Old School Spies

As a teenager, I read John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Along with the TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it intrigued me about the world of espionage, especially Cold War espionage.

I’m a child of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not mere history to me. I lived it. I was glued to the television news. I had to bring a shoe box to school with a change of underwear, a bar of soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and some other odds and ends I don’t remember. We practiced “duck and cover” and trooping to the school’s musty basement, designated a fallout shelter. My father, in the Reserves by then, was told he’d likely be called up and deployed again to Berlin.

At the time I didn’t realize if a nuclear exchange had occurred, he would have died quickly. Not so much us. We lived two hours outside of Washington, D.C. We would have survived the initial blast, but radiation poisoning would have gotten us sooner or later.

I was ten and a half years old, thinking I wouldn’t make it to eleven.

Le Carre – The Master

Born David John Moore Cornwell, Le Carre was a pen name he used for writing spy novels while employed by Britain’s Security Service and Secret Intelligence Services. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was his third novel, and its success allowed him to leave MI-6 and write full-time. His best-known character is the spy George Smiley, who has appeared in most of his works. He swears none of his work, especially “In From the Cold,” is based on things he experienced. Rather, he says, he was a keen observer of behavior and people.

His novels are dark and gritty, the settings dreary places I’d read about. My father had served in West Berlin and talked a bit about the situation there. I watched news reports about the Berlin Wall and about the daring escapes by people from the east to get to the west section of the city. Le Carre’s books were “real” to me.

And I loved them. They drew me into the world of intrigue and counterintelligence, not enough to want to be a spy, but enough to want to write stories like Le Carre’s and, later, Alan Furst’s.

Back to the Beginning

Le Carre’s newest release is A Legacy of Spies, a sequel of sorts to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That intrigued me enough to plan on reading A Legacy of Spies, but I decided after almost fifty years, it was time to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Oh, the language! The way he describes people and places. He puts you there. In the opening scene, I was at Checkpoint Charlie waiting in the cold and dark for an asset to defect, my tension a direct result of Le Carre’s scene-setting, his subtle revelation of the characters’ emotions. Though you never “see” the main character in that scene, Karl, the defector, when he meets his fate, your heart is pounding.

And it’s a writing lesson, too, on how to engage a reader, how to infuse a scene with tension, and how to deliver the punch to the gut.

It’s old school espionage, not the gadget-ridden, high-action novels and movies of this century. It’s spy vs. spy, it’s pitting wits against other wits, it’s manipulation and extortion, it’s human not tech, and it’s absolutely thrilling.

Do you want to know why I write about spies? Read anything by John Le Carre.


P. A. Duncan’s first novel, A War of Deception, is available now on Amazon. This week only, the Kindle version is 99 cents.

Dead or Alive

A friend of mine wrote a short story a few weeks after September 11, 2001. In the story, Osama bin Laden is about to go on trial–a civilian trial, by the way, since the whole military tribunal mess hadn’t yet occurred–but his attorney argues successfully that bin Laden can’t get a fair trial in America. The fictional judge reluctantly agrees and releases bin Laden into the streets of New York City then sits in his chambers and listens to the people exact their revenge.

An insightful and thoughtful story, but one that was fiction. The reality we know now is that had we captured bin Laden alive, we would have remitted him somewhere and eventually tried him before a secret military tribunal. There is no doubt what the outcome of that trial would have been. In the meantime, however, no American would have been safe anywhere in the world. An exaggeration? Remember when the United States admitted the exiled Shah of Iran for cancer treatment? Employees of our embassy in Tehran became pawns in that clash of wills for more than a year. Remember, too, the failed hostage rescue attempt that left U.S. aircraft in a hostile country to provide intelligence to the Iranians on who inside their country had helped the U.S. More than anything else, the failed Operation Eagle Claw assured Jimmy Carter wouldn’t get re-elected.

The reality is, as much as I believe in justice and rule of law, neither of those mattered to Osama bin Laden. We were the “other,” the non-believers, unworthy in his eyes. He gave no quarter, and, I suspect, he would have wanted none. Though I would have preferred we had afforded him that, he died as he lived, and he can no longer be the monster under the bed, the boogeyman in the closet, that Republicans have held up as an excuse for suborning our Constitution in the near decade since September 11, 2001. In some aspects, this was the only way to take the burden of his actions off America’s back. They have weighed us down far too long.

We will find the closure temporary and fleeting, but some closure is better than living with the mythos of bin Laden indefinitely. It is disturbing, though, that while they had the White House, the Republicans invoked bin Laden’s name to justify all sorts of sordid acts; yet, they were the ones who stopped the operation in Tora Bora that would have captured him in 2001. There were tastier fish to fry in Iraq. The President who initially explained his feelings about bin Laden by alluding to Old West Wanted: Dead or Alive posters, soon moved on and didn’t think too much about the man who approved a “martyr operation” that cost the lives of 3,000+ Americans on a bright, beautiful September day.

In the year of the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001, we have a President thought by some to be unseasoned, too soft on terrorism, too equivocating. Despite that, he asked for options, received three, and picked the most risky. It’s failure would have been his own Operation Eagle Claw, and he could have kissed any hope of re-election goodbye. But the execution was nearly flawless, and I think that for a nanosecond as bin Laden looked on the Navy Seal who put two bullets in him, he knew an American had put him to death, as he had put Americans to death. There is satisfaction in that coming full circle. There is closure in that.

As the daughter of a re-conn soldier from World War II and the cousin of one of the first Green Berets, I acknowledge our Special Forces as some of the best military in the world. I doubt any other special forces could have accomplished what Seal Team 6 did. Behind them they had good intelligence, obtained in an “old-fashioned” manner by time-honored tradecraft, not the torture so gleefully discussed in the previous Administration. And though we didn’t know about it until after the fact, they carried the hopes of the American people with them. Now, we can finally say, to some extent, and not be laughed at, Mission Accomplished.

And yet, I do not rejoice in Osama bin Laden’s death. Am I glad he’s gone? Yes. By not rejoicing, I’m one-up on him because he undoubtedly rejoiced in any American’s death at the hands of an Afghan or Iraqi or any other member of the religion he subverted for his own ends. I’m not so naive to think his death is the end of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda is a concept, not something tangible we can destroy irrevocably. We have, however, diminished its importance and standing. Coupled with the Arab Spring, we are moving toward reducing al Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden, to a footnote in history.

Let’s not forget, however, who created Osama bin Laden. In the 1980’s, so deep in our Cold War paranoia, we moved heaven and earth to deal a defeat to the Soviet Union. We armed an insurgency, used their religion to unite and motivate them, to make them zealots, encouraged young Arab men from other countries to go to Afghanistan to fight the godless Soviets. We promoted jihad. We created our own mercenary army of religious fanatics, and Osama bin Laden was among the ranks. So, why were we surprised when our creation turned against us?