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It will not be much of an exaggeration to suggest that the thematic conventions of the ‘spy novel’ genre continue to have a great effect on the formation of many public discourses in the West, as we know them. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated with respect to Hillary Clinton’s recent claim that the hacking of her email box was organised by the Russian secret service FSB. Hollywood did contribute rather substantially towards bringing about such a state of affairs. Nevertheless, when subjected to analytical inquiry, many themes and motifs explored in the famous works of spy fiction, as well as the ‘technical’ accounts of what it means being a spy contained in spy novels, will appear having very little to do with today’s reality of intelligence operations.
After all, the classical conventions of the ‘spy novel’ genre derive from the Cold War era, associated with the geopolitical confrontation between the US and USSR. The qualitative aspects of how secret services operate nowadays, on the other hand, are defined by the process of globalisation – something that presupposes the eventual privatisation of the formerly governmental domain in the West (at least this was the case until the 2014 outbreak of yet another ‘Cold War’ between Russia and the US). The exponential progress in the field of IT, which began in the late eighties, is another factor that continues to contribute heavily towards widening a gap between the fictional accounts of intelligence operations and what these operations are in reality. In my paper, I will aim to substantiate the validity of this suggestion at length while referring to some of the most well-known exemplifications of the literary genre in question, such as the spy novels by Ian Fleming and John le Carré.
Body of the paper
The literary genre ‘spy novel’ emerged in Britain prior to the beginning of the WW1, which in turn explains why in a classical spy novel the protagonist’s intelligence-gathering activities are usually described as nothing short of a ‘gentleman’s pursuit’, in the sense of being both utterly dangerous and yet highly enjoyable. Ian Fleming’s novels about James Bond (Agent 007) exemplify the validity of this statement perfectly well. The reason for this is apparent – after having been exposed to them, one will be likely to conclude that there is nothing too challenging about being employed by the British Secret Intelligence Service (M16). In fact, these novels imply that being a British intelligence officer is nothing short of indulging in the bellyful idleness while enjoying plenty of sex with married women. Here is how Fleming describes Bond’s daily routine in Moonraker,
It was only two or three times a year that an assignment came along requiring his particular abilities. For the rest of the year he had the duties of an easy-going senior civil servant – elastic office hours from around ten to six; lunch, generally in the canteen; evenings spent playing cards in the company of a few close friends… or making love, with rather cold passion, to one of three similarly disposed married women; weekends playing golf for high stakes at one of the clubs near London (2012, p. 11).
Such an outlook on the lifestyle of a typical spy, however, is strongly misleading. Contrary to Fleming’s conceptualization of a British spy as a ‘womanizer’ who is obsessed with driving expensive sports cars, a person employed by M16 (or any other secret service) is the officer on active duty, which presupposes his willingness to apply a continual effort to be promoted through the career ranks. In its turn, this requires the individual to work on attaining ever more professional skills and competencies – hence, leaving him with very little time to idle.
Another notable characteristic of the literary genre in question is that, despite its pre-WW1 origins, the genre’s classical canons came into being through the 20th century’s second half, marked by the Cold War. Throughout the period, the collective West never ceased promoting the values of ‘free living’ (Capitalism), which explains why it represents a commonplace practice for the protagonist in many spy novels to act as these values’ actual embodiment. The character of James Bond will again come in quite illustrative in this respect. As Burnett (2014) noted, “James Bond… represented the power of Western individuality against an enemy sworn to the doctrine of collectivism” (p. 176). This explains the reason why in Fleming’s novels, this character is represented at the top of what can be referred to as ‘food chain’ within the Intelligence.
Apparently, the author implies that the very functioning of M16 is solely dedicated to making sure that its agent 007 is well equipped and that he gets plenty of assistance while on the mission of preventing yet another ‘Dr. Evil’ from being able to destroy the world. Consequently, readers are encouraged to assume that to be valid, intelligence information gathered by a secret agent must necessarily be highly secretive and illegal. Moreover, Bond’s exploits presuppose that British Intelligence is primarily concerned with trying to make the world a better place as something that has the value of a ‘thing in itself’. However, such a literary account of what British Intelligence is all about does not hold much water, whatsoever – especially given the globalisation-induced transformation of the intelligence paradigm in the West, mentioned earlier.
The fact that this is indeed the case can be shown, regarding the main contemporary aspects of intelligence gathering, as the primary function of just about every secret service organisation in today’s world. The transforming nature of these organisations’ operational/tactical objectives is also suggestive that Fleming’s novels cannot possibly be considered a very credible source of information about the reality of intelligence operations. In this respect, we can mention the following:
- Intelligence gathering is a highly collective pursuit. In reality, what Bond accomplishes singlehandedly is being accomplished by the team of ‘Bonds’ – each specialised in its own ‘field of excellence’, such as providing remote surveillance, shooting guns, ‘womanising’, etc. Moreover, even though some officers are indeed required to conduct high-risk operations while gathering intelligence, this practice has been consistently falling out of favour with secret services.
