John Keegan, one of the world's most widely known military historians, examines this time an issue often evoked both in the universe of fiction and in that of politics: intelligence. In an unusual way and with unusual conclusions.
Since Keegan proposes to embrace all the period "from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda" in order to take a closer look at the actual role played by spies and codebreakers in the outcome of battles. And he concludes from it that, compared to the legends surrounding them, this role is really not that significant.
The author who was teaching military history for a quarter century at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst makes things clear from the very start: "This book sets out to answer a simple question: how useful is intelligence in war?” Immediately, Keegan brings his answer according to which "Victory is an elusive prize, bought with blood rather than brains. Intelligence is the handmaiden not the mistress of the warrior." By adding to it that "War is not an intellectual activity but a brutally physical one”.
This provocative approach is partly a reaction to the current tendency to systematically over-estimate the role of intelligence under the effect of spy films and of technological reveries. Sir John goes counter to those ideas in vogue that consider information being the alpha and the omega of warfare. And he does rightly so. In his book, it is through a series of descriptions of battles and campaigns that he intends to demonstrate the illusory character of such beliefs. He observes that "Intelligence is necessary but not sufficient means to victory”.
It should be noted that this appreciation applies to all components of the military act, from the power of weapons through the bravery of the soldiers, and to logistics. Nevertheless, Keegan has the merit to put things to their place: for important that it is, intelligence is only one of the elements of the complex network of interdependences where battles and wars are conducted.
In the final analysis, the detailed study of the various historical episodes sends a message that could not be more current. Since it goes to the very heart of the fault line that divides the theorists of military science today. And paradoxically, the result is in perfect opposition with Keegan’s personal commitment. Because this British historian, marked by extreme admiration and indulgence towards the United States, ends up calling into question, well against himself, the very fundamentals of American strategic thought.
Put simply, it is possible to distinguish two trends (or strategic paradigms) that are opposed to each other on the subject of the nature of warfare: the scientifico-rational and historical approaches. According to the first, war would constitute a distinct world, governed by constant factors. It could thus be apprehended by a universal theory independent of the specificities of particular conflicts. Consequently, "dominant battlefield awareness" and "overwhelming superiority" that result from the spectacular evolution of information technologies would lead straight to invincibility.
The advocates of the other approach refute this mechanical vision: for them, war can only be apprehended in its historical context, by taking into account a multitude of circumstantial elements. Conflicts are closely linked to external conditions (political, cultural etc), their outcome is largely influenced by variables known as secondary (of a psychological nature for example), and they cannot in any case be conceived on strictly rational bases.
As a historian, Keegan is less inclined to big universalizing theories than to the thorough study of specific cases. While recognizing the undeniable importance of the technological factor, he always highlights the inherent uncertainty and the human dimension of warfare. Because, according to him, information is worth only the use that one makes of it. And at this point, elements such as chance, obstinacy, vanity, idleness, thirst for revenge, hesitation or impatience can all play a decisive role. As the military deeds of past centuries illustrate it perfectly.