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David John Moore Cornwell’s Autobiography

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John Le Carre and the Morality of Modern Espionage

Mystery. Secrecy. Intrigue. For many people, these words bring to mind the cloak-and-dagger world of spies and espionage – cunning, elusive agents darting through the night, revealing themselves for only the briefest of moments before vanishing into the shadows whence they came. Excitement. Action. Glamour. The mere mention of spies or espionage today often invokes famous spies from pop culture, such as the Men in Black and the iconic James Bond. The spy genre is hardly a sparsely populated one, with countless books, movies, and TV shows depicting the dangerous lives of these masters of the shadows. Writers and producers of the spy genre, though, often see the espionage world through rose-colored glasses as they write, depicting that world as one with clear distinctions between right and wrong, good and evil. Power-crazed, despicable villains such as “Dr. No” plot to destroy the world but are stopped in the nick of time by daring, courageous, James Bond-esque heroes. Yet in the real world, this distinction is often blurred – and sometimes even nonexistent. The espionage of real life is filled with murky tactics, backroom deals, treachery, and betrayal. As renowned author and prolific contributor to the spy genre John Le Carre once wrote, “Who can spy on the spies?” (Le Carre 77).

Born as David John Moore Cornwell, the man behind the pseudonym of “John Le Carre” was born in Poole, Dorset, England on October 19, 1931 to con man Ronnie Cornwell and his wife, Olive. After his mother abandoned him and his father at a young age, Le Carre spent much of his childhood in different boarding schools and eventually left England at 16 to study at the University of Bern in Switzerland. While in Switzerland, the young Le Carre caught the attention of British foreign intelligence, beginning a long and successful career with British intelligence. Already a member of MI5 even as he applied to and studied at the University of Oxford, Le Carre helped to monitor the school’s more radical elements for MI5 before graduating and teaching at Eton College for two years. Later on, Le Carre briefly rejoined MI5 before transferring to MI6, the foreign intelligence branch of British intelligence, in 1960. He began his literary career just a year later in 1961 with the publication of his first mystery novel, Call for the Dead, taking on the pen name of “John Le Carre” to comply with MI6’s restrictions and regulations. It was in 1963, however, that the MI6 agent-turned author first rose to worldwide prominence with the success of the novel that many still consider to be his magnum opus, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. With The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carre firmly secured his position as a leading author and figurehead of the spy genre, drawing on his extensive personal experience as an agent with the SIS, MI6, and other British intelligence agencies to create riveting stories and narratives of life undercover. According to literary critic Tony Barley, “By 1974…Le Carre’s identity as the writer of spy-thrillers was well established.” Many of his other masterworks, though, came later in his life, such as another one of his most well-known and popular novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Through the novel, John Le Carre reveals that British and American intelligence agencies during the Cold War and beyond were just as ruthless and immoral as the Soviets they were fighting against.

Le Carre’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy tells the story of George Smiley, one of Le Carre’s most famous and most often recurring characters and, like Le Carre, an agent with British foreign intelligence. The year is 1973, at the height of the Cold War in Europe, and Smiley, forced into retirement after a botched operation in Czechoslovakia, has just been told by Control, the head of the SIS, that there is a Soviet mole high in British intelligence: “’There’s a rotten apple,’ Control said, ‘and he’s infecting all the others’” (Le Carre 293). Determined to hunt down and expose this mole, Smiley sets out to investigate and save the secrets of British intelligence from its enemies, both at home and abroad. Along the way, while sifting through the layers upon layers of secrets and lies that stand between him and the Soviet mole, Smiley uncovers a web of conspiracies and setups that nearly bring down the British intelligence service – all leading back to a shadowy Czech general named Stevcek.

