Tag Archives: Espionage

The Spy Who Loved, Clare Mulley

The paperback of this historical biography looks just about as substantial as a copy of Ulysses sitting on the shelf, but at 350 pages it is roughly half as long; is it printed on heavier-than-typical stock perhaps?   Or just buttressed by two Appendices, over thirty pages of attributive notes, a dozen of bibliography, and other supporting material.  Not that the story isn’t substantial, as we follow Christine Granville (nee: Krystyna Janina Skarbek) through the twists, turns, detours and (literal) dead-ends of WWII espionage in a depth of detail which is quite astounding, given that the crucial years of her life were lived in wartime, in secret and under varying names and legends.

Daughter of a dying aristocracy and a nation about to enter the two-stage coma of Nazism and Communism, Christine found purpose and a home of sorts among the secret service and, even more, the partisans, guerillas and Maquis of occupied Europe. For years she dared and dodged, evaded and enabled in ways that clearly contributed to the war effort. That she survived it all is little short of astonishing. When the war ended, however, and the British establishment decided it no longer required her services, she found herself adrift in many ways.  Despite the assistance and loyalty of many comrades, especially those also of Polish origin, she was still struggling to find a place in peacetime when a bit player – a merchant seaman with whom she had struck up a friendship of uncertain intimacy, then left – murdered her in an act of jealous impotence. 

Mulley does a fine job documenting all of this, and has clearly done an enormous effort in the research collating and checking departments.  More than that though, she has depicted the impact of the war from an original viewpoint, with special attention Britain’s taking advantage of Polish patriotism before abruptly abandoning their cause in order to appease Stalin – so he would assist the allies in correcting the damage caused by their earlier appeasement of Hitler…

Nor does the author ignore feminist elements of this story – the unusual degree to which Christine’s father treated her as equal or superior to her older brother, the many ways in which men in authority used her skills and then plied her for her favors, the independent and forward-looking manner in which she withheld or dispensed those favors for her own ends. And her own enjoyment. The tragic way in which what worked in wartime with principled and selfless patriots may have contributed to her death in a peacetime setting peopled by men with far fewer values or scruples. 

A bit slow to start, this slippery-slide through WWII gathers speed, tension and impact right up to its end, the final evening of Skarbec’s life, and more than retains interest through a brief but critical epilogue, where we see how several of the same men who competed for her love and endured disappointment when their efforts were not requited, formed an alliance to protect her memory from the worst tabloid exploitation and prudish disparagement.  That she engendered such loyalty is one more testament to the unique qualities of an extraordinary woman.  Brava.

The Spymaster of Baghdad – A true story of bravery, family and patriotism in the battle against ISIS, Margaret Coker

Coker, a reporter with a long resume in the Middle East and elsewhere, shines a light on how Iraqis (like the citizens of most nations colonized and fought over by the so-called great powers) have borne more of the burdens and demonstrated a greater share of the virtues in our wars than our day-to-day political discourses admit.  Necessary to that, she also provides a cram-course on the sectarianism which fuels every development in Iraq, unfortunately dooming many of them to failure despite all the good intentions in the world.

(Coker is wise enough also, to provide an early digression on how names are commonly-formed and casually-used in the region; not by the given- and sur-names to which Euro-Americans are so used, but suffixes for place of origin  and prefixes that illustrate relationship, with fatherhood and first sons predictably given the same assumption of primacy they occupy in so many traditional cultures.)

The spymaster of the title is one Abu Ali al-Basri.   After opposing Saddam and choosing exile over death, he returns after the US-led invasion, hopeful he can be part of creating a better Iraq, but despite talent, skill and dedication, ends up heading one tiny branch of a Hydra-headed intelligence apparatus that serves more to protect the power bases of its various legislative benefactors than to secure the nation.  When ISIS forms though, the need for real success becomes undeniable and Ali is finally allowed to assemble a small force of serious spies, nicknamed The Falcons.

The al-Sudani family has suffered in its own ways, living in the Shiite near-ghetto of Sadr City, a Saddam-created slum lorded over by Muqtada al-Sadr and his descendants and militias.  Two Sudani sons, Harith and Munaf, join Ali’s Falcons, for very different reasons, but with equal dedication and commitment.

