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A fight between spies and might

Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy From Napoleon to Al-Qaeda, John Keegan, Alfred A. Knopf: 392 pp., $30

March 07, 2004|Edward N. Luttwak | Edward N. Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the author of "Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace."

This may be John Keegan's weakest book among the 17 he has published, but even Keegan's least successful is worth reading. His subject is exactly as advertised -- intelligence in war, although the author gives us mostly war stories with bits of "intelligence" thrown in.

That is not accidental: Keegan insists that intelligence is not that important in war -- it is the hard fighting that matters, not knowledge about prior warnings of attack, detailed target information or anything else. In his trenchant conclusion, he illustrates his argument with a list of examples: Alexander the Great's decisive victory over the Achaemenid army of Darius III at Gaugamela in 331 BC, the successful defense of Malta against the Ottomans by the Knights of St. John in 1565, the defeat of the last Japanese offensive toward India in 1944 by British and Indian troops in Kohima and Imphal and the conquest of Iwo Jima in 1945 by the U.S. Marines. In each case, according to Keegan, it was not any advantage in intelligence that determined the outcome but rather the elemental fighting virtues he lists as ferocity, tenacity, courage and self-sacrifice.

Keegan's stance may be a useful corrective these days, when the proponents of "information warfare" often exaggerate what can be achieved with intelligence superiority alone -- as if a war can really be reduced to a computer game with no blood, sweat or tears. But Keegan in turn greatly exaggerates, because it is only in the case of grinding battles of attrition, fought by frontal tactics alone without any maneuver, surprise, ingenuity or generalship, that intelligence is not important. That was not even true of the notorious slaughters of Ypres, Verdun, Stalingrad and Guadalcanal in the two world wars.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday March 10, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Wartime intelligence -- In Sunday's Book Review section, a photo caption with a review of John Keegan's "Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy From Napoleon to Al-Qaeda," misidentified a team of cryptographers as Russians. They were Germans.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 14, 2004 Home Edition Book Review Part R Page 10 Features Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Wartime intelligence -- In the March 7 review of John Keegan's "Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy From Napoleon to Al-Qaeda," a photo caption misidentified a team of cryptographers as Russian. They were German.

In Stalingrad, for example, months of the hardest tactical fighting in recorded history -- kept up by the immediate execution of deserters -- were followed by the surprise Soviet convergence in the deep rear of the German 6th Army, leaving its 200,000 men stranded, besieged and starved. Intelligence was certainly important in that epic battle.

The Red Army knew where to find weak flanks to penetrate, whereas the Germans did not even know that Stalin had accumulated enough uncommitted forces to mount a large offensive. Seeing the Stalingrad defenders so poorly reinforced, the Germans concluded that all Soviet troops were already fully engaged from the Arctic to the Caucasus.

If the Germans had known about the Soviet plan in good time, they could have gathered their own forces to ambush the converging columns, turning the Soviet offensive into a total debacle of the Red Army -- and probably leaving a Nazi Germany victorious on land to be defeated by American fission bombs. Yes, intelligence can make a difference that changes the course of history, not just of a battle. That was also true of Pearl Harbor. Had the Japanese plan been uncovered, American battleships could have slipped out in the night to attack the Japanese carriers while their aircraft were far away, and the Pacific war might have lasted months instead of years. As it was, the Japanese did achieve surprise in December 1941, just as the Germans had surprised the Soviet Union in June 1941 -- Stalin was convinced that all the warnings he had received were British provocations. In both cases it took an immense amount of hard fighting to overcome the resulting damage.

Surprise is not merely one advantage among many -- it is an interruption in what makes war so very hard and so unpredictable in the first place: the presence of a reacting enemy. So long as it lasts, surprise reduces war to a straightforward mechanical action, in which the enemy is nothing but an inert set of targets. That is why military commanders throughout history have striven mightily to achieve surprise even if it has meant that their own preparations had to be curtailed to maintain secrecy. It follows that the intelligence that allows or averts surprise can be enormously important, even if it is perfectly true, as Keegan keeps insisting throughout this book, that fighting power is still essential to exploit the potential advantage that intelligence can provide. Even that becomes a trivial requirement in the case of a high-risk commando or terrorist attacks, which can succeed only with total surprise and are easily defeated given prior warning.

All other kinds of intelligence, starting with target analysis, are also more important than Keegan allows. In our era of routine precision bombardment, that much should be blatantly obvious: All the precision in the world in aiming bombs and missiles is worthless unless the right targets are selected for attack.

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