John Keegan

John Desmond Patrick Keegan "was a writer of exceptional grace whose more than 20 books spanned the history of warfare from Alexander the Great to the 21st-century." He died on 2 August 2012. Matt Schudel, "John Keegan Dies: British Military Historian Was 78," Washington Post, 4 Aug. 2012.

Keegan, John. Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to al-Qaeda. New York: Knopf, 2003.

According to Powers, Washington Post, 8 Feb. 2004, the author's focus is on "the age of big armies (and navies)..., and his effort to weigh seriously the importance of intelligence in combat is original and provocative. He proceeds with a casebook method -- recounting a significant battle or campaign and analyzing the role of intelligence in success or failure.... In each case, intelligence played a key role, but in none, Keegan argues, was it decisive."

The reviewer finds much to admire in this work: "Keegan has a gift for narrative, and he is a master of his material.... His tales are well-chosen, told with economy and filled with dramatic incident. The argument is temperate, reasonable and always raises questions of importance." Nonetheless, Powers raises two "quarrels" with Keegan: "The first is that Keegan's own accounts sometimes seem to contradict his claim and argue for the primacy of intelligence in war." The second is "Keegan's failure to remember his Clausewitz, and in particular the axiom that war is the continuation of politics by other means. Winning battles while losing wars is common in history."

In addition, "[t]he mastery of detail and the feel for his material that are so evident when Keegan is writing about the big wars and big armies of the 20th century disappear when he turns his attention briefly to al Qaeda at the end of his book."

Brooks, Proceedings 130.2 (Feb. 2004) and NIPQ 20.1, finds that "this is a military history book as much as (perhaps more than) a book about intelligence.... Keegan's analysis of the intelligence contribution to victory at Midway is particularly strained, and some of his facts are slightly askew.... Particularly gratuitous is Keegan's conclusion that it was luck, not good intelligence, that resulted in the U.S. victory at Midway." Nonetheless, "Intelligence in War is well written and thought provoking."

To Smith, NWCR 57.3/4, we can see in each of the author's case studies "how the gathering and the use of intelligence -- two very different acts -- affected the action." However, intelligence is not presented as determining military victory. Rather, he reminds us that "[b]rutal fighting,... along with a good bit of luck, are the key determinants of battlefield success. What Keegan instead shows is that good intelligence can reduce the scope of the unknown, and most importantly remove guesswork from the equation as much as possible."

Kruh, Cryptologia 28.2, "highly recommend[s]" Keegan's "breakthrough study." For Murphy, Military History 21.6 (Feb. 2005), this "is a very good read. It is, however, not so much about intelligence as it is a collection of battle stories themed on the degree to which intelligence played a role in the outcome.... It is a shame that Keegan's discussion of intelligence's role is not of greater depth, especially in light of the issues raised by the current world war."

Finding substantial faults in the author's support for his thesis, West, IJI&C 19.2 (Summer 2005), is less than impressed by this work. With regard to FORTITUDE, "Keegan almost deliberately misunderstands the agents, how they were run, and the many thousands of lives saved by this truly breathtaking deception." He also "appears to have an equally distorted grasp of what happened in the Falklands conflict." In the final analysis, "Keegan's central thesis, that intelligence had been overrated, may stem from his apparent confusion between intelligence and military operations."

Killebrew, Parameters 35.1 (Spring 2005), comments that although Keegan can usually be counted on "for focus and brevity,... this text wanders, occasionally, as though the author has found an interesting little alley from the main boulevard. Parts of the case studies read as though the author had bits and pieces left over from previous works. And he spends too much time debunking the idea of the spy or secret agent's impact on operations. But Intelligence in War is well worth the sidetrips and back alleys. His case studies ... illustrate a powerful and moving theme for modern defense thinkers."

To Warner, Studies 48.2 (2004), this "is an interesting collection of vignettes, some about battles and campaigns and others about intelligence work. The problem comes when Keegan tries to mold the two subjects into a larger synthesis." One "level of intelligence in war is conspicuously absent in Keegan's book: strategic intelligence for the 'national command authority.'"

Mazzafro, I&NS 19.4 (Winter 2004), sees Intelligence in War as "a highly readable book" that "provides a fascinating perspective on the history of modern warfare." Nevertheless, although it "artfully recounts why intelligence is not capable alone of winning battles," the book "falls short of proving that intelligence in war does not matter."

For Johnston, Air & Space Power Journal 19.2 (Summer 2005), this work "is fascinating and fast paced but not necessarily convincing." The stories the author tells "make for brilliant military history and riveting reading. This is precisely the point -- they are short campaign histories rather than convincing arguments for Keegan's main thesis. In fact, for a book that purports to be a study of intelligence in war, it spends rather little time discussing intelligence itself." Intelligence in War is "vintage Keegan. His fans will not be disappointed; his critics will not be convinced. Armchair generals and general readers will not be bored."

Barber, Canadian Military Journal 5.1 (Spring 2004), is disappointed in this work. "A reader searching for an understanding of military intelligence in warfare should expect that the author provide ... an explanation of the purpose of military intelligence, how it can be used, and how it is organized.... Nowhere does Keegan ... show more than the most cursory understanding of the intelligence process.... [T]he standard of research would embarrass a senior undergraduate.... Most egregious ... was his dismissal of the important role played by intelligence in the ... allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic.... This book is far from authoritative, and will cause more confusion than enlightenment."

For a view that gives greater credit to the effect of intelligence than does Keegan, see Gregory Elder, "Intelligence in War: It Can Be Decisive," Studies in Intelligence 50, no. 2 (2006).

[MI/Overviews; Overviews/Gen/00s]

Keegan, John. The Iraq War. New York: Knopf, 2004.

Reese, DIJ 14.1 (2005), is impressed with the author's "picture of grand (coalition) strategy and the conflict's place in the global war on terrorism.... [H]e helps us appreciate the coalition aspects of the war." However, Keegan "is not impressed with the clumsy American transition to stability operations."


Keegan, John. "The Product of Bletchley." Times Literary Supplement, 12 Oct. 1984, 1163-1164.

Sexton calls this an "[i]nsightful essay."


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