Review: Stratagem: Deception and Surprise in War

5 Star, Asymmetric, Cyber, Hacking, Odd War, Information Operations
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

Barton Whaley

5.0 out of 5 stars Pioneeding, Deep, Essential, Needs 21st Century Follow-Up September 5, 2013

I borrowed this book from another officer, and have been quite delighted to spend time with it.

This is a much older book than most realize (1969) and its examples and case studies stop with the Six-Day War in 1967 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is certain a book that is worthy of being brought up to date through to the varied wars of the 21st Century; it is also a book that would merit a deeper look at the ethics, efficacy, and frequent perversion of deception operations, by which I mean both the mission and the mind-set creep from focused deception to what has been called “Strategic Communication,” or lies so broad and deep we believe them ourselves and want everyone else to believe them also. Apart from being dated, this is the books more important oversight – it does not offer the reader a balanced appraisal of when transparency, truth, and trust are a better investment than pervasive and pernicious deception of one’s own public, global leaders, and global publics. The latter may be asking too much, I will soften it by strongly endorsing this book as a reader for war colleges around the world, with my own monographs (free online) from the U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute (SSI), as the counterfoil.

Now for the good of this book, this is considerable. This book merits vastly more attention than it has been getting, in part because the US marketplace is dumbed down and drugged up, and the US military still has a “hey-diddle-diddle up the middle mind-set.” “Keep it simple” is often actually “keep it stupid.” In that context, this book could be used to teach both ethics and nuanced thinking at the war colleges. The book offers – and the author points out this is the least visible part of the book – “an original exercise in methodology – a method designed to unmask deception when it is present.”

The author’s introduction to the 2007 reprint is BRILLIANT. I can do no better and therefore I keep the book at five stars and suggest that the introduction, and my extractive summary of the book provided here at Amazon, be used as handouts across the war colleges.

First, a rapid overview of the first two parts of the book. Part One consists of six chapters of text plus a bibliography that is not annotated. In a seminal work such as this, an annotated bibliography would have been a superb grace note. Part Two consists of just over one hundred case studies and examples, or vignettes and is a lasting resource that I would use as a model in demanding of my war college students that they discover, discriminate, distil, and develop a single 21st Century example – including examples of delusional surprise (where we think we will deceive but in fact are being laughed at), all toward a US Army SSI publication.

In his own words from the preface:

“This model constantly and systematically reminds the analyst to seek and report these special types of data that even skilled analysts often overlook or underplay.”

“To detect deception, one must, at a minimum, know to look for those specific types of clues that point to deception.”

“Finally and, I believe, most importantly, a cross-disciplinary attack is essential for detecting deception in either part or ongoing operations….the most relevant of these [integrated disciplines] were the physical sciences, bacteriology, philosophy of science, sociology, political science, and Chinese area studies (Sinology), which itself encompassed the disciplines of, among others, history, linguistics, anthropology, and geology.”
The author emphasizes the importance of pattern analysis, which requires constant situational awareness that I would emphatically demand be at all four levels of analysis simultaneously and inter-locked: strategic, operational, tactical, and technical. The threat changes depending on the level of analysis, and so also must the astute commander and their staff be thinking regionally (multinationally), Whole of Government (multiagency) as well as multidisciplinary and multidomain (the other seven tribes of intelligence outside of government, most of whom are aware of deception by their own government light years before the US mind-sets might even stumble upon it – and since USG HUMINT stinks (both clandestine and overt) the reality is that the USG is always the last to hear and rarely listens even when the wise speak).

I do have to observe that this book focuses only on military deception, not on commercial or other forms of deception, including those essential to diplomatic demarches. It also does not address the raw fact that our enemies always know us better than we know them, and we deceive ourselves at our own peril.

A few summary notes from an extraordinary book that merits great respect:

01 Ruses of war include diversions (feints and demonstrations), camouflage, and disinformation.

02 Israel and the United Kingdom are best in class today, to which I would add, the US public, US Congress, and US public are their foils. The book does not cover the City of London and Wall Street banking communities that have taken lies and deception to new heights in the past ten years.

03 “Deception has never been fully accommodated in military theory.” I totally agree, with the observation that I personally know of one unit in one country that is getting everything right on the deception side, while being almost totally blind on the intelligence side.

04 To be credible, deception must be backed up by real capabilities, for example, the ability to do precision human and technical attacks, not just rely on a nuclear arsenal and repeated bluffs.

