#Reviewing Practise to Deceive

Practise to Deceive: Learning Curves of Military Deception Planners. Barton Whaley. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2015.

Surprise through deception is often touted as an advantage in achieving victory. [1] Throughout history surprise has proven to be an element that leads to success in battle, and even even war. In fact, the term stratagem was, and occasionally is, used as a synonym for a deceptive tactic. Despite it’s success as a tactic, and its roots within the etymology of the term strategy, military deception maintains a stigma amongst western militaries.[2] To win by guile is not seen as honorable. This is despite the fact that one of the first recorded tales of a western war, The Odyssey, demonstrates the value of a cunning plan.[3]

Barton Whaley’s Practise to Deceive, a posthumously published work, is not a manual on how to conduct military deception, nor is it a “do-it-yourself” guide for deception planners. It is, however, a valuable resource that will aid the deception planner through discussion and analysis of 88 case studies. If the old Chinese General Sun Tzu was right and "all warfare is based deception," then Whaley has provided a study that will aid future commanders and staff officers to develop plans that win wars.[4]

To be clear, Whaley’s book is a qualitative documentary study, not a traditional military history narrative. The book is divided into three parts preceded by an  executive summary. The first part is dedicated to explaining the book’s purpose and structure. The second part of the book outlines the case studies, focusing on the planners, commanders, and institutions. The final part of the book looks at Whaley’s analysis and subsequent conclusions that include a basic process for deception planning.[5]

There is no set formula on who does and does not make a competent military deception planner, though Whaley does spend some time early on in the book exploring the genesis of some of the more successful planners from his case studies. These individuals include Rommel, Zhukov, Wavell, and Wingate. There does seem to be a corollary between the success of a military deception planner and the degree to which they appear to be a ‘disruptive thinker’ in comparison to their peers or institutions.[6] Other examples include T.E. Lawrence and Meinertzhagen, two individuals famed as much for their ruses against their own chains of command than those against their enemies. Throughout the book Whaley also discusses the common affinity for practical jokes and/or magic tricks that many of his examples seemed to have. The point being made is that a deceptive mind is required, all those without one need not apply. The length to which Whaley discusses the development of individual deception planners or, in the case of Dudley Clarke,  deception planning teams is important. It sets the ground for the follow on case studies that involve the most important cog in the deception machinery, the commander.

...a more appropriate question would have been, “What do you want the enemy to think?”

If the commander is not willing to employ, or simply does not see the benefit of, military deception then resources and time are unlikely to be devoted to its development. The commander that does understand that shock and surprise are important in winning wars will devote time and resources toward military deception.  Whaley’s examination of commanders who devoted time and resources to military deception highlights how it increases the chances of success. The commanders discussed range from Gideon of the Old Testament through Stormin’ Norman Schwarzkopf. That is not to say that Whaley is stating commanders will fail without the use of military deception, he simply highlights the benefits through an analysis of the case studies provided. The importance of understanding the commander’s intent is a key lesson identified within the book. This is highlighted in one particular case study where Wavell was asked by Clarke what he wanted the enemy to do. Wavell replied and Clarke built a deception operation that aimed at achieving that intent. The operation achieved the exact opposite.[7] The consequent analysis of the operation revealed the error was in asking the commander what he wanted the enemy to do. This focused the deception planners on achieving a specific action by the enemy without due regard to what would cause that action. A military deception operation must primarily target the enemy commander’s decision making process.[8] Clarke realized that a more appropriate question would have been, “What do you want the enemy to think?” Once a commander clearly articulates what he intends his enemy to think, the planning staff can set about building a military deception operation that will achieve that goal. The preferences of a commander for or against allocating resources to deception planning come down to their tolerance for risk and the cultural influences on their development as military decision makers.

The book gives quick mention to some of the cultural issues surrounding the use of deception. Whaley highlights how the use of stratagems has fallen in and out of favor with military forces in all cultures, both east and west, that appear in the case studies. One case study highlights the modern American cultural aversion of the time when Frederick Funston successfully defeated the Philippine insurrection of Emilio Aguinaldo through a bold deception plan. Funston returned to the U.S. after the defeat of the Aguinaldo’s rebels and was publicly derided for his victory by deceit.[9] The rules of fair play do not belong in war, though many seem to be judged by them. The recent maskirovka, or masquerade, military deception techniques, being employed by Russian backed forces in eastern Europe provides a contemporary example a cultural acceptance of deception operations.

Practise to Deceive is a qualitative analysis of case studies. It is a work detailing analysis through a social science lens, rather than a work of history providing a chronological narrative. Editor Susan Stratton Aykroyd has arranged the book in a manner that supports the reader. The sections and headings are clearly outlined. Each of the sections is clear  and the case studies are presented in a way that supports the examination framework. There is, however, a challenge to the reader. There are small errors in spelling, punctuation, and syntax throughout the book. These small errors detract from the overall readability of the book and can frustrate the reader at times.

Barton Whaley

The case studies and analysis presented by Barton Whaley in Practise to Deceive provide the reader with a good understanding of the application of military deception. Whaley’s examination of the interaction between the commander and the staff is the key point within the book; it argues the commander must be supportive and provide clear guidance of what they want the enemy to think. A creative and deceptively minded staff will provide the commander with the best chances of success. Whaley also presents the argument for military deception by highlighting its pros and cons; though he by no means claims it will always be successful, nor does he claim it is the only way towards achieving victory in war. He does argue that, based on his analysis of the case studies presented, military deception provides an advantage and this is what should resonate with military commanders. Anything that provides an advantage over an opponent is of value to a military commander; whether it is a new weapon, an alternative method of transport, or a military deception operation.

Mick Cook is an officer in the Royal Regiment of Australian Artillery and hosts The Dead Prussian podcast. He is passionate about encouraging critical thought on war amongst military professionals and policy makers. He is the Director of Communications and Marketing for DEF Australia. Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Australian Defence Force.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.


[1] Storr (2009) The Human Face of War, London: Continuum,  pg 84.

[2] Whaley (2016) Practise to Deceive, ed. Susan Stratton Aykroyd,  Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, pg 64.

[3] Freedman (2013) Strategy: A History, New York: Oxford University Press, pg 25.

[4] Tzu (1963) The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith, New York: Oxford University Press, pg 66.

[5] Whaley, pg 181.

[6] Whaley, pg 197.

[7] Whaley, pg 33.

[8] Martin (2008) Military Deception Reconsidered, Monterey: Naval Postgraduate School,  pg 4, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a483473.pdf.

[9] Whaley, pg 64.