Why Are We So Captivated by Espionage?

Everybody likes spies.

Well, not when you’re the person, country, business being spied upon, of course. Then, you hate them, declare them enemies, seek to thwart them.

Perhaps “like” isn’t the correct word. It’s more like “fascinated.” People who aren’t part of an intelligence community are endlessly fascinated by spies. I know; I’m one of them. Captivated, that is; not a spy.

I’ve described before how the television shows and movies of the 1960s triggered my fascination: The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers (the original ones), I Spy, Mission: Impossible, Secret Agent; Bond movies and books, Matt Helm movies, movies based on John le Carre books, the Flint movies, and so on. Google “spy movies 1960s,” and you’ll get a treasure trove of selections.

But what, exactly, about those TV shows, movies, and books hooked us on espionage?

Fear and Desire for Adventure and Excitement

Human beings have an innate need to feel safe, but we also, on occasion, crave adventure, excitement, something to detract from the tedium of our everyday lives. The Walter Mitty stories are a prime example of that craving. There’s nothing quite like getting the old adrenaline moving to make a person feel like they could take on anything.

There’s an old adage in aviation: Flying is hours and hours of utter boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. The same could be said of espionage. You spend most of your time digesting information, behind a desk, perhaps in a cubicle, in a typically dull government agency.

Then come those moments: You’re working on convincing an official in a foreign government or military or intelligence organization to spy for you; you’ve almost turned him or her or them, and, boom, here comes the secret police. Run or bluff? Fight or flight? That tedious job has now become an exciting adventure.

Of course, if this is a Bond movie, there’s a big car chase, a beautiful woman who is either someone you have to protect or your enemy or both; there’s martinis shaken not stirred in an exotic locale; and there are clever gadgets that defy the laws of physics to save the day.

That’s fantasy, not reality, but the reality can be exciting, too.

A foot chase through the streets of a city you’ve had to become more familiar with than a native. Using common, everyday places to elude your pursuers. Figuring out a disguise on the run. At every turn, outwitting your opponents using your brain, not a gun or a gadget. Indeed, many intelligence officers operate in countries where only the local police, secret or otherwise, can carry a gun. That’ll stimulate the adrenaline rush, too.

I’ll admit the fantasy part — the car chases, the interesting venues, the cocktails, the attractive others — is likely what appeals to us most about our concept of what espionage is. Too bad that’s not how it works, but one can use one’s imagination.

Through the Eyes of a Spy

Another attraction of espionage is seeing the world in a different way, of being wary of every contact, of everyone around you. Who is a friend? Who is an enemy? Is the old man sweeping a sidewalk in Moscow merely an old man sweeping a sidewalk or the secret police?

Then, there’s turning someone into a spy, persisting with your persuasive techniques to convince someone to betray their country. Intelligence officers operate in a world of deception, manipulation, and lies. That’s intriguing and exciting to those of us who don’t do it on a regular basis. I mean, who doesn’t want to bend someone to your will? And all you can do is hope you’re out of the country before your spy is uncovered.

Yet, espionage is far from black and white, good and evil. There are variants across those spectra. An intelligence officer convinces a citizen of another country to steal that country’s secrets. On the surface, you’d say that’s bad, but if that secret prevents a war or helps the “right” country win that war, that’s good. Your “enemy” in espionage often isn’t as well-defined as in a Bond movie, where the bad guy is a power-drunk madman intent on conquering the world. In reality, it could be a low-level scientist who’s been ordered to weaponize a virus or an engineering student working on a better weapons delivery system.

This is why I’m such a fan of le Carre. In his espionage novels, you aren’t the audience detached from what’s happening in the story, watching it from afar. You’re experiencing it through the eyes of the spy. That’s what any writer hopes for — that the reader climbs right into the story and lives it. This is how the reader “knows” the secret to be revealed before they ever get to that part of the book. It’s the stuff that fuels imagination.

As a teen watching episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I was “right there” alongside Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin, and the result was, then, really bad fan fiction, and now, my “Real Spies, Real Lives” espionage fiction.

Role Reversal

In espionage, the reality of espionage, roles reverse all the time. We have no clearer example of this than the Cold War. In World War II, the Soviet Union was our ally. After their army finally got its act together, the Soviet Union was key to victory over the Nazis. Yet, it didn’t take long after peace, for the Soviet Union to become the “Red Scare” and our enemy.

In a way, the Cold War was the “golden age” of espionage. Two clear-cut enemies (that isn’t always the case), each trying to outdo the other in their approach to spying. Obviously, it was a period rife with intrigue and that adventure and excitement I’ve mentioned. Look at all the books written, the movies and TV shows made with the Cold War as the backdrop.

Then, with Mikhail Gorbachev, suddenly the Soviet Union was more of an ally in halting nuclear weapons proliferation and in responding to potential danger from nations and political groups. In the 2015 Guy Ritchie The Man From U.N.C.L.E. movie, though it takes place in the Cold War, there’s the premise of the CIA and the KGB working together to stop the plans of neo-Nazis with a nuclear bomb.

Did that role reversal ever happen in reality?

Who knows? One thing is for sure, though, throughout the history of espionage, friends and enemies have swapped roles many times.

Psychological Impact of Spying

It’s one thing, however, to watch a spy movie or read a spy book with the knowledge that it’s fiction and that you’re “observing” fictional characters. When it happens to you, when you realize you’re being spied upon, it’s not so exciting or adventurous or fun anymore.

I lived through the 1960s and 1970s when the U.S. government used the CIA and the FBI to spy, inside the country, on anti-war groups, civil rights groups, equal rights groups for women and gays, and more. That was a shocking realization to a lot of people and produced first disbelief and then an abiding anger. In the U.S. we could accept our country spying on the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union. They were the enemy. When we realized our government thought of some of us as an enemy needing to be spied upon, it wasn’t intriguing, it wasn’t a good adventure, and it wasn’t exciting. It was shattering.

As a former federal government employee, I was often surprised at the distrust expressed for the U.S. government, and I believe now that that betrayal of trust had its origins in our government spying on its own citizens, which it still does, by the way. However, I would rather prefer that if that internal espionage has to occur, turn it on the proliferation of domestic terrorists and not on what books are in schools.

As intriguing and fascinating as espionage is in fiction, in reality it’s disturbing and distressing to the personal and national psyche.

So, Why ARE We Still Fascinated by Spies?

Simply put, for outside observers, it’s fun. It’s an escape. Espionage is a vocation we could imagine ourselves doing with a gun in one hand, a martini in the other, while leaning against a fast car, and having a beautiful woman or man looking at us adoringly.

We all need a little fantasy in our lives. Why not chose one where justice (sometimes) prevails, and the bad guys are rolled up. Remember, though, the good guy or the bad guy depends on perspective.