Letter from Military History – October 2008

8/26/2008 • MH Issues, Richard Nixon

Shadow Facts

What did he know? And when did he know it? That famous pair of questions posed by Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee during the Watergate era referred to President Richard Nixon and is now commonly applied to high officials suspected of misdeeds. But those questions are equally valid when applied to military leaders, not as a matter of nosing after malfeasance, but as a historical matter of understanding their tactics, decisions and actions.

If a particular decision by a field commander seems baffling in retrospect, consider what he knew and when he knew it. Then consider the possibility that he knew something we (and the enemy he was facing) could not know, that he was in possession of superior clandestine intelligence. Or, from the opposite side, consider that an opponent may have planted false information to elicit the commander’s baffling decision. A classic example of the latter is Adolf Hitler’s hesitation to counterattack at Normandy because he believed it was only a ruse and that the major Allied invasion would hit farther up the French coast at Calais. Why did Hitler believe that? Because an elaborate British intelligence scheme had snookered him into that false belief. It worked beautifully, saving countless lives and contributing to the battlefield success at Normandy. Only later, when secret documents were declassified, was it possible to understand Hitler’s delayed reaction in the spring of 1944.

It may be true that battles and wars are won or lost by better weapons, better training, superior generalship, greater courage and determination, and other overt factors. But it may also be true that victory may turn on covert information—call them shadow facts—that one side knew or did not know at the time, that one side believed to be true or false. It is a hidden dimension of warfare that is not always given much consideration at the time or later by historians. But it can prove decisive.