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Practise to Deceive: Learning Curves of Military Deception Planners

Practise to Deceive: Learning Curves of Military Deception Planners by Barton Whaley, edited by Susan Stratton Aykroyd. Naval Institute Press, 2016, 256 pp.

Written by the US intelligence community’s foremost expert on denial and deception, Practise to Deceive is as deceptive as the subject it claims to describe. Although Mr. Barton Whaley’s credentials are indisputable and his knowledge of the material presented in this book is encyclopedic, it offers very little to either the professional military operator or intelligence analyst. One might best think of the study as a sourcebook for further research.

Practise to Deceive holds great promise. The introduction by Dr. A. Dennis Clift, president emeritus of the National Intelligence University, describes Mr. Whaley’s military, government, and academic credentials, establishing him as the intelligence community expert on denial and deception. The reader should take note that the author died in 2013 and that his book was published in 2016. It reads like (and most likely was) the working notebook of a subject-matter expert. The study opens with the premise that it intends to discover peculiar learning patterns among military deception experts through history but quickly digresses into a series of interesting historical vignettes. The conclusions offered afterwards, though engaging and possibly useful, are not presented in sufficient depth to recommend this text for serious military study.

The book is divided into five broad sections: an executive summary, which introduces the ideas of deception; an introduction, which gives an overview of the deceiver; the case studies themselves— basically a lengthy literature review; the conclusion; and a series of appendices. The executive summary and conclusion reveal Whaley’s philosophy of deception. The heart of the book is the series of 88 case studies. Although some are fascinating, especially those pertaining to the Second World War, nearly a quarter of them are essentially long footnotes. Two paragraphs or less, they merely direct the reader to other, more authoritative, sources. Many of the latter are the author’s own works: of the bibliography’s 86 entries, 8 are Whaley’s studies, and his recollections of conversations are frequently cited in footnotes throughout the book. Practise to Deceive offers little research that the author has not presented elsewhere.

Besides the lack of substance, the book contains so many typos and mistakes that it almost seems to be a rough draft. On average, most pages have between two and three typos or editorial errors. Some of these are as simple as forgetting a space between words or reversing letters. Others are as serious as using the wrong name for an individual. Regardless, these flaws are distracting and degrade the author’s overall message.

Practise to Deceive is certainly an absorbing, even entertaining, read. By focusing on individual deception planners, it provides an engrossing, personality-based view of history unlike most other military descriptions. The brief sketches of good traits for a military deception planner outlined in the conclusion could prove useful on their own as an introductory paper for new military operations planners or commanders. In general, though, better resources are available to military and intelligence professionals.

The cover of the book describes it as a “handbook for military and intelligence professionals.” Yet, after finishing this study, readers are little more prepared to execute denial-and-deception campaigns than before they opened the cover. Practise to Deceive is too superficial to be more than a series of intriguing historical footnotes. The last 30 pages are the most useful, offering a short summary of advice on how to establish and run a deception organization. Yet, even this part is too brief to be authoritative. The reader would do better simply to consult Mr. Whaley’s other works (amply cited throughout this one) than spend time on these glosses.

Maj J. Alexander Ippoliti, USAF
US Pacific Command


"The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."
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