Meanwhile the young Sunni student Abrar al-Kubaisi has lived a privileged life yet still succumbs to the lure of fundamentalism, as so many college-age women and men have succumbed to whatever political trend is ripe at the moment their own desire for a cause is flowering.  She then ends up on the opposite side of the ISIS fight.

It is these players whom Coker follows as their stories converge, diverge and end in various forms of tragedy, as lives are lost, broken or destroyed with alacrity by a culture evolved and divided over centuries.  There are good people here, and good intentions, but no magic wands.   For every bit of progress, it seems, people like Harith sacrifice their lives at alters created by people like Abrar whose twisted morality makes them see horrendous evil for anything but what it is. 

Not a screed for any particular military or political policy, The Spymaster of Baghdad is a dash of ice-water in the face of the notion that outside forces can readily fix any of this (and, incidentally, that keeping US troops forever in Iraq is the way to attempt it).  Nothing new there, of course, but a message which deserves broadcasting, illuminated here from an unfamiliar aspect, and so vitally worth repeating and sharing.

Sometime the real James Bond speaks Arabic.

The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War – a Tragedy in Three Acts, Scott Anderson

Not sure who thought such a convoluted title was a good idea, but writing and publishing this book certainly is one – a good idea, that is.  In telling the story of how the CIA evolved out of WWII’s OSS, Anderson actually shows us how the Cold War began and how it was – if his account is as valid as it feels – prolonged and its damages increased geometrically by the infighting and maneuvering of a smattering of egotistical self-believers.  Who are not, in fact, the four operatives upon whom Anderson hangs his narrative, but the more famous political operatives – Roosevelt, Stalin, Truman, Hoover (J. Edgar, not Herbert), Eisenhower, Kennedy and perhaps most of all, the Dulles brothers, Allen and John Foster, titular heads of the Agency and the State Department, respectively.

One begins reading in anticipation of spy-craft and derring-do, and while there is some of that, it is far outweighed by the bureaucratic maneuvering – who is put in what job at what moment, by whom, with what instructions and accountability, or lack thereof.  Even more so, who in Washington is using the entire intelligence effort for what purpose of their own – to justify a policy or a budget, to settle a score, to win election (or re-election), to demonstrate the gospel truth of their own worldview and ambition.

John LeCarre’s George Smiley and Karla must be looking on from above with bittersweet satisfaction at having their cynicisms confirmed by Anderson’s skewering of post-war intrigue in Berlin and Eastern Europe as pointless and heartless missions with no hope of success except in justifying the ambitions of higher-ups who neither understand nor care about their human cost.  And all those who protested the Viet Nam War would be similarly reassured by his evisceration of its genesis in pre-war colonialism and failed schemes to prop it up after the war, followed in failure by anti-communism-at-any-cost.  Just as the protesters claimed at the time, what happened in Southeast Asia in the fifties and sixties had little to do with the needs of the Vietnamese people and everything to do with the fortunes of politicians tens of thousands of miles away.

The volume’s Epilogue opens by recounting John Foster Dulles’ admission in 1958 that his rabidly anti-communist reading of so many self-determination movements around the world was utterly mistaken.  And yet that vaunted ‘Domino Theory’ continued to guide US policy in Vietnam for over ten years more, and in other places still seeks to drive it today. 

Thus, where first we expected the ‘Tragedy’ of the title to refer to how its four protagonist’s lives played out, we eventually see that that is only partly the case.  Yes, the good and dedicated Frank Wisner was broken by all the deception and waste of lives, eventually taking his own.  But Ed Lansdale managed a more or less successful life to the age of 79, Michael Burke an almost James Bond-ian series of re-inventions to pass away in the quiet Irish countryside, and Peter Sichel lived till at least 97, becoming the wise and wry elder who apparently provided much of the material for this book.  No, it is to the greater geopolitical tragedy, whose cost is measured not in single digits but in the millions of lives, that is really the subject here.  A cautionary tale for those who seek to understand current events – and one can only hope – for those who seek to guide them.

(There are, for what it’s worth, several other books available about Ed Lansdale; Peter Sichel and Michael Burke have written their own memoirs; and Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie bears mention as well, among so many others, for further reading on the themes plumbed here.)