Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda , by John Keegan. Alfred A. Knopf, 387 pages, $30.
Sir John Keegan is the British chap that the History Channel brings into your living room to explain war. Which war doesn’t matter: the First World War, the Second, Korea, Vietnam, Gulf, Crimean, Seven Years, Thirty Years, Hundred Years, Spanish-American, French-and-Indian, Russo-Japanese, Napoleonic, Punic, Peloponnesian, of the Roses-you name it, he’s the expert. With scads of best-sellers girding his Sandhurst-strengthened sinews, Sir John is to the chronicling of organized blood-letting what Ray Kroc was to hamburgers.
He is also, it must be noted, positively rhapsodic about Donald Rumsfeld, whom he compared-favorably-to Lincoln and Churchill in a gushing Vanity Fair profile last February. “Duty seems to come to him quite naturally, and he bears its burdens lightly,” wrote Mr. Keegan, attributing the trait to the Secretary of Defense’s undergraduate years at “the most military of the great Ivy League colleges,” Princeton. “He does not bargain, he does not negotiate, and his mental processes are devoted entirely to calculating how he can successfully inflict violence on those he hates …. He is a product of the no-nonsense, can-do, plainspoken Midwest, preferring to do it his way, on his own terms.”
Rather too much so, the unpleasant “slog” in Iraq suggests.
Mr. Rumsfeld isn’t mentioned in Intelligence in War, which underwent unusual subtitle surgery. Review copies billboarded “From Nelson to Hitler”; the copies you’ll find at your friendly neighborhood Barnes and Noble, however, proclaim “Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda.” Was Knopf craven? Or did Mr. Keegan-who writes oceans about the Nazis, mere eye-drops about terrorists-deem Osama sexier than Adolf? That’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an Enigma (about the workings of which Mr. Keegan has buckets to say).
As for Mr. Rumsfeld’s nonappearance, that’s curious, given the scorn the author heaps on military planners who ignore intelligence in favor of their own prejudices, invariably with disastrous results. He cites, for notable example, Professor F.A. Lindemann (a.k.a. Lord Cherwell), who, as Churchill’s personal and scientific adviser, pooh-poohed for almost two critical years the threat posed by the V-2, on grounds that such a wonder weapon was technically impossible-despite a flood of intelligence that Wernher von Braun und camaraden were busily building them at Peenemünde. Only after they’d begun falling on London did Churchill bang the table and growl, “We have been caught napping.”
At least Winston woke up. Had Mr. Rumsfeld occupied No. 10, V-2’s might still be incoming. For as we now know, the “right man at the right time”-as Mr. Keegan describes the Secretary of Defense-not only dismissed a prewar, 13-volume State Department report that precisely predicted everything that’s happening in Iraq, but continues to write off the daily killing and chaos as “untidiness.”
There was nothing messy about Mr. Rumsfeld’s activities in dragging the U.S. to war in the first place. With the antiseptic thoroughness for which Princetonians of Midwestern origin are renowned, he cast into the dumpster any evidence that the only clear and present danger the Iraqi regime presented was to other Iraqis. Instead, he vested his trust in the sky-is-falling assurances of Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalabi, whose qualifications as a seer were two: residency in the United Kingdom since 1956, and skipping out on a sentence of 22 years at hard labor for bank fraud.
The teaming of these two gentlemen calls to mind the derring-do of the World War II agent code-named “Garbo.” Mr. Keegan tells the story of how Garbo (a Spanish citizen named Juan Piyol Garcia operating from Lisbon) convinced the German Abwehr that he was a pro-Nazi British resident in control of a 27-member espionage ring and was organizing sabotage operations by Welsh nationalists. The Germans paid handsomely for the intelligence he provided, as did the British, who invented every scrap of it. At war’s end, Garbo was made an M.B.E. and retired unmolested by either paymaster.
The difference is, with Mr. Rumsfeld’s backing, Mr. Chalabi may wind up president of Iraq.
Light-hearted moments are fleeting in Intelligence in War, which devotes itself to the workings of good, bad and indifferent intelligence in events such as Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley campaign, Nelson’s pursuit of Napoleon’s fleet across the Mediterranean and the Battle of Midway, where the author’s revelations will come as news principally to those who missed the movie starring Henry Fonda as Admiral Nimitz.
Only as afterthought does Mr. Keegan get around to discussing the Second Gulf War of 2003. In Vanity Fair, Mr. Keegan adjudged the impending war “a simple problem”; in these pages, he accords it exactly one sentence, consisting of his congratulations to U.S. intelligence for “an important role in the targeting early on of the Iraq leadership.” That the bull’s-eye was missed (the collateral casualties were eating lunch) apparently became clear only after Intelligence in War went to press.
Sorting out the rest of our Osama present, according to Mr. Keegan, will require the services of tidbit gatherers more in the mold of Kipling’s Kim than Fleming’s Bond. “Brave individuals, fluent in difficult languages and able to pass as native members of other cultures, will have to befriend and win acceptance by their own societies’ enemies,” he writes. “The masters of the new counter-intelligence … will not be intellectuals, nor will they overcome their opponents by power of reason or gifts of mathematical analysis. On the contrary: it will be qualities of empathy and dissimulation that will equip them to identify, penetrate and win acceptance by the target groups. Their work will resemble that of undercover police agents who attempt to become trusted members of criminal gangs, with all the dangers and moral compromises that such a life requires.”
Such sturdy sorts are in lamentably short supply, Mr. Keegan concedes, and in consequence, “it may … take decades for Western intelligence agencies to learn how to break into the mysterious and alien organisations and even longer to marginalise and neutralise them.”
In the interval, he says, the Axis of Good is in for a ticklish time, since a), there’s not much identifiable real estate to devastate; b), Al Qaeda operatives unsportingly don’t mind being killed; and c), nothing can be done to satisfy them, even if Dubya and Don were so disposed. “It has no rational political purpose,” Mr. Keegan wrote of Muslim radicalism in Vanity Fair. “[I]t is not designed to achieve a political aim, but is simply intended to inflict hurt on the hated non-Islamic world.” Word for word, the Bush administration has been spouting the same claptrap since 9/11: Forget about such bagatelles as the agony of the Palestinians and the propping up of repressive regimes from Cairo to Riyadh-Arabs are nuts.
If you need an explanation for the current cluelessness in Iraq, here it is, wrapped up with a ribbon. The only surprise is that Mr. Keegan (whose early work-1987’s The Face of Battle especially-was breathtaking for its insights) should become a mouthpiece for it.
Perhaps that’s what happens when you’ve written 16 rapturously reviewed volumes, been knighted; know your way around Boodles and Whites, and spend Saturday mornings in the Pentagon’s E-ring with the pal you call “Rummy.” Before you know it, rot sets in.
Robert Sam Anson, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, reviews books regularly for The Observer.