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Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda    by John Keegan order for
Intelligence in War
by John Keegan
Order:  USA  Can
Key Porter, 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Like spy stories? I always have, from Buchan's Thirty-Nine Steps and Kipling's Kim to Le Carré's subtly sinister novels. In reality, military historian John Keegan warns us that most 'intelligence practice is mundane and bureaucratic' with five stages - Acquisition, Delivery, Acceptance, Interpretation and Implementation. He then goes through case studies (historical and recent), his main message being that 'intelligence in war, however good, does not point out unerringly the path to victory.'

Apparently Alexander the Great was big on strategic intelligence, collecting information about 'lands he would later conquer' voraciously. In addition to assessing strategic intelligence, Julius Caesar used scouts in 'a highly developed system of tactical intelligence'. We learn about the Teutonic Knights' difficulties in penetrating the wilderness of the Baltic shore, and the common use of spies in the Hundred Years War between France and England. The inability to communicate across distances made real-time intelligence a problem for the medieval world.

In India, the British simply took over the local 'harkara' system of newsletters and fast runners. Keegan speaks of the enormous importance of strategic intelligence in the past, when real-time information was almost impossible to obtain, and goes on to explain the advantages and disadvantages of different forms of acquisition of real-time intelligence. For example, how do you interpret images when you don't know exactly what you're seeking in them? Human intelligence, or 'humint', even when it gets through, often does not convince at high levels. Signal intelligence has, apparently, been the most effective form through the ages.

Case studies (all illustrated by maps) start with Admiral Nelson chasing Napoleon across the Mediterranean to and from Aboukir, Egypt, in the Age of Sail. Being a long-term Hornblower fan, I especially enjoyed this one. Keegan then shows how invaluable detailed local knowledge was to Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, another 'closed strategic arena'. On to World War I, in which wireless intelligence came to dominate, and the engrossing tale of the application of cryptography, and the roles that teams of code breakers played on both sides, and in both world wars.

In World War II, Midway is assessed as an intelligence victory that, nevertheless could easily have gone the other way. Human intelligence in Hitler's Europe, though prone to betrayal, gave warning of Nazi rocket and flying bomb research, and double-agents fed deceptive reports back to Hitler's regime. However, encouragement of resistance groups had all sorts of unintended consequences. The author moves on to the advantages that American satellite and signal intelligence gave to the British in the Falklands War. There is a short discussion of the role of intelligence in the modern 'war against terror', and the potential for a stronger humint role in the style of Buchan and Kipling's fictional heroes.

Examples make it clear what a knife edge lies between success and failure and how a turn of events, intelligence, or even leader's personalities, might have changed history. The author concludes by telling modern day warriors to 'shorten their swords', with the warning that intelligence can only 'sharpen their gaze'. Whether you like spy fiction or are interested in the reality of intelligence work, Intelligence in War is fascinating stuff - not necessarily to be read in one gulp, but to savor slowly over time.

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