05 Liddell Hart is the central thinker in the English language; the essence of the indirect approach is psychological not physical – non-kinetic.

06 The US generally has no clue – everyone else places surprise in their top three, the US “has consistently gone against the international trend by placing surprise toward the bottom of their scales [within the principles of war].

07 The achievement of surprise demands world-class planners able to conceptualize alternative courses of action that make sense, so as to use one of them, far removed from the actual planned course of action, to weave a credible narrative that can be delivered to the target audiences with panache.

08 Intelligence treats camouflage as an obstacle toward finding the “real” stuff, but does not have a theory or practice able to treat camouflage as an indicator of deception leading to the discovery of other indicators.

09 (Western) intelligence is naïve in believing that its technical collection can be relied upon, when in fact the West is hearing what the enemy – including a very sophisticated insurgent – wants the US to hear. I would add that as long as the West is decrepit in the human intelligence arena and in counterintelligence, technical collection is generally a waste of time, money, and minds.

10 Secrecy generally cannot conceal a deception or planned surprise – all of the cases studies have ample open source indicators that were generally missed by the all-source analytic cadres. The author stresses that deception, not security, is the foundation for effective surprise.

11 Core causes of surprise include terrain, weather, timing, and preconceptions [this last one is where the White House is always caught short – it substitutes ideology for intelligence and makes decisions based on fabricated views of reality rather than reality itself.
12 Each major dimension of warfare (land, air, sea) should have its own theory and practice of deception and its own pre-planned and pre-practiced means of doing deception and achieving surprise.

13 The most effective deception demands that all elements of one’s own government and one’s own society be deceived so as to assure that the enemy is “seeing” across the board buy-in, for example within one’s own diplomatic circles (See also 10 above).

14 BOTTOM LINE: Deception and surprise are a fundamental purpose of Information Operations (IO), to which I will add my favorite quote from the chief of the SOCOM J-2 “pit’ to wit: Secret intelligence is 10% of all-source intelligence, and all-source intelligence is 10% of IO.” The author points to the Israelis as masters of grand stratagem (pervasive persistent deception at all levels — strategic, operational, tactical, technical) in lieu of a Grand Strategy (which I interpret as sustainable peace and prosperity in the Middle East). Stratagem is not to be confused with strategy. Falling prey to the latter confusion in my view lies at the core of America’s ineffectiveness at war and peace.

Although I have written one of the books on IO, with all that I know now, augmented by this excellent book, I am both going back to revise my recommendations in my US Army SSI monograph on Human Intelligence, and starting to think about what a 21st Century IO edited work might look like, ideally rooted in a SOCOM-NATO sponsored conference at Carlisle or in Rome, where the NATO Defence College Forum is managed by Alessandro Politi, one of the original dirty dozen pioneers in Open Source Intelligence (OSINT).

I have skipped over the bulk of the book, the detailed review of examples, but paused on the Bay of Pigs example (pages 486-502), one of the longest treatments in the book. For the purposes of this book, the treatment is superb, but the author misses the key point: the Bay of Pigs was not expected to succeed, the CIA led JFK into a trap, one of several treasonous acts before his assassination in Dallas that included elements of the CIA led by George W. Bush, Senior, then a non-official cover officer for the CIA (see Dark Legacy). The Six Day War treatment and the treatment of Czechoslovakia are also lengthy and valuable as a prod to discussion.

The book has no index, a severe omission that should be corrected in future and follow-on editions.

On balance I would put forward the idea that until one has mastered the craft of intelligence and counterintelligence, one cannot be adept at the craft of deception and surprise, especially in the face of insurgencies that are led by people vastly more intelligence and ethical than US politicians can imagine.Strategic Intelligence and Statecraft: Selected Essays (Brassey’s Intelligence & National Security Library)

Other recommended books (for which I provide summary reviews here at Amazon):

The War Magician
War Without Windows
The Tunnels of Cu Chi: A Harrowing Account of America’s Tunnel Rats in the Underground Battlefields of Vietnam
None So Blind: A Personal Account of the Intelligence Failure in Vietnam
Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix: A Personal Account
Who the Hell Are We Fighting?: The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars
The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs)
The Complexity of Modern Asymmetric Warfare (International and Security Affairs)
Modern Strategy

Best wishes to all,
Robert David STEELE Vivas
INFORMATION OPERATIONS: All Information, All Languages, All the Time

Vote and/or Comment on Review
Vote and/or Comment on Review