Interesting read…

Just finished Keegan’s Intelligence in War. Despite the issue in my prior post, I think this is a remarkably well-written and well-thought-out book. I recommend it to anyone interested in the role that intelligence has played in military operations in the past few centuries. (It covers from Napoleon to the second Gulf War)

But incidentally to the main thread of its discussion, reading this book drove home the extent to which our present situation (with regards to hazy terror groups, not Iraq) is different from what our military has been designed to handle. Even Keegan states that “no smaller power has ever won a protracted war with a larger one” – by which I assume he was thinking only of traditional, symmetric wars.

It makes me very curious about the entire subject of the structure of informal networks such as al Qaeda, and how they may be most effectively monitored and interdicted. I’ve got some preliminary thoughts, but there’s a very basic missing piece in my trying to think about this.

An organization like al Qaeda can be thought of as a large network of people. What, precisely, is it that propagates along this network? Do specific commands propagate? Does information propagate upwards as well as downwards? What about materiel, raw resources like money, training data? How are expert proficiencies handled – are people already in situ trained at something, or are specialists moved into position by central planning?

I think a lot of these questions are answerable without access to classified information, and a bit of thinking about these issues could lead to some very interesting structural models that could provide useful information about how to destroy these groups irretrievably.

Published in: on January 31, 2004 at 20:23  Comments (9)  
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  1. How does Keegan reconcile his statement (“no smaller power has ever won a protracted war with a larger one”) with the American war of independence, American involvement in Vietnam, or the Russian occupation of Afghanistan? Would those simply not be ‘protracted’ wars?

  2. I think it was somewhat of a throwaway statement made in the course of a different argument; there is obviously a large number of cases where it doesn’t hold up. (He was discussing Adm. Yamamoto’s warning that Japan could maintain victories against the US for 6 months to a year, but that afterwards American industrial size would tell and everything would fall apart) I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it to be a significant statement, and that it’s more indicative of the “traditional wars” mindset that many military people seem to fall into when they don’t think about it.

  3. Fair enough. Yeah, everything I have read or learned about WWII seems to indicate that the Allies won both sides of the war mostly just through brute economic might, and the Axis usually had the advantage in most circumstances. Well, and then some huge tactical blunders later in the war, but by then it probably just affected the time-table of Allied victory, not the existence thereof.

  4. Maybe. You’re right that I think from the point where the USA and USSR were in the war, there was no way the Axis could win in the long term, but I’m not sure that the Axis had the advantage in other ways. The Japanese were very inferior in terms of equipment, and in a lot of cases tactical doctrine. Look at any account of Guadalcanal for an example. Likewise, there’s this myth of the super-motorized German army and its incredibly high-tech supplies, but it took them a long time to produce, say, a tank that could match the capabilities of the T-34.
    Part of this is also perspective. I once said to that, in general, German design was better than that of the Western allies in an abstract sense. I said “the King Tiger.” He said “Radar.”

  5. Oh well, also it’s important to remember that Keegan’s definition of “war” can be … idiosyncratic.

  6. True, I almost mentioned the radar thing myself. The Allied in had a number of crucial minor (minor in the sense of that they were not broad categories) like radar. And I was more concentrating on the European side of things, which I know more about. But WWII is certainly not my speciality, so maybe I should avoid making blanket statements. *smile*

  7. On the other hand, “The V-1 and V-2.” And “The atomic bomb.”
    Overall, I agree with the conclusion, though – the Allies’ economic size was going to be the determinant in any really protracted war. Even if the Russian winter hadn’t eaten so much of the German army, and had Britain ultimately fallen, America still had a fairly large reserve to draw upon.

  8. This is the first book of his I’ve read, and at least in this one his definitions have been pretty canonical – but the subjects he covered were mostly things like Nelson chasing Napoleon, the Civil War, and the two World Wars, not cases where there’s too much subtlety about definitions.
    Any books of his that you’d recommend looking at?

  9. Well, I haven’t read this one. I found History of Warfare to be overly general. There were interesting observations, but overall it wasn’t as interesting.
    The Face of Battle addresses an issue that concerns me a lot in archaeology; when we say “they fought a battle,” what exactly are we talking about happening? It looks at three battles — Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme — in terms of what the actual experience of the participants might have been like. It’s a good question in the case of Agincourt, and involves some imaginative reconstruction.
    I can lend you either of them if you like. They’re both worth reading, although I don’t think Keegan has all the answers. Or maybe not even most of the answers.

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