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Two Thoughts on "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"

(Spoiler Warning: I basically spoil everything in the book and movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)

On Monday, I (Eric C) wrote up a review of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, both the film and book. Today, I want to cover some of unique thoughts it inspired.

The Odd Criticism of “Western Decadence”

At the end of the book--massive spoiler warning--Bill Haydon reveals why he became a double agent for the Russians, “He spoke not of the decline of the West, but of it’s death by greed and constipation.” From the film, “It was an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so very ugly.”

Oddly enough, I recently heard a similar thing from a reporter on an Economist podcast, explaining the the Hungarian Prime Minister opposition’s to America and the rest of Europe. In the Prime Minister’s mind, “The West is a bit past it, a bit decadent.”

Russian leader Vladmir Putin feels the same way. From The American Interest, “Putin believes that the West is decadent, weak and divided.” According to the Economist, ISIS recruits are inspired by the same thought, “Boastful combatants post well-scripted videos to attract their foreign peers, promising heaven for those who leave their lives of Western decadence to become ‘martyrs’.” Some Westerners believe the same thing.

It’s an odd idea: that being rich and powerful makes a country “decadent”, a synonym for weak.

Not that I should spend time debating communist or extremist ideology, but this argument is absurd. Prosperity tends to defeat poverty. Wealth creates advantages, not weakness. Perhaps some of the super-wealthy become weak and feeble. Poverty almost always guarantees that someone will become weak and feeble. You just don’t have the resources.

In terms of security, the argument is especially absurd. Prosperity, ironically, creates a better military. It’s like poker. If you have a larger stack of money, you can take more risks, take advantage of opportunities. For example, spending resources--time and money--to train your military. You have the freedom to allow people to spend time training in the Special Forces, and after Israel--another wealthy nation--America has the best special forces in the world.

Or you can spend gobs and gobs of the world’s largest fortune on technological advances for your military. Your country can fly unmanned, small planes over any other country and bomb them.

Wealth, instead of causing weakness, actually makes people harder working, more productive members of society. From David Brooks’ op-ed on Charles Murray’s The Great Divide:

“Republicans claim that America is threatened by a decadent cultural elite that corrupts regular Americans, who love God, country and traditional values. That story is false. The cultural elites live more conservative, traditionalist lives than the cultural masses…

They have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids.

Murray’s work can be really controversial--especially his work on race--but I agree with this particular argument. To me, the educational opportunities afforded to the rich, well, it clearly gives them a leg up in America. And the world.

Intelligence can be so Pointless       

At some point near the end of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the British discover an operative pretending to be a double agent to a Russian embassy worker who is also pretending to be a double agent to the British. Both sides deliver fake or meaningless information to the other side, pretending that they’re giving them gold. (Meanwhile, one British spy is delivering real intelligence to the Russians.)

It all seems so incredibly pointless.

I didn’t arrive at this conclusion on my own. Doing the aforementioned research on intelligence, I came across two Malcolm Gladwell articles in The New Yorker--both reviewing books on intelligence by Ben Macintyre--that make a very good case for the futility of intelligence. Because both the Germans and the British knew the other side was trying to send them bad intelligence, they ignored good intelligence, then acted on the bad intelligence they wanted to avoid acting on.

It’s a refreshing read. Andy Rooney prepared me for this after reading My War. He has a whole sub-chapter on his distaste for spy craft and its pointlessness. In short, spies spend much of their time looking for other spies. Both sides feed each other disinformation. Even when you get intel, you can’t use it much of the time because it reveals your source.


seven comments

I can already guess at two points of pushback on this post.

As far as referencing Charles Murray, part of me feels dirty about that, since so much of his work is so fiercly debated. Just this morning I read a blog post debunking “The Great Divide”. But I think it’s a almost the opposite of the decadence argument, which is why I included it.

As for intelligence, well, my thoughts are evolving on the topic, not a million percent sure about how useful it can be. Perhaps I more mean counter-intelligence, but, well, reading Tinker Tailor, you can’t come away impressed.

On decadence, I think the same was said by the Spartans about Athens. They then ground each other into the ground, leaving themselves exposed to other regional powers. But history remembers Athens for its gifts to humanity in art, philosophy and politics, while Sparta is remembered as a xenophobic slave driving racist dictatorship (that for some reason is idolized by military units and sports teams).

I actually think that the idea that rich and wealthy equals decadent which equals weak comes from some misreading of history. Many wealthy regimes have opened themselves up to problems, but not by virtue of their wealth. Instead, it was corruption that undid them. Whether the fall of Persia, the decline of Western Rome, the end of the Janissaries etc, corruption rotted the institutions, not wealth.