- As of now, at least 80% of intelligence information is obtained from the open sources. As Aldrich (2009) pointed out, “Open source intelligence now rivals the state agencies, since vast amounts of detailed information is now freely available about countries, commercial entities and individuals via web sites or e-mail. Where this is not available from open sources it is offered for sale” (p. 894). Therefore, one’s effectiveness as a potential spy is now being measured in close conjunction with what happened to be his or her investigative abilities, rather than with how good the concerned person is in hand-to-hand combat. Edward Snowden stands out as a good example, in this regard.
- Contrary to how it is shown in Fleming’s novels, there is no good reason to assume that the ongoing confrontation between the Western-based secret services, on one hand, and the ‘international ‘terrorists’, ‘evil Russians’, ‘drug mafia’, etc., on the other, should be discussed in terms of good vs. evil. The logic behind this suggestion has to do with the fact that up until comparatively recently, the Westphalian paradigm of international relations, in general, and the concept of a nation-state, in particular, continued to be undermined by the discourse of Globalisation/Neoliberalism. In its turn, this brought about the increased ‘corporatisation’ of secret services – the development that consequently resulted in increasing the number of such services in the West, intensifying the degree of intra-institutional rivalry between them, and establishing the objective precondition for them to act on behalf of non-state parties. For example, there are now sixteen different secret services in the US alone – most of them with the history of having helped to ‘lobby’ the commercial interests of at least one American-based transnational corporation abroad. What this means is that as time goes on, the functioning of secret services will become increasingly affiliated with the ‘money has no smell’ principle. Therefore, there is a very little sense in continuing to assess the outcomes of the secret services’ activities in conjunction with the presumably applicable value-based provisions of conventional ethics, as does the author of Bond novels.
Nevertheless, it is not only the discursive inconsistency of these novels with the realities of a post-industrial living that causes the former to provide a rather distorted view on what spying is all about. After all, it will not prove too difficult to find a number of purely ‘technical’ inconsistencies in Fleming’s novels as well. For example, as it can be seen in them, James Bond often takes advantage of his possession of at least a few foreign passports. What this means is that many of the character’s assignments in the past had to do with him having been ordered to act in the ‘deep-cover’ (or ‘illegal’) mode for a long time. As an ‘illegal’, however, James Bond would have proven highly unlikely – all due to his good looks, his taste for flamboyancy, and his tendency to lead a luxurious lifestyle. His single status would alone disqualify him from being considered as a potential candidate for an ‘illegal’. Therefore, it will be much more appropriate referring to Fleming’s Bond novels as the ‘spy-themed’ literary extrapolations of the author’s creative genius, which have very little in common with the realities of spying.
As compared to Fleming’s spy novels, the ones by John le Carré will definitely appear much more credible, as the fictitious and yet methodologically accurate accounts of espionage. In le Carré’s novels, the protagonist is usually presented as a socially withdrawn/introverted professional, who nevertheless takes it close to his heart trying to protect the society from the foreign-based threats. The character of George Smiley featured in most of le Carré’s novels exemplifies the psychological phenotype in question – even though Smiley is in the position to handle the matters of national security, he does not have any of Bond’s ‘machismos’. This explains a common tendency among literary critics to refer to this particular character as ‘anti-Bond’.
What is especially notable about the protagonist is that even though he does consider his work morally justified, Smiley is nevertheless aware that the confrontation between the Capitalist West and Socialist East cannot be described in terms of ‘black’ and ‘white’ alone and that there is also the area of ‘grey’ between the two. As Goodwin (2010) aptly observed, “(Smiley) strives to distinguish himself from those who are constrained by what he views as ‘ideology’. In Smiley’s sense, ‘ideology’ refers to strict adherence to doctrine instead of a ﬂexible and transcendent humanist viewpoint” (p. 105). It is understood, of course, that being a psychologically ‘multidimensional’ character, Smiley does make more sense as a modern spy, as compared to James Bond. This, however, does not mean that le Carré’s conceptualisation of secret services is much more plausible than that of Fleming. Apparently, just as it was the case with Fleming, le Carré did allow his unconscious anxieties, as to what a ‘proper intelligence service’ should be all about, to have a strong effect on the actual content of his spy novels.
