29 November 2015

Review of "A Spy Among Friends"

Review: A Spy Among Friends - Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal

by Ben MacIntyre

This (non-fiction) book functions on several levels.  While the narrative drive is the story of a betrayed friendship, this book also serves well to demonstrate the incestuousness of pre-WWII British society, the origin of the modern espionage agencies that drove the cold war, and the origins of the swashbuckling James Bond stereotype (Ian Fleming is a minor character).  The part I like best is to look at it as a history of almost certainly the most successful spy who ever lived.

Unfortunately for Anglo-Americans, the most successful spy who ever lived spied on us for the Russians.   Kim Philby stood out among a distinguished group of spies:  the Cambridge Spy Ring of four upper-class Englishmen recruiting in their college years who rose to high positions in the British government before being exposed.  Philby's success was the most notable of the four as he eventually was placed in charge of British counterintelligence for large swathes of the world, passing on details of operations in progress to his Soviet handlers for decades.

Nowadays it's hard to conceive of this at many stages, but by telling the story form the point of view of Philby's colleague and best friend George Elliot, MacIntyre helps draw a portrait of the way things functioned in the world of the time.  Elliot's father was the headmaster at Eton, so when the younger Elliot decided that being a spy sounded important, his father asked the head of MI6 to take on the son at the horse races one day (as Walter Isaacson said in his review of this book, "I had to keep reminded myself it was not a novel").  After-the-fact investigations were out of the question -- would you really want to insult the head of Eton by suggesting his son was a spy?

Philby's ability to succeed at the double game he played from 1934 until finally unmasked in 1963 had a lot to do with his innate charm.  Almost no one who met him was immune to this; the charm was used to ingratiate himself with (and remain friends for 20+ years with) George Elliot, two wives who managed to overlook or not find out about his first marriage to a avowed communist, and ultimately Jim Angleton of the CIA, who he befriended when posted to Washington as MI6 liaison.

While in fact the Soviet spies were running roughshod over the British intelligence agencies, the upper-class white men populating were convinced, somewhat justifiably given the huge role intelligence played in the dechiphering of the Enigma machine during the war, that they were uniquely empowered individuals who could do no wrong.  The post-war era and the pivot to the Soviets as the enemy left them running sometimes-absurd operations under the assumption (typically correct) that the combination of their spy status and social connections made them immune to repercussions.  It was in this era of the high-flying, highly-educated MI6 that Ian Flaming exited the agency to focus full-time on his writing about a fictional synthesis of it's (mostly fictional) successes.

Another element brought out fully in the story is the incredible tolerance for alcohol of the British upper class of this era.  The quantity and frequency of drinking of all the major characters in the story is unsettling for someone with more modern expectations (or more modern health information).  The fact that after hard nights of drinking like this, Philby frequently went out and met has Soviet contact in a park somewhere to pass on recently acquired information adds to the insanity of the double life he led for so long.

The betrayal story comes to a climax in Beirut in 1963.  At this point Philby's second wife had already realized Philby was a spy but, herself consumed by both mental and physical illness, dies without bringing events to a head.  When, finally persuaded by information from recent Soviet defectors, MI6 reluctantly concludes that Philby must be a spy, the person they send to interrogate him is George Elliot, his best friend and staunchest defender within the organization, and even more incredibly, even after his initial confession, they do not have him followed, such that he easily escapes to Moscow.

This book is tremendously researched, heavily informed by the point of view of a primary player in the drama (Elliot spent many hours being interviewed by the author), and serves both the human drama and the history well.  Highly recommended for those with any tolerance for reading about history.

13 July 2015

I finished reading "War: What is it good for?" by Ian Morris. Like "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which it frequently cites, this books takes a cross-cutting approach to history to advance it's thesis, which is that there is both unproductive war, which does the society-destroying stuff we're familiar with, and productive war, which builds ever-larger states; and that since building ever-larger states tends to improve the material well-building and (more solidly) reduce the chance of violent death of their inhabitants, the productive sort of war is ultimately good, since it leads to these relatively safer societies.

I'm not morally repulsed by this sort of discussion, and I agree that as he observes, conquest or force-based coercion has historically been the only way humans have found to build larger polities (the EU is an early experiment on trying another way...).

The biggest problem is that his neat division into productive wars (the unification wars in China, the Punic Wars, etc.) and unproductive wars (Peloponnesian wars, Mongol Wars) is only the sort of classification that's possible after the fact. His criterion basically relies on, "did the winner in the war make a larger stable empire out of it?", which is only a judgment you can make 50+ years later. Virtually all the combatants in virtually all wars claim, and probably believe, that they're going to make a larger, more stable, and richer society -- they just need to get around to winning a bunch of wars first. Thus, for anyone staring into the face of the abyss of a looming war, his thesis holds no guidance, since you can't tell whether this particular war will be productive or not.

Secondly, and more affectingly, he doesn't speak to the fate of the people involved. Sure, the Roman Empire as a whole was more economically efficient than most of its neighbors. That doesn't mean the coming of the Roman Empire was anything to be welcomed by those who started outside its borders. Morris talks about the Roman Empire often in his book (as well as the Han Chinese empire) since we have relatively large amounts of data on them, and it's fair enough to observe that the average citizen of the empire had a lower chance of violent death and had much higher average material wealth than the average citizen of a neighboring kingdom. But the choice of that the average citizen of a neighboring kingdom faced wasn't to become an average citizen of the Roman Empire -- it was to continue being an average citizen or become a Roman slave, who was hardly likely to end up in the middle of the Roman income brackets.

Neither of these objections renders his core observation false. The data he has amassed seems to show that the building of large empires likely decreased the change of violent death and increased average material wealth for those within its borders. But the biggest reason to study history is that "those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it," and his particular thesis has no predictive or imperative power; if the Romans are trying to kill you and enslave your family, you're going to oppose them whether their war is productive or not.

In addition, the book doesn't consider what would have happened had empires chosen either an EU-like federation strategy, or simply chosen to live with the national borders as they were and focused on trade instead. Both of those have certainly been successful strategies and managed to reduce violent death rates and increase material wealth in some examples (seventeenth century Holland, once they decided to abandon the race for empire to the Britsh, is a good example).

That discussion about his main thesis aside, the best reason to read this book is because, like "Guns, Germs, and Steel," it brings a lot of historical data from different threads, ages, and cultures to bear on this hypothesis. I learned a lot more about the various cycles of civilization in India and the Middle East, and his take on the period 400-1200 A.D. ("the steppes riders terrorize the world") is an interesting holistic look at the setbacks civilization encountered in that era.