Saturday, November 19, 2011

Legendary Military Historian John Keegan on "Intelligence in War"

The Denver Post 

January 11, 2004

Dylan Foley

The capture of Saddam Hussein by 600 heavily armed American troops in December provided a crucial victory for the U.S. military in Iraq. It was also a victory for American military intelligence, which uncovered the whereabouts of a bearded and bedraggled Hussein, found hidden in a spider hole near his hometown of Tikrit.

It is this gritty, often dangerous intelligence from secret agents that the United States needs more of, argues British historian John Keegan, if America wants to have more victories in the war on terrorism.

"Intelligence operatives will have to go native," said Keegan in an interview from New York City. He noted that the model for effective intelligence might be Rudyard Kipling's novel, "Kim," where a British officer infiltrates native tribes in India.

"Groups like Al Qaeda are not state organizations," said Keegan. "They are cunning and primitive. Al Qaeda and the other extremist organizations have to be attacked on their own turf, which means going back to human agents," instead of relying only on surveillance and other intelligence technology.

Keegan was in the United States promoting his new book, "Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al Qaeda" (Knopf, 389 pages, $30), in which he tackles the subject of military intelligence. Keegan does this by examining several important battles over the past 200 years, including British Admiral Nelson's destruction of the French fleet in 1798, the German invasion of Crete in World War II, the sinking of the Japanese carriers in the Battle of Midway in 1942 and the present war against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

"Intelligence is clearly an important element in warfare," said the 69-year-old Keegan. A major goal in his book, however, is to debunk the idea that intelligence alone causes military victories. "I really want to get around to putting down my objection to what I call 'the James Bond approach' to writing intelligence history," he said. "James Bond is a very powerful figure in the Western imagination, but we know the idea that one lonely Englishman can defeat the communist world is ridiculous. That was one of my goals.

"My other was to answer the question, 'How important is military intelligence to victory?"' said Keegan. "I haven't got a clear-cut answer. I have an iffy answer: Sometimes it is very important. Sometimes it is not very important. Sometimes it appears to be important, but turns out it isn't."

In 1976, Keegan burst onto the military history scene when he published his monumental work, "The Face of Battle," which details the hardships of infantrymen in battle, and analyzed the chaos, brutality and slaughter of war from the eye of the soldier. The book has gone on to become a history classic and changed the face of military scholarship by putting the individual soldier in a prominent place in the chronicles of war.

Keegan is one of the world's most prominent military historians. He is the defense editor for the London Daily Telegraph and has written 17 books on military history, including "The Mask of Command" and acclaimed histories of World War I and World War II.

In the new book, Keegan continues the strategy of taking apart several major battles to prove his points. In "Intelligence in War," Keegan focuses on how intelligence can be misused or ignored. In the German invasion of Crete in 1940, the British and New Zealand defenders knew the exact date and time that the Germans would attack, and even the size of the attacking force. The Allied commander was distracted by a sea invasion that never came.

"I chose Crete because the British had it all laid out in front of them," said Keegan. "They'd intercepted and deciphered the complete German operation orders - when the Germans were coming, where they were going to land and how many troops they were going to use."

The Germans staged suicidal attacks with gliders and paratroops, maintaining a costly foothold on the island that led to victory.

Keegan writes bluntly about the need for America to be prepared to take harsh measures against terrorists. "Only force finally counts," he writes. "As the civilized states begin to chart their way through the wasteland of the universal war on terrorism, without foreseeable end, may their warriors shorten their swords." Using the ancient military analogy, Keegan sees the fight as up close and brutal.

"I think America is organizing itself in a ruthless way to deal with world terrorism in the decision to set up Guantanamo Bay and to dispense with due process, which I approve of," Keegan said. "I think it was morally very brave of the U.S. government, because all of these ideas are an anathema to your country. America is constantly being criticized as, 'Oh America, is not giving those terrorists a fair trial.' I say, I don't care whether they get a fair trial. I care that they are out of circulation."

Keegan noted that sometimes a mixture of intelligence and pure luck carry the day, as happened during the Battle of Midway. The Americans had strong intelligence, but couldn't find the Japanese carriers.

"There were three American aircraft carriers and they formed six attack squadrons. The first five were shot out of the sky," said Keegan. "The last squadron was running out of fuel and would have to turn back when the squadron leader happened to see the wake of a Japanese destroyer. He came to the correct snap decision that that line led to the Japanese carrier squadron. Bingo. He found the Japanese carriers."

The Japanese aircraft carriers were in the process of rearming their planes, with fuel lines and bombs strewn over the deck. "In five minutes, the American planes destroyed three carriers," he said. "It was every admiral's nightmare."

Several years ago, Keegan himself was almost recruited to be a spy. He'd written an article for The Atlantic Monthly on South Africa, interviewing various government officials. Keegan then got a strange phone call.

``I realized the caller must be from MI6," he said, referring to Britain's CIA. ``He asked me if I would go back and see the same people I'd interviewed and ask questions that he'd give me. He'd be interested in the answers. I declined because I thought I might be arrested (in South Africa)."

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