Saturday 14 October 2023

The Secret World

Everyone does it, you know. Even people who deny that they do it, do it. I am, of course, referring to spying or, to give it its respectable name, intelligence gathering.

I have just been reading

Andrew, C., The Secret World: A History of Intelligence (London, Yale, 2018)

This is a thick brick of a book, with 760 pages of text (more or less, there are some illustrations) and another hundred or so of (very compressed) notes. A serious tome, and it has taken me a bit to read it all. It was, however, undeniably fascinating and by turns amusing, alarming, and bewildering. As with Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis, you do start to think that world leaders are rather stupid.

Still, this book claims to be a comprehensive history of intelligence services from the earliest times (the spies Moses sent into the Promised Land, Numbers 13) to the aftermath of the Islamist attacks in the early 2000s. There is much of interest in it for the wargamer, although the actual operations are usually more along the lines of role-playing or skirmish games rather than actual large-scale wargames. That said, one of Andrew’s points is that intelligence and the history thereof is largely unknown in government, security services, and academia.

For example, early on in the book, Andrew notes that on the three occasions when Britain has been seriously threatened by invasion by a foreign power – 1588, 1805, and 1940 – the intelligence services have been quite happily reading the enemy communications. On each occasion (except the first, of course) the codebreakers were ignorant of the fact that it had been done before. It would have helped, it would seem, if they had known because, firstly, it enables a longer view of intelligence and what it can deliver to be taken and, secondly, knowing what went before can clear up a good deal of confusion in how to handle the results of intelligence gathering.

Example abound. For an audience of wargamers, I might not need to mention the US intelligence decision in the late 1930s to have the Navy and the Army decrypt messages on alternate days. It probably seemed a good way to defuse inter-service rivalry at the time, but it led to serious confusion in the run-up to Pearl Harbour, even if the intelligence that had been received probably would not have issued a specific warning.

There are all sorts of fascinating historical items floating around. As another example, the machinations of the 1815 Conference of Vienna were a secret agent’s dream and a security officer’s nightmare. So many diplomats descended on Vienna that it was a simple matter of the Austrians to pay newly hired staff to retrieve documents that they were supposed to burn. Not that the diplomats were much better. A lot depended on who their mistresses were and who the mistresses spoke to. That Europe survived and was reshaped is possibly remarkable.

Another item of interest is that from 1844 to the outbreak of World War One the British had no cryptology department. The interception of letters from Mazzini, an Italian revolutionary caused a political outcry. No gentleman would read another’s mail. This attitude persisted for seventy-five years, more of less. Apparently, the US Embassy in Moscow was so riddled with spies and bugs that nothing could be kept secret until it was swept in the early 1950s. US diplomats continued to use easily cracked codes as well, on the basis that no one would intercept and read them.

It is also the case that the use of intelligence is a bit dubious as well. Enigma information, as is well known, was kept securely under wraps for fear of the enemy detecting that the codes had been broken. On the other hand, ministers and other leaders have a sometimes laughable propensity to announce that they have seen decrypts of foreign diplomatic messages – the temptation to boast is always around, I suppose.

There are also problems with intelligence analysis. Moses had a bit of an issue with that as 10 out of the 12 spies he sent into Canaan brought back scary reports of the place, with the result that the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years. Poor analysis of the results of intelligence can have significant implications for policy, warfare, and diplomacy. Countries have a predilection to misjudge others. The US and British misjudged the capabilities and imagination of the Japanese in 1941, as well as of Islamist terrorists in 2000. You cannot tell if there is a threat unless you are looking in the right place.

Intelligence does not of itself provide victory, either diplomatically or militarily. It can give a force multiplier, however. If you know what your enemy is probably up to you can take suitable countermeasures. If you do not, as with the German army at the beginning of World War One, you have to cover more options, in this case, the Channel ports as it was unknown where or when the British Expeditionary Force was going to land. The resulting division of the German army possibly affected the outcome of the Battle of the Marne.

In wargaming terms, not to mention real life, intelligence, both general diplomatic and specifically military is often overlooked (guilty as charged, m’lud), and, perhaps, it should not be. For example, agents in Bayonne fed Wellington lists of French units passing through on their way to Spain, so he had a pretty good idea of what he was up against. On the other hand, while the Prussians seem to have had far better intelligence than Napoleon before Jena, it did not stop them from losing. Nevertheless, some consideration of the obtaining of intelligence and its analysis and use could well enhance our games and, perhaps more specifically, our wargame campaigns.

I did like this book, although it is a very lengthy text. It has some great ideas for wargame (RPG / skirmish) scenarios in it, and has made me stop and ponder a bit about how intelligence gathering and use could be factored into our games, particularly when, as I do, you play solo. Hm.

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