On Strategic Surprise and the Question of the Second Front: Lessons from History

Year: 2021

An Interview with the Author, Devadas Krishnadas

Bestselling author and strategist Devadas Krishnadas has recently published two new ebooks on Amazon, entitled Taken by Surprise and Decision Second Front, respectively. While both books broadly deal with strategy in the sphere of military history, the insights gleaned extend not only to history enthusiasts and students, but to anyone interested in how the human condition impacts decision-making at the very highest level and with the very highest stakes at risk.

Devadas tells us more in this interview.

Q: First, a question that has already arisen from some of your readers on the news of these latest books is, ‘how do you manage to be so prolific with your writing and publishing?’ These two books come only 6 months after your previous book, Confronting Covid-19, after all.

A: Yes, this is something I get asked a lot! I find writing to be intellectually challenging. I have an eclectic range of interests ranging from economics, politics, public policy, poetry to history and biography. Leading FMG keeps me constantly engaged in high level consultation work so my mind is always tuned into current affairs, developing ideas, formulating strategies, and articulating these ideas to our clients.

Running FMG and writing on varied topics have an interdependence as FMG provides consultation across a wide spectrum of public policy and strategy. We take an evidence-based approach with rigorous analysis and – unlike many other consultancies which deliver their advice only via PowerPoint – at FMG, we service our clients with well thought out analysis in written format. So, writing books and articles is just an extension of that high standard of written communication that is second nature not only to me, but to the whole team at FMG.

Q: Broadly speaking at least, both books have modern military history as their subject matter. Is there a particular reason for this?

A: Much of my education background has hinged on history – my Bachelor of Arts was in Modern History and Political Economics, while I also hold a Masters of Law, Diplomacy, and Strategic Intelligence. History remains a passion of mine and I am a firm believer that an astute understanding of history is of fundamental importance for any strategist working today, whether in public service or business.

Q: Talking about the books then – starting with Taken By Surprise, can you briefly summarise your thesis? 

A: To put it simply, I first asked myself, “Why do nations with sophisticated, well-staffed, well-resourced intelligence agencies continue to find themselves caught off guard by major surprises that often have catastrophic consequences?” After interrogating three case studies, I argue that the cause of strategic surprise is located in the function of cognitive rigidity, for which I propose models of understanding.

Q: What are three case studies you look at in your study?

A: I study the Tet Offensive, the Yom Kippur War and the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your concept of ‘Cognitive Rigidity’?

A: To be surprised implies a failure of both understanding and imagination – the victim did not see the surprise coming. Their thinking was inflexible, or they were cognitively rigid.

If you refer to my model (right) showing layers of cognitive rigidity, I argue that cognitive rigidities occur at the psychological and operational milieu levels of perception of both producers and consumers of intelligence. These rigidities have belief making powers when confronted with cognitive dissonance of the contrasting reality of facts and events.

We can look briefly at the 9-11 example to help explain the model. The psychological milieu there was the two-dimensional perspective of the US’s intelligence community at the time, shaped as it was by Cold War-era espionage. Any preoccupation they had with terrorism was with domestic secular terrorism, not religious ideological threats like Al Qaeda.

The operational milieu was one where terrorist attacks were treated as law and order violations to be dealt with by the FBI after the fact, not by dedicated counter-terrorism agencies before they happen.

In terms of the US’s organisational politics of the 1990s and 2000s, i.e. its intelligence community, it was a bloated confederate of agencies who didn’t understand each other well, resulting in a lack of understanding as to where one’s responsibilities began and ended.

Weaknesses in these three layers create cognitive rigidity that contributes to strategic surprise.

Q: What is there to learn for readers who may not be much interested in the three case studies you cover?

A: If I may use the words of someone else to answer this question, I will borrow from a review received on the book’s Amazon page: “It offers a fresh perspective of the perennial challenge of decision making. Our brain has cognitive biases, and in particular a confirmation bias which makes us see mostly evidence supporting our own views. At this time in history, where disruption and change are everywhere, any individual or organization can benefit from keeping an open mind.”

Q: Moving on to Decision Second Front, this book also sees you take on a momentous event from modern history, in this case the question of opening a second front in Europe. Is this book similar in style and approach to Taken by Surprise?

A: Decision Second Front is quite different in style. While I like to hope readers will find the thesis strong and it is certainly is borne from a lot of research, the subject matter and the characters involved enabled me to take a more storytelling style with this book, which I enjoyed. Who wouldn’t be drawn in by characters like FDR, Churchill, Eisenhower and Montgomery? Even the locations were romantic: meetings were held on aircraft carriers in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in grand hotels in Casablanca…

Q: You make a point early that in your book you are defining the ‘Second Front’ not as the event of the Normandy landings alone, but as a conceptual framework that considers the entire phase of Anglo-American relations throughout the war up to that point. Is this correct?

A: That’s right, yes. Mountains of literature have already been written about Operation Overlord, not to mention many (excellent) documentaries and movies, so I widened the lens to focus on the relations between the Allies in the 5 years leading up to that point instead, which has not been covered by historians or filmmakers in as much depth.

The key point of the book is to reveal the Anglo-Allied relations to be fractious, tense and often divergent and always complex – quite unlike the commonplace assumption that it was harmonious and unified.

Q: What aspects about the relationship between the UK and America do you cover in your book that you think readers will find of most interest?

A: There were many interesting dynamics at play. At first, of course, America was not an active participant in the war itself. It was interesting for me when doing my research to find just how influential Churchill was on a personal level to encourage Roosevelt to provide ever greater support to the British cause, with the Lend-Lease Programme proving instrumental. This was impressive negotiation on Churchill’s behalf given what a desperate situation they were in at the time.

The changing dynamics of power between the nations throughout the war are also fascinating. When the US did finally join the war in earnest, they initially let the British take the lead. This was seen as the natural order of things, with the British having more experience and a richer tradition of warfare.

In those early war years, the British saw their US counterparts as amateurish and a little out of their depth. However, as the war progressed, this power balance shifted dramatically, which led to Overlord proceeding in June 1944 – with the American Eisenhower in ultimate charge – despite British protests against the operation up to the last moment. I think readers will enjoy reading about the circumstances that shifted that balance, as well as the undercurrents of tension between the Brits and American senior military leadership.

Lastly, at a fundamental level, I think many readers will find it surprising just how opposed the Anglo and American views on strategy were at different stages of the war. Impressionistically, thanks in large part to them emerging as victors together, we have come to see the Anglo-American relationship in the war as a smooth, happy marriage. This was far from the case.

Thank you, Devadas. I am sure readers will find plenty to enjoy from both books.

Taken by Surprise: A Study of Intelligence Failures and Decision Second Front: A Study of Anglo-American Relations, 1939-1944 are both available now in ebook format from Amazon’s Kindle Store.

(Note: The books are not presently available as a print edition.)