The Continuing Influence of Clausewitz

By Hudson, Walter M. | Military Review, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

The Continuing Influence of Clausewitz


Hudson, Walter M., Military Review


John Keegan's book Intelligence and War: Knowledge of the Enemy From Napoleon to Al-Qaeda can best be described as a thoroughgoing critique of the contemporary fetish for looking at intelligence as a silver bullet that will win battles, capture terrorists, and successfully resolve crises.1 Keegan casts a skeptic's eye on intelligence. He states, "In the familiar campaigning grounds of Europe, during the great wars of the French Revolution and Napoleonic empire (1792-1815), intelligence rarely brought victory solely by its own account."2

The book's central theme is simply that knowledge is not power. Power alone is power, and in a series of eight incisive case studies, framed with introductory and concluding chapters, Keegan seeks to demonstrate this tautology.

The case studies begin in the 19th century with Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory on the Nile and General Stonewall Jackson's Valley Campaign in 1862. Keegan also cites three 20th-century case studies of naval campaigns or battles, covering the use of wireless in naval engagements in World War I and analyzing the battles of the Atlantic and Midway during World War II. He also looks at the 1941 battle of Crete and the use of human intelligence in the effort to discover Nazi Germany's secret weapons programs. He concludes with a look at developments of military intelligence after 1945, focusing especially on the 1982 Falk-land Islands war.

To Keegan, intelligence is, at best, an enabler; it cannot in itself bring victory. For example, he notes that even during the Spanish Peninsular War, when one would think intelligence would have been of most use, it seldom brought an edge simply because intelligence traveled too slowly to confer any real-time advantage.3

Even when intelligence is complete, it can be virtually without value. The British possessed near perfect knowledge of what the Germans were going to do in Crete in 1941. Keegan says, "OL 2/302 [the crucial ENIGMA decrypt that revealed German plans] was an almost comprehensive guide to Operation Merkur, one of the most complete pieces of timely intelligence ever to fall into the hands of an enemy.

Merkus revealed the timing of the attack, the objectives, and the strength and composition of the attacking force. Moreover, as the success of Merkur depended on surprise-as all airborne operations must do-the revelation of the operation order to General [Bernard] Freyberg [the Allied commander] was particularly damning."4

Nonetheless, the Germans won the battle of Crete. Keegan particularly demonstrates how limited was the value of intelligence before U.S. troops deployed to Iraq. Keegan says, "A potential international lawbreaker had been obliged to open his borders to officially sponsored investigators of his suspected wrong-doing and yet they remained unable to dispel the uncertainties surrounding his intentions and capabilities. In absolutely optimum conditions, in short, intelligence had failed."5

Rethinking Clausewitz?

Intelligence and War is in many ways a deft and readable book. Keegan powerfully demonstrates the limits of military intelligence in each case study. His narrative skill is evident throughout, and his wonderful one-paragraph description of the Shenandoah Valley could be in an operations order; it is a superb verbal map, rich in details, yet also clear in exposition.6

Keegan can capture a relatively minor figure in history, such as Captain Thomas Troubridge, one of Nelson's favorites, in a few deft strokes. Keegan also has a quiet wit, as for example, when he comments on the scholars who accompanied Napoleon on his campaign to Egypt: "Some of the academics who were to accompany the expedition began to boast, a notorious failing of clever men leading unimportant lives."7 The method Keegan uses to prove his thesis is also interesting. It is best described as "Clausewitzian" even though the Prussian philosopher of war is never mentioned in the book. …

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