Courtesy Reuters

The Rise of Intelligence


People take it for granted that good intelligence wins wars. During most of Western history, however, warriors paid intelligence little heed, because it rarely helped them. Generals since Caesar have sought information about their enemies, of course, but for centuries they believed only what they could see: terrain and troops. They distrusted spies and questioned the tools of prediction -- dreams, omens, entrails, the mutterings of oracles. So inefficacious were these methods that of the "fifteen decisive battles of the world" described by the Victorian historian Edward Creasy, intelligence drove the outcome of only one: Rome's victory over Carthage at the Metaurus River in 207 BC. The rest were decided by strength and will.

But the situation changed in the nineteenth century as armies began to use railroads and developed general staffs for centralized planning, creating both a target for intelligence gathering and an organizational home for the information gathered. Even so, intelligence did not have a major impact on war and politics until communications intercepts in World War I helped generals to win battles -- a trend that continued in later conflicts.

Military intelligence thus progressed through three stages. In the nineteenth century, general staffs institutionalized it; during World War I, radio intercepts gave it importance; and during World War II and the Cold War, it played such a large role that intelligence officers gained equality in rank with combat commanders. The latter rightly retained priority, however, for intelligence in war works only through force. It can focus and economize efforts, it can offer an advantage, but in the end, force is necessary for victory. This remains true even of the war on terrorism, a shadowy campaign against nonstate actors in which intelligence is playing its greatest role yet.


Premodern military commanders made use of advisers, but they generally derided thinking and exalted fighting. Shakespeare summed up their attitude nicely in Troilus and Cressida, when he had Ulysses complain:

    They tax our policy and call
    Count wisdom as no member of the war,
    Forestall prescience and esteem no act
    But that of hand. The still and mental parts
    That do contrive how many hands shall strike
    When fitness calls them on, and know by measure
    Of their observant toil the enemy's weight,
    Why, this hath not a finger's dignity.
    They call this "bed-work," "mapp'ry," "closet-war."
    So that the ram that batters down the wall,
    For the great swinge and rudeness of his poise
    They place before his hand that made the engine,
    Or those that with the finesse of their souls
    By reason guide his execution.

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