Although I’ll admit that it’s easier to be flamboyantly corrupt when you have wealth to start with.

I think I have a handle on the decadence thing, as “decadence” being the opposite of “vitality”, which ion turn represents the ability to shift great resources easily. I covered this in 2013 and my take was in part based on economic theory:

Certainly decadence represents something of a crutch. S O is absolutely correct that vitality is seen to be at odds with decadence. While some modern leaders (and old people) pine for ‘simpler times’ and ‘the good old days’, so too did Hitler and Mussolini want a rebirth out of the decadence of the West, the Old and the Jews, back to a primordial era where men were men, and such. After all, the basis of the American myth is that ‘honest. hardworking people can succeed no matter their origins or poverty’. That that is inaccurate, as you point out, does not degrade its attractiveness as a worldview. If only you had what it took to succeed on your own, without relying upon the nation-state equivalent of mom and dad, etc.

I’m surprised no-one has tackled your intelligence comments yet. Perhaps you’d be more correct if the Soviets hadn’t stolen most of their atomic technology using espionage? It’s important to remember that Tinker, Tailor is in many ways a fictionalized account of the Cambridge Five, and therefor, yes, its really about counterintelligence, not intelligence as a whole. But much like deception in military campaigns (is that too, useless?) it serves to utterly confuse the enemy as to what is true or not. That the KGB had become so paranoid during WWII, that they treated much of the intelligence from Philby with suspicion, is counterintuitively both supporting of your position that it wasn’t actually that worth it, as well as pointing out that if you can make the enemy ignore your intelligence failings, that is success all by itself.

Furthermore, the novel represents a realistically banal view of the job. Should we assess the events of the book (which are basically a huge disaster, which finally get plugged) against the successes of war, or the failures? If you examine only the Dieppe Raid, you might come to the conclusion that war is pretty useless too.

The case of enigma is always interesting, and reveals a far more cumbersome, inelegant way of using intelligence than what we commonly conceive of. While intelligence was often wilfully ignored to protect the source, so too was it tidied up to masquerade as intelligence from other sources for especially important tasks. It is often thought about as a ‘weapon’ to be ‘used’, when really it is often just a remark about the contexts for decision making. WHY are there nukes in Cuba? Because there are nukes in Turkey, because the premier is afraid, etc

Just prior to the battle of Goose Green during the Falklands War, the BBC accidentally reported that an attack had been launched on Goose Green. The Argentines ignored it, thinking it an awkward attempt at deception, and thus were never alerted to the actual attack, just hours later. Nevertheless, the British military learned about the dangers of uncontrolled journalists, and enacted stricter embedding measures in the future. Trying to control the fog of war can be a hopeless and thankless task, but there’s no reason to make it easy for the other guy.

@ Milan – I think the main reason I haven’t received much blow back on this point is that I really don’t know myself, yet, how I feel about it. I certainly see the point of intelligence. I see its successes.

But I also see a lot of wasted efforts. It’s determining where that line is. So we cracked the enigma machine, but we can’t use what we learn from it. It’s a balance, certainly.

Absolutely waste occurs, but that is basically what any opposed contest grapples with as well. It is always a balance between wasting your resources vs merely forcing the enemy to waste theirs. With military maneuvers, there’s a easily understood series of outcomes if the other guy puts up resistance. The equivalent of a boxing match, it’s direct. Intelligence is more akin to judo, where your attacks are not stopped, but redirected. It is an enabler, not a doer in and of itself, which is perhaps why the gloomy world of double agents seems like a laughable slap fight in comparison to more direct methods. But when it works, boy does it work. For example, the origins of the word doublecross comes from the XX Committee, a British intelligence office that ran a number of German double agents who successfully deceived OKW during Op Fortitude as to the time and target of Overlord. Thanks to ULTRA, they were able to verify whether or not Fortitude was a success.

So is intelligence pointless? Or are the wrong comparisons being used? Is a stalemate a better way to think of the events of Tinker Tailor? Are stalemated contests between opponents ‘pointless’, or do they serve a purpose yet?

@ Milan – All good points. There’s a reason I wrote “seems so pointless” instead of “is so pointless”. My mind isn’t made up definitively about the value of intelligence and I haven’t fully explored the subject.

More, this novel, along with some articles I’ve read recently, have forced me to ask the question. I haven’t answered it yet.

Also, I had this thought but didn’t include it here, is analyzing modern intelligence compared to the Cold War or World War II. Lots of questions about ISIS, Boko Haram or al Qaeda’s counter-intelligence abilities, or lack there of. Also, the argument about waste is much different.