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Book Review: The Great Game

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Frederick Hitz’ book The Great Game is about espionage, both in its reality and in our cultural myths about it. The book opens with a quote from Rudyard Kipling.

From time to time, God causes men to be born – and thou art one of them – who have a lust to go abroad at the risk of their lives and discover news – today it may be of far-off things, tomorrow of some hidden mountain, and the next day of some near-by men who have done a foolishness against the State. These souls are very few; and of these few, not more than ten are of the best . . . We of the Game are beyond protection. If we die, we die. Our names are blotted from the book . . . when everyone is dead the Great Game is finished. Not before.

Beyond the cold, sometimes dull, realities of spycraft, The Great Game is about our cultural perceptions and conceptions of spies and spying, and of the merits of intelligence-gathering, and the literature and stories which we have produced to reflect these understandings. Apparently, when Hitz began to write the book, he considered (and even planned) to pen another book dissecting the problems within America’s intelligence community. Certainly as the former inspector general of the CIA (among many other roles), he would have had the experience and insight to justify such a book. Apparently, his literary agent can be thanked for dissuading him, and for refocusing his energies, because the resulting book – which contrasts fiction with fact and culls the literary spies of Kipling, le Carre, Maugham, Greene and more for comparisons by which to examine the realities of actual intelligence operations.

That’s actually what makes this book so interesting: far from being a laundry list litany of problems, Hitz explores the mechanisms and machinations of spy agencies – from recruitment, training, and operational techniques to betrayal and counter-espionage – by comparing and contrasting fictional spies and their real world counterparts. What we see are the ironic traits which lead to both success and failure – for example, the behavior of both CIA traitor Aldrich Ames and Soviet turncoat Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, which was often sloppy in terms of maintaining cover for their deceptions, which are likewise reflected in fictional characters. Of course, Hitz – who teaches a freshman seminar at Princeton in which spy fiction is compared to real operations – concludes that “real espionage cases are more bizarre . . . than the fictional accounts.” Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction.

The Great Game isn’t a nuts and bolts examination of clandestine operations, nor is it a “how to” primer on being a spy. Instead, it is more of a meditative contemplation of the need for spies and what makes them – and those who mange, or “run” them – tick. Hitz points out that both former CIA director Robert M. Gates and a “legendary” case officer, Dwight Clarridge, “both acknowledged that they knew of no significant recruitments of Soviet spies during their long careers. The spies were all walk-ins, or volunteers. In other words, American spy agencies apparently never managed to recruit turncoats; instead, disillusioned Soviets would turn themselves. At times, this created more than a bit of ironic confusion – Hitz notes that both Oleg Penkovsky and Pyotr Popov, both of whom provided reams of information to U.S. intelligence agencies, literally had to throw themselves upon their “recruiters.”

Hitz notes that these types of spies worked for a variety of reasons, most of them personal rather than ideological (save where, of course, ideology is personal). Narcissism, bitterness, envy, frustration with the “system,” money or sex – all worked as the trigger to justify a change of allegiance. Often, it seems that ideology – or anti-Americanism – at times played more of a role in the difficulties America occasionally experienced with its erstwhile allies, and the usual motivator for American turncoats was, well, money (although bitterness at being passed over for plum assignments sometimes played a role as well).

What I ultimately found the most fascinating about The Great Game was Hitz’ analysis of the spies in the works of such authors as le Carre, Greene, or the like. For example, he could find significant merit in the disillusionment of the protagonist in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and each literary illustration served as an intriguing counterpoint to the “real world” of spies. Of course, the book also suggests that most of the fancy toys we see in the Bond movies have few real world counterparts, and that the greatest technological advances in spying were largely in the area of surveillance (such as by the U2 spy planes or satellite). But he concludes by stressing a new reality: that in a world defined by conflict between states and stateless nomads, intelligence services may well have to return to the “traditional” form of intelligence-gathering: by the face-to-face infiltration of the enemy camp to learn of their plans.

Author’s Note: This article was originally posted at Wallo World.

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