Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Book Club: Intelligence in War

Intelligence in War
John Keegan, 2003
Key Porter Books Ltd., Toronto, Canada

I impulse-bought this book when I found it in the "Quite Deeply Discounted" (actual sign wording) table at The Bookshelf, a local bookstore / movie theatre / cafe / bar in downtown Guelph. I'd arrived about 30 minutes before the scheduled start-time for Letters from Iwo Jima (good film!), and a bookstore is a dangerous place for me to loiter. At $12.99, I was initially not going to buy this book, but then I checked the recommended price, listed on the dustjacket as $50 - so I gambled that a $50 book for $13 is a good idea. I was right.

I'd not heard of the author before, but apparently he's a fairly well-respected academic historian in the UK, and has written several other non-fiction histories that I'd probably enjoy. The academic background of the author comes through in the writing style, though it's not dry. Only once, early on, in the book did I find myself glazing over a little during a particularly long and over-detailed, name-and-date heavy description of a tangential topic to the chapter. In contrast to his academic training, however, the referencing in this book is a little weak, using numerical subscripts and a block of references at the back of the book. I never tried to correlate subscript to end-of-book, so I don't know how useful or interesting those references may be.

The question this book seeks to answer is "how important is intelligence in warfare"? The answer is drawn out of eight case-study type chapters, plus an introduction that defines all the relevant terms and concepts, and about 70 pages of "Epilogue" and "Conclusion". The case studies range from Nelson's pursuit of Napolean's Egypt-Invasion fleet across the Mediterranean Sea to the German V1 and V2 rocket programs of the latter part of World War II. The dustjacket describes the book in terms of "Napoleon to Al-Queda", which is false, as everything after 1945 is described only briefly in the "Epilogue", which is actually dominated by a description of the Falklands War of 1982, plus a few pages here and there about the first Gulf War and some other conflicts. The term "Al-Queda" and it's definition in English ("the base") appears in the book, but the intelligence operations against Al-Queda are not described at all.

The answer to the question, not surprisingly, is that knowledge of one's opponent is often a necessary, but never a sufficient condition for victory in war. The case studies are used well to illustrate this conclusion, and include both cases of good intelligence contributing to victory (e.g. Stonewall Jackson's Valley campaign) and of good intelligence not being properly used or interpreted, leading to defeat (e.g. the British in Crete in 1941). Contrasts with opponents in each case study are also used to illustrate the relative importance of various factors, and interesting cultural or personality differences between armies or individuals that one may speculate played a role in the battles or campaigns.

Overall, I enjoyed this book, and I found John Keegan's writing style easy to get in to and easy to understand. Hopefully I'll be able to find more of his stuff for cheap somewhere.


King Aardvark said...

I almost impulse-bought a book last weekend in Toronto. It was on ninjas, though it was a little more detailed than the ninja book Carlo just reviewed. Alas, I couldn't justify spending $20 on it (half price) because I'm trying to spend less, already have a backlog of about a dozen books to read, and didn't know anything about the quality of the book beforehand. All I can tell you is that they had colour pictures of a ninja recreation team scaling a wall. I was tempted.

TheBrummell said...

All I can tell you is that they had colour pictures of a ninja recreation team scaling a wall. I was tempted.

That sounds like it'd be worth 20 bucks, easily

Carlo said...

Spare no expense for increasing our knowledge of how to counter the growing ninja threat! Preperation for when the dark ones come may by you and your loved ones a few more precious seconds...

Carlo said...

Er... I mean buy...