence, battlefield victories can be made all but certain. On the contrary, he acknowledges that “however good the intelligence available before an encounter may appear to be … the outcome will still be decided by the fight.” Brutal fighting, we are reminded, along with a good bit of luck, are the key determinants of battlefield success. What Keegan instead shows is that good intelligence can reduce the scope of the unknown, and most importantly remove guesswork from the equation as much as possible. “Thought,” Keegan explains, “offers a means of reducing the price” of the cold, bloody attrition that lurks in the background of all battlefield victories.

Unlike some other Keegan volumes, this work builds its effectiveness only cumulatively through its stories. If one picks up this book and reads but one or two of the vignettes, a clear and timeless axiom of intelligence is likely to elude him. It is through the cumulative effect of all these stories, one after the other, that we begin to grasp Keegan’s broader point and see just how varied in form and content, but fundamentally useful, sound intelligence of every sort can be. One clear contribution that this book makes is to remind us that intelligence has much to do with mundane issues of how dense that forest on the map really is, how muddy that road becomes in April, or how to interpret what we inadvertently overhear on the radio.

Professional military readers will understand intuitively the importance of intelligence in the new kind of war the United States finds itself fighting today, and that brings us to the book’s subtitle. Given the recent debates over the quality of American intelligence, many readers will eagerly anticipate that Keegan’s analysis of the war against al-Qa’ida and that the war on terror will be as fully developed as his examination of Jackson’s Valley campaign or the battle of Midway. Those readers will be disappointed. The discussion of al-Qa’ida is only a small part of his penultimate chapter, “Military Intelligence since 1945,” which discusses the Falklands War in greater length than what the United States faces today. Nevertheless, Keegan speculates that old-fashioned human intelligence will be the best means of carrying the war to the new enemies of the United States, and through his historical exposition of intelligence, we are well reminded just how crucial this apparently mundane work really is.


Baylor University

COPYRIGHT 2004 U.S. Naval War College

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group