Wednesday, November 25, 2020

History of Intelligence, and Canadianists: Behind the Enigma

Spare a thought for historians who are Canadian but who are not Canadian historians -- in the sense that the history they practise is something other than Canadian history. They get little of the attention from Canadian media, sparse as it is, that Canadianists may aspire to -- even here at Christopher Moore's History News.

Lauren Perruzza at Raincoast Books in Vancouver cleverly subverted this situation recently by sending me a copy of Behind the Enigma: The Authorized History of CGHQ, Britain's Secret Cyber-Intelligence Agency by John Ferris.

Ferris has lived in Calgary and taught history at the University of Calgary for decades, and he's the author of many books and articles, but his field is British and world security and diplomacy for the most part, So his work is not much covered in Canadian historical media, such as it is. 

(And since Behind the Enigma is published in Canada by Raincoast and elsewhere by Bloomsbury, both trade publishers rather than academic presses, it may not even reach academic review circles with ease. It also lacks, I might say, a couple of useful features common in academic-press books, such as a table of abbreviations and acronyms, desperately needed here, and page-range numbers at the tops of the endnotes pages, always a boon to the reader of an annotated work.)

T'other hand, Behind the Enigma has some contributions of interest to Canadians -- beyond honouring its Canadian (if not Canadianist) author. For one thing, it's good to see that security and intelligence studies have definitely reached the stage that authors no longer need even to debunk that historical novel passing as history called The Man Called Intrepid by the Canadian journalist William Stevenson, in which a Canadian named William Stephenson was credited with winning World War Two pretty much singlehanded by his application of an intelligence coup called "Ultra" that enabled the breaking of the Germans' "Enigma" coding system. Ferris is actually something of an Ultra sceptic, suggesting it was important part of Signals Intelligence but not so important as has been claimed in the overall war effort. 

The Western Allies won the war primarily because of command and power -- the quality of forces and commanders and the scale of resources - and secondarily because of intelligence.

Good to be reminded of that. Enigma is an important topic here, but 'Intrepid" and Stephenson don't even make his index, which seems accurate and appropriate.

There's a more serious Canadian context of this work. It's impressive that Ferris is able to bring an intelligence history -- an official intelligence history -- down to the close of the 20th century, with cogent things to say about the Falklands conflict, for instance, and even about counter-terrorism more recently. But where are the official histories of Canadian intelligence agencies?  If Britain's MI5 and CGHQ can open their files and commission historians to interpret them, why can't their Canadian counterparts?

I'm not a Security and Intelligence historian, and had not even realized there is a world in which "Sigint" and even "Siginters" are accepted as nouns. This does not pretend to be a review  -- but I'm glad I got a chance to look at Behind the Enigma.

Update, December 9, 2020:  John Ferris and his book get some respect from his hometown paper, the Calgary Herald.


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