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Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy…
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Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda (2003)

by John Keegan

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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My reactions to reading this book in 2004.

The thesis of this book is pretty straightforward: that intelligence is only valuable if you have the military strength to use it. A corollary is that you must have the will to use it and your strength. Keegan points out that wars are won by doing and not the thinking of intelligence work. (This book makes the distinction between "espionage" -- a peace time activity usually involving human agents and often directed at enemy agents -- and intelligence, the wartime gathering of information to be used in planning and conducting military operations.)

I agree with Keegan that, between enemies of similar will, the militarily stronger will prevail no matter what the relative strengths of their intelligence work is. To prove his point, Keegan looks at several battles. Admiral Horatio Nelson worked as his own intelligence analyst in pursuing Napoleon's fleet before he eventually destroyed it at Aboukir. His intelligence was limited but eventually he found the fleet and destroyed it. In a chapter I must admit I didn't completely understand the relevance of, Stonewall Jackson uses detailed topographical knowledge, supplied by amateur cartographer Jedediah Hotchkiss, of the Shenandoah Valley in 1862 to keep a much larger force of three Union armies at bay. The increased speed of communications and intelligence brought by radio is examined in the struggle of the British and Germans in the waters of the South Pacific and South Atlantic in the latter part of 1914. That speed of communications and the vast web of British cable and radio communications didn't help them much in finding the East Asiatic Squadron. When they did, the German force defeated them soundly off the coast of Chile in the Battle of Coronel. It was only luck by which the British encountered that victorious force off the Falkland Islands and defeated it soundly.

Two case studies from World War II provide Keegan's strongest evidence coming, as they do, from the Allied forces breaking enemy codes.

The German invasion of Crete stands as almost the perfect possession of intelligence. The defender of Crete possessed advanced timing of the invasion, knowledge of the size of the enemy force and where it would land. The Germans still won, narrowly. Keegan thinks it was mostly because of a difference in the will of the forces involved. While the New Zealand forces were good (Rommel considered New Zealand soldiers the best in the world, bar none), their commander did not press the issue when he should have, thinking he could retreat from a disputed airfield, regroup, and retake it. He should have held it from the beginning. Keegan does say the German victory may have also been helped by General Freyberg (a respected, much decorated combat veteran) holding troops in reserve for a amphibious landing that never occurred. Ambiguities in intelligence analysis didn't make it clear if particular units would try an airborne or seaborne assault.

The Battle of Midway comes across not as an American victory due to intelligence but luck. While the American navy used intelligence from code breaking to determine where the Japanese forces were and to bring battle to them, the battle itself was going quite badly for the American until, in the space of five minutes, various incidents and decisions worked together to allow the Americans to sink three Japanese carriers. Keegan argues that, even if the United States had lost the Battle of Midway, the Japanese would have still lost the war.

The Battle of the Atlantic was shortened by Ultra intercepts, but it was not won. Keegan argues that the U-Boats were bound to loose because they had to take the battle to the convoys and numbers and tactics then worked against them. In terms of shipping tonnage and ships sank, the Battle of the Atlantic didn't put much of a dent in Allied war efforts though many lives were lost.

In a chapter that is not about a battle per se, Keegan talks about the intelligence efforts of the British against the V-1 and V-2 rocket programs. Keegan says that the V-1 program could have mounted a serious threat against the staging areas for the Normandy invasion. The British had a wealth of human intelligence, some actual pieces from test flights, and photo intelligence. However, the very newness of the German programs (not only was the V-2 revolutionary, so was the V-1), personal disputes between the scientific advisors to Winston Churchill, and having to sort out two novel weapons programs kept the British from doing anything about the threat until the weapons actually started being used. Even then, British bombing raids on the launch sites only set the program back a bit. Ultimately, it was German decisions which doomed the program's to failure despite the brilliant innovations they represented. (Keegan makes the point that not only is the V-2 ancestor to today's ICBM, but so was its mobile launch vehicle which made the location of the V-2s much harder to pin down -- they only needed to be at a launch site for less than an hour. The V-1 program belonged to the Luftwaffe (the Luftwaffe was notoriously lax about its communications and most of the Ultra intercepts were from them; the Gestapo had little if any of their communications intercepted), and the V-2 program belonged to the Army. They both competed for the same resources. The Germans should have invested their efforts into the V-1 program which was more effective and could have significantly delayed the Normandy landings. As it was, it was those landings which allowed the overrunning of the V-1 bases.

The only post-World War Two battle Keegan covers is the Falklands War in which the Argentineans suffered from a lack of intelligence even worse than the British (who knew little about the Argentinean navy or air force). Keegan does mention the various SAS missions into Argentina itself. In relation to the special forces, Keegan does interestingly, if briefly, talk about the British being, via commandoes and the SOE, the fathers of all modern special forces. They derive from the British tradition of Englishmen going native and commanding local irregular forces (usually natives that were defeated by the British) in various Imperial provinces. Keegan sees them as effective. However, Churchill, particularly enamored with irregular and guerilla warfare after his Boer War experience (he was a great admirer of the Boers and a personal friend to some after the war), didn't realize that not every occupier would respond with the relevant restraint that the British did in that war. Keegan seems to imply that the British fostering of guerilla movements created a doctrine and body of practice to draw on that created the nasty, unrestrained guerilla wars in Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Israel, and other places. Keegan sees special forces as effective but limited in their knowledge of local customs and conditions. The fostering by the Special Operations Executive of resistance movements in various Nazi occupied countries was to rectify that, to "set Europe ablaze". However, in retrospect, it doesn't seem to have been militarily effective though it helped the morale of the occupied and their self-esteem. In fact, Keegan sees them mostly as arming Communist groups that eventually took over Yugloslavia, almost prevailed in Greece, and killed many in France after the country was liberated. He argues that intelligence and subversion techniques should not be coupled as they are in the Central Intelligence Agency, an organization influenced by its older British peers and the experience of the Office of Strategic Services.

