The Corner

Taking Intelligence Too Seriously

John Keegan:

intelligence never wins wars. As the American David Kahn, the supreme intelligence historian, puts it: “There is an elemental point about intelligence – it is a secondary factor in war.”

Intelligence experts hate conceding that truth. The public collude. The reason is that the fiction of intelligence, beginning with Childers and Buchan, reaching its apogee in our age with the works of Ian Fleming and John le Carre, has worked so powerfully on the Western imagination that many of its readers, including presidents and prime ministers, have been brought to believe that intelligence solves everything. It stops wars starting. If they start nevertheless, it assures that the wrong side loses and the right side wins.

If only life were so simple. Any examination of campaigns in which intelligence played a major role reveals a far messier outcome, sometimes exactly the opposite result to the one that might have been expected.

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