- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003


By John Keegan

Knopf, $30, 448 pages


John Keegan, an eminent British military historian, offers his readers something fresh and new in his latest of 17 books. “Intelligence in War” is basically a series of case studies spanning two centuries, which are intended to prove the author’s thesis: Intelligence is important in war, but the outcome of war depends on a fight; and in a fight, willpower, along with the power of one’s arms, count for more than foreknowledge.

Before embarking on his first study of Napoleon, Mr. Keegan reminds us briefly how intelligence was always a key question in war. When Alexander the Great met visitors from lands he would later conquer, he was assiduous in asking about geography, population, and strategic points. Leaders ranging from Julius Caesar to Frederick the Great knew the need for good intelligence and intelligence-gathering. Mr. Keegan recalls how in America, in 1755, Gen. Braddock walked blind into an ambush the French and Indians had prepared in uncharted, unscouted woodland.

One wishes that the author, being English, had also made some mention of Sir Francis Walsingham, the great Elizabethan spymaster, and how he tried to convince his queen to make war on Spain before the Armada appeared off England’s coast.

It seems that Mr. Keegan has done no original research for this book, and earlier authors have dealt with much of his material, for example, Horatio Nelson’s difficult search for Napoleon’s fleet in the Mediterranean, Stonewall Jackson’s use of local knowledge in the Shenandoah Valley, and the importance of intelligence — and lack of intelligence — at the Battle of Midway in 1942. But Mr. Keegan makes new points, and important ones.

What helped make Nelson history’s greatest admiral was his ability as an intelligence analyst; what helped Jackson clobber Union forces in the Valley was his superior knowledge of local geography, whereas Northern generals lacked decent maps. As our author notes, the cartographic backwardness of the United States in 1860 contrasted sharply with the high-quality maps available in the British Isles, which the Ordnance Survey had begun to produce in 1791.

At Midway, Gen. Nimitz knew the enemy’s plans, thanks to the good work of U.S. Navy cryptanalysts (including this reviewer’s older cousin, Joseph Wenger, later deputy director of the National Security Agency). But the American victory was also due to what the author calls the outcome of random factors — or what others might call good luck.

Any author must make choices, and Mr. Keegan in general makes good ones. He gives fascinating accounts of several subjects about which American readers may know little, such as the British-German naval war in the Pacific in 1914-15, the desperate British search for information on Hitler’s V-1 and V-2 programs, and the role that intelligence played, together with the iron will of Margaret Thatcher, in producing British victory in the 1982 Falklands War.

Mr. Keegan tells us much about Winston Churchill’s use of intelligence in the two world wars. One wishes that he had cited a most germane 1998 work, “Churchill and Secret Service” by David Stafford, in his select bibliography at the end of the book. Certainly Mr. Keegan would have done well to mention how Churchill, out of government in the 1930s, kept abreast of intelligence on Adolf Hitler’s military buildup through unauthorized briefings given to him by civil servants and military officers who risked their careers in doing so.

“Intelligence in War” was first published in Britain. In the American edition one might have hoped to read a little more about the use, and misuse, of military intelligence by top American leaders beginning with George Washington. This subject has, however, been dealt with by other writers, including the leading British expert on intelligence matters, Christopher Andrew, author of the 1995 book “For the President’s Eyes Only: Secret Intelligence and the American Presidency from Washington to Bush.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Keegan’s own intelligence about America has gaps. Neither during the Civil War nor before or after it did the city of Washington lie 40 miles from what Mr. Keegan calls Virginia’s frontier with the Union. The Virginia Military Institute is not a private academy but a state-funded one. While the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal was planned to connect the sea with the Ohio Valley, it was never completed across the Appalachians.

Nor is it quite true that the Southern Confederacy was shut off from the rest of the United States by mountains to the north, or that the Mississippi Valley denied Northern armies any easy way forward into the heartland of the Confederacy. And the U.S. Exploring Expedition ably led by Charles Wilkes in 1838-42 was not sent to investigate the territory of the United States, though it did explore our Pacific coast.

The chief value of Mr. Keegan’s new book lies in the answer it provides, as noted earlier, to the question of how useful intelligence is in war. But Mr. Keegan is not quite sure what intelligence is. In the book’s introduction he writes that, as a general principle, intelligence is secret and must be collected by clandestine means. In a later chapter, though, he rightly notes that in a reasonably open society much valuable information can be obtained from published sources. Indeed, even in Moscow several decades ago one could find important information in the press.

Apart from spying and scanning the press for information, there is a third sphere of intelligence work that the author ignores: reporting and analysis done discreetly, but not clandestinely, by diplomats. This has been a less attractive and certainly less sensational subject for movies, TV, and fiction.

But the fact remains that most of the intelligence on which governments base their conduct of foreign relations is provided by their diplomats abroad. Sometimes this can be of key military importance. When, for example, Charles E. Bohlen was a young officer in our Moscow embassy in 1939, a young German diplomat passed him detailed information about Hitler’s agreement with Joseph Stalin to divide up Eastern Europe, leading to the invasion of Poland and world war.

It may seem demeaning to such a major author as Mr. Keegan to say that he has made a good beginning here. This is nonetheless the case. One hopes someday to find a work as well-written as this one but, though still a single volume, more comprehensive than “Intelligence in War.”

Even within Mr. Keegan’s two-century span, more detailed accounts should be given. The author mentions briefly German success in breaking British naval codes. Beyond that, as James Bamford told us in his book “Body of Secrets,” the Germans broke the electronic system that scrambled Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s transatlantic phone calls, leading to disastrous prolongation of the war in Italy. Even the Italians, not always at the forefront of intelligence work, gained access to British messages, as we know from the diaries of Count Ciano.

But again, as Mr. Keegan stresses, victory in war is not just the product of intelligence.

Peter Bridges is the author of “Safirka: An American Envoy,” which describes his experiences as American ambassador to Somalia.

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