Keegan starts out the book with a handy five vital steps of intelligence use: acquisition, delivery, acceptance, interpretation, and implementation (an overlooked step -- people who can act on the information have to be persuaded of its worth). Keegan also talks interestingly about his own experience with the intelligence community -- which he tried to avoid lest it complicate his life as a journalist (He was a defense editor for the Daily Telegraph.) or be given misinformation.

There are some things I would have liked covered better. I think Keegan is too hard on the lack of real significance of human espionage though I agree with the comments in his bibliography that many books on intelligence are filled with speculation, gossip, and self-aggrandizement. He never really says what he thinks about the link between intelligence and the war on Al-Qaeda though he says intelligence there will require a return to agents like those romanticized in Rudyard Kipling's Kim and not signals interception or code-breaking. Perhaps he takes it as evident that the West has the strength to prevail but that intelligence is needed to bring the shadowy, diffuse enemy to battle -- a battle in which they are bound to loose -- assuming our will holds. One of the advantages of Keegan being a defense reporter is that he keeps abreast of modern military developments and issues. I'd already wondered how Keegan's thesis affects the current U.S. plan to transform the military on the assumption that better intelligence and communication can justify a smaller force. Keegan alludes to that, seems to indicate a skepticism, but doesn't take the issue any further. Perhaps he has elsewhere.

All in all, another good book from Keegan. ( )
  RandyStafford | Mar 22, 2014 |
Keegan has written several fantastic books on war. This isn’t one of them, and it’s not aided by the attempt at timeliness which leads him to mention Al-Qaeda briefly at the end (nor the anti-Islamic posture he takes, which is that Muslims are sneakier and more committed to evil than non-Muslims); written before the second invasion of Iraq, he also denotes the failure of inspectors to find WMDs in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq a failure of intelligence rather than what it was, the absence of WMDs. So basically he has a string of stories from the age of sail up to the Falklands war, where he recounts particular episodes and then discusses whether “intelligence” mattered. He occasionally stops to distinguish human intelligence from signals analysis, imaging, etc., but doesn’t rigorously define “intelligence,” which helps his conclusions become even more mushy (though he does condemn the uniting of covert operations with intelligence-gathering). Takeaway: intelligence can help in a shooting war; it can decrease losses or improve gains. But force is force, and that’s what determines the ultimate outcome, whether you’re surprised by Pearl Harbor or not, especially since the military is made of people and therefore tends to misread, overread, or underread intelligence compared to the objective truth. ( )
1 vote rivkat | Jun 12, 2013 |
One of Keegan's best. In this book Keegan examines the value of intelligence in war and concludes intelligence has been over-rated in the histories of warfare. He uses examples from Nelson to the current War on Terror. ( )
  yeremenko | Feb 12, 2013 |
Another excellent book by John Keegan, who remains one of my favorite military history authors. He looks at how intelligence is used in a number of military engagements, from Jackson in the Shenandoah during the U.S. Civil War to German naval battles in World War II and beyond. He looks closely at how the intelligence was gathered, the technology used, and what the units did with the technology. Keegan is a great story teller and each look at a particular point in military history is engaging. In particular, he is persuasive at showing how intelligence is important but not sufficient in and of itself to be determinative of military success. ( )
  davidpwhelan | Apr 8, 2012 |
Book Description: Published Nov 2004, Vintage Books USA. Edition: Vintage Books Paperback. CONDITION NEW COPY, Pages: 432,
  Czrbr | Jun 7, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375400532, Hardcover)

In fiction, the spy is a glamorous figure whose secrets make or break peace, but, historically, has intelligence really been a vital step to military victories? In this breakthrough study, the preeminent war historian John Keegan goes to the heart of a series of important conflicts to develop a powerful argument about military intelligence.

In his characteristically wry and perceptive prose, Keegan offers us nothing short of a new history of war through the prism of intelligence. He brings to life the split-second decisions that went into waging war before the benefit of aerial surveillance and electronic communications. The English admiral Horatio Nelson was hot on the heels of Napoleon’s fleet in the Mediterranean and never knew it, while Stonewall Jackson was able to compensate for the Confederacy’s disadvantage in firearms and manpower with detailed maps of the Appalachians. In the past century, espionage and decryption have changed the face of battle: the Japanese surprise attack at the Battle of the Midway was thwarted by an early warning. Timely information, however, is only the beginning of the surprising and disturbing aspects of decisions that are made in war, where brute force is often more critical.

Intelligence in War is a thought-provoking work that ranks among John Keegan’s finest achievements.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:06:34 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

"In this magisterial new study, which will fascinate readers of both military and more general history, the author of A History of Warfare goes to the heart of a series of important conflicts to develop a powerful argument about intelligence in war. From the Napoleonic Wars to the sophisticated electronic warfare of the twenty-first century, John Keegan finds linking themes which lead to a compelling conclusion."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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