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The Journal of Military History
The immense success that John Keegan has achieved as a writer of military history over the years could be considered a double-edged sword; whenever he writes a new book comparisons inevitably follow with those works that established him as one of the preeminent military historians of our time—The Face of Battle, Six Armies in Normandy, A History of Warfare—and so on. All of these works are still purchased and read the world over. Once again, he has opted to write on a topic that is as broad as it is wide, as the book's title suggests. And yet, I can understand why some of Keegan's more ardent admirers, and I certainly count myself in that camp, may feel cheated with this work, Intelligence in War. I would argue, however, that such a view is erroneous.
Keegan has once again demonstrated his immeasurable grasp of military history. He successfully weaves together seven very different case studies, drawn from the Napoleonic era, the American Civil War, the First World War and the Second World War, using a template provided in his insightful and succinct Introduction and first chapter entitled "Knowledge of the Enemy." The common theme in all the case studies is explained in the first line of the Introduction, "This book sets out to answer a simple question: how useful is intelligence in war?" But at the end of the introduction Keegan also qualifies his question with the observation "that intelligence in war, however good, does not point out unerringly the path to victory. . . . Intelligence is the handmaiden, not the mistress, of the warrior."
Keeping this framework in focus thereby allows the reader to not only better appreciate the selected case studies, but also to better appreciate the current situation of the fight against terrorism and the crucial role that intelligence must play, while at the same time acknowledging that intelligence alone cannot win the fight; it serves the warrior who will be the final arbiter of victory or defeat in any conflict. This is a difficult equation for some to accept, but it is one that Keegan stands by throughout his book. Nowhere is it more aptly demonstrated than in the case study of the struggle for Crete in 1941 where the intelligence on German plans was as near to real time as possible at that time, and yet through a combination of events the numerically superior Allies lost the campaign.
Keegan briefly examines the development of the system of "intelligence," from Alexander the Great through the early Napoleonic years. He then refines the debate down to "discussing the pursuit of real-time intelligence," and the answering of "the key questions, what, how, where and when," and how these "are answered to our advantage, not the enemy's?" Equally important, in Keegan's view, is the development of the technical means of communication and the role it plays in the conveying of intelligence.
This is a book that provides an ideal template by which to measure the impact of intelligence on any large scale campaign or tactical fight. The case [End Page 538] studies prove Keegan's point: intelligence has a critical role but is not the final arbiter.