In the movie "Master and Commander," Jack Aubrey manages to find the single enemy ship for which he's searching the vast Pacific. During the real age of fighting sail, commanders were not so lucky. Lord Nelson, the cleverest of all British admirals, was driven into a "frenzy" trying to find Napoleon's fleet--some 300 ships--in the Mediterranean in 1798. (After 79 days he did, and destroyed them.) Nelson railed against fortune, unable to eat or sleep as he cast about for some piece of intelligence that would reveal the enemy.
All commanders long for that secret key to victory--the broken code, the well-placed spy, the brilliant deception. They rarely find it, writes John Keegan in his new book, "Intelligence in War," and when they do, they still have to fight. In a series of bracing, meticulous case studies, including the Battle of Midway and Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah Valley, Keegan, our greatest modern military historian, argues that "ultimately, it is force, not fraud or forethought, that counts."
Still, intelligence remains seductive. In 1940 Winston Churchill wanted to loosen Hitler's grip on Europe by subversion, and British commandos parachuted in to aid resistance groups. Their exploits have been celebrated in film and fiction, but in reality they accomplished "almost nothing," writes Keegan--except to fuel civil wars that continued long after the Nazis were driven out by conventional forces. Keegan is not optimistic about the role of intelligence in the current war on terror (which he regards as a misnomer). "It may take decades," he writes, "for Western intelligence agencies to learn how to break in to the mysterious and alien organizations and even longer to marginalize and neutralize them."
Although Keegan's previous books have been both erudite and gripping on the subject of combat, from Alexander to the gulf war, he has "tried to steer clear of the intelligence world all my working life." That's partly because, as a teacher at Sandhurst, Britain's military academy, he was forbidden to have contact with any intelligence organization. But one senses that he also wanted to stay away from the sheer muddle. "Intelligence in War" could provide a useful lesson for presidents who think they can defeat the enemy on the cheap through espionage and subversion.