For example, in many of this author’s novels (such as the Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), the intelligence community is described as the club of intellectuals, many of whom happened to be ‘nerdish’ enough to experience difficulties while trying to cope with even some basic challenges of their daily living. As one can infer from these novels, nothing pleases British secret agents more than being able to spend hours chitchatting with each other on the subjects of art, philosophy, and literature. As a part of addressing a particular intelligence task, these agents are shown taking much time to analyse just about every qualitative aspect of it. What adds even more plausibility to le Carré’s view on intelligence gathering is that it appears discursively consistent with what used to be the geopolitical realities on this planet during the Cold War’s final phases. The reason for this is that le Carré’s preoccupation with ‘intellectual matters’ and his club-like conceptualisation of British Intelligence reflect the assumption that the USSR was indeed a powerful adversary – something that presupposed that the West’s eventual victory over the Soviets could only be achieved if the former proved itself intellectually superior to the latter.
However, after the end of the Cold War, the West found itself in the position of being able to afford relaxing the standards of excellence within its intelligence communities – a thoroughly logical development, given the fact that the West’s most powerful adversary had ceased to exist on its own in 1991. As a result, it became no longer necessary for intelligence officers to be supreme analysts. Nowadays, it is specifically those belonging to the ‘enforcer’ or ‘bureaucrat (rather than ‘analyst’)’ types of a special agent who are most likely to have good career prospects in Intelligence. The rationale behind this suggestion has to do with the earlier mentioned conversion of the secret services’ operational objectives, as one of the societal effects of the process of globalisation, which alters the very axiomatic structure of international relations.
As Price (1996) argued, “As the world approaches the end of the second millennium… there are many who argue that the architecture is changing from a nation-state system into something else as yet not well formed” (p. 88). The focus of secret services has been effectively shifted from intelligence gathering per se to helping the US (and its allies) to ‘fix’ things beyond the Western sphere of geopolitical dominance while formally remaining within the boundaries of international law. According to Aldrich (2009), “Once intelligence used to be a support activity that was largely focused on estimating intentions and capabilities, but… this has changed. Intelligence is now inherently more operational” (p. 897). Therefore, just as it is the case with Fleming’s novels about James Bond, the ones written by le Carré cannot be regarded very credible – at least for as long as the themes and motifs of these novels are assessed within the discursive framework of the ‘global governance’ concept. After all, up until two years ago, most political scientists used to find this concept thoroughly viable.
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Contrary to how it is being seen in le Carré’s novels, today’s Intelligence is not a club of freethinking intellectuals who experience much emotional angst because of being required to act immortally under certain circumstances. Nowadays, it will make much more sense conceptualising Intelligence as the room filled with technicians who tab into people’s phones and exercise control over the Internet traffic for data mining. The Intelligence’s objectives concerned with ‘fixing’ things also do not require those in charge of achieving them to be particularly analytical.
After all, as time goes on, more and more intelligence hit-and-run operations are being conducted remotely with the help of flying drones. This trend was initiated ten years ago, “In 2006, a US Navy Seal team reportedly raided a compound of suspected militants in the Bajaur region of Pakistan. This was watched in real time at the CIA headquarters in Langley, since the mission was captured by the video camera of a Predator drone aircraft” (Shiraz & Aldrich 2014, p. 271). This again implies that in today’s world of Intelligence, ‘technicians’ dominate over ‘analysts’ – the situation that stands in a striking contradiction with the themes and motifs of le Carré’s novels. Therefore, even though the author’s literary accounts of espionage do represent a certain recreational value, they can be hardly considered utterly enlightening, as what account for the realities of conducting intelligence operations through the 21st century’s second decade.
I believe that the earlier deployed line of argumentation, in defence of the suggestion that by reading the ‘spy novels’ of Fleming and le Carré one will be likely to attain a highly distorted view on the nature of intelligence operations, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. One of the possible implications of what has been mentioned earlier is that there can be no ideologically fixed criteria for assessing the moral appropriateness and technical effectiveness of how secret agents go about addressing their professional responsibilities. The reason for this is that, as it was shown in the paper’s analytical part, the very logic of historical progress makes it necessary for the functioning of the government’s executive branch to be continually ‘readjusted’. What it means is that spy novels written during the Cold War only formally relate to what is the contemporary intelligence-paradigm is all about. This, however, does not undermine their literary value.
Aldrich, R 2009, ‘Beyond the vigilant state: globalisation and intelligence’, Review of International Studies, vol. 35, no. 4, pp. 889-902.
Burnett, G 2014, ‘Nobody does it better: Ian Fleming’s James Bond turns sixty’, Society, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 175-179.
Fleming, I 1955, Moonraker: James Bond 007, Vintage Books, London.
Goodwin, J 2010, ‘John le Carré’s The Secret Pilgrim and the end of the Cold War’, Clues, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 102-109.
Price, T 1996, ‘Spy stories, espionage and the public in the twentieth century’, Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 81-89.
Shiraz, Z & Aldrich, R 2014, ‘Globalisation and borders’, in R Dover, M Goodman & C Hillebrand (eds.), Routledge Companion to Intelligence Studies, Routledge, New York, pp. 264-273.