“Stevcek had had a finger in everything…Then Control comes to this patch in the mid-sixties, Stevcek’s second spell in Moscow, and it’s marked green and red fifty-fifty. Ostensibly, Stevcek was attached to the Warsaw Pact Liaison staff as a colonel general, says Control, but that was just cover. ‘He’d nothing to do with the Warsaw Pact Liaison staff. His real job was in Moscow Centre’s England section. He operated under the work name of Minin…This is the real treasure,’ Control says.” (Le Carre 293)

By the end of the story’s plethora of twists and turns, “there is nevertheless a powerful sense of incompleteness, of uncertainty and baffled wonder, as though the spooks themselves are unable to comprehend the events that have just passed, or indeed what they are working for or against” (Cowley). And although the true identity of the Soviet mole is eventually discovered and revealed by Smiley at the novel’s climax and conclusion, the story still doesn’t end there – rather, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy serves as the first book in Le Carre’s “Karla trilogy,” which takes its name from the Soviet spy code-named “Karla” in Le Carre’s novels, who is revealed to be Smiley’s counterpart in the Soviet intelligence services and his sworn “arch-nemesis” throughout the trilogy and beyond. Karla is described by Smiley as a mysterious, enigmatic, highly skilled spy: “Legends were made, and Karla was one of them. Even his age was a mystery…decades of his life were unaccounted for, and probably never would be, since the people he worked with had a way of dying off or keeping their mouths shut” (Le Carre 206).

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and all of John Le Carre’s other works, although works of fiction, do have a significant basis in real facts and events, as well as Le Carre’s own personal experiences as a British intelligence agent in his earlier, pre-novelist days. In fact, much of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is adapted from the true story of Harold “Kim” Philby, a British intelligence officer who rose to prominence in MI6 after World War II. In 1963, though, Philby, after being exposed as an undercover Soviet agent, fled England and defected to the Soviet Union. Le Carre himself contributed to a 1969 book about Philby’s defection before fictionalizing – and immortalizing – the events in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Koger). This era was widely depicted in Le Carre’s novels, which all took place in the midst of the Cold War, as tensions between the totalitarian Communist regime of the Soviet Union and Western democratic powers – namely, the United States and Great Britain – reached new highs seemingly each day. On both sides of the conflict, intelligence services worked around the clock, day and night, to uncover the secrets, plans, and classified information of the other side – anything that would provide even the slightest advantage or damage the enemy even the slightest bit was more prized and valuable than even solid gold to American, British, and Soviet intelligence agencies during that time. To that end, both sides used so-called “dirty” tactics to get their hands on the desired information and secrets – tactics such as blackmail, kidnappings, and even sometimes torture.

While today, especially in countries such as the United States or Great Britain, people tend to think of the US and Britain as the metaphorical “good guys” in the Cold War, while the communist, dictatorial Soviet Union is generally thought of as the “bad guy” of the era. In a similar trend, people today likely consider the Western democratic countries – and their respective intelligence agencies, such as the American CIA and Britain’s MI6 – to have been more morally right and just during the Cold War era, never stooping to the “atrocities” committed by comparable Soviet agencies such as the KGB and other counterpart intelligence services. But the reality, as Le Carre often revealed through his novels – and did clearly reveal through Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, specifically – was that all countries and all intelligence agencies of the world – whether they be the CIA, MI6, or the KGB – made use of lowbrow and immoral tactics and strategies to gain an edge over their opponents, strengthen themselves, or often both at the same time. The use of these tactics has not been left behind in the past, either. Even today, decades after the last clandestine Cold War spy operation was concluded, some of these relics of the era still remain – most prominently, in recent years, in the treatment of terrorists imprisoned at the US base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where forms of torture were reportedly often used to extract information from inmates.

With an ever-increasing amount of information about espionage tactics such as these being declassified and exposed to the world, public awareness and controversy have been increasing as well. And so the question arises: can the use of tactics such as these in espionage ever be justified? Whatever one’s answer is, though, the influence of John Le Carre can be felt in it. Even the Central Intelligence Agency, the foremost American intelligence and espionage agency, recognizes the power of Le Carre’s writings to shape public opinion, giving credit to “the moral proposition so forcefully advocated by Le Carre in most of his novels – that the West’s resort to immoral tactics and techniques (by governments and corporations) created a state of moral equivalence” (Bradford and Burridge). Smiley himself recognizes this moral ambiguity at the end of the novel, deciding that the traitor’s means and motives are just as valid as his own – “Smiley shrugged it all aside, distrustful as ever of the standard shapes of human motive” (Le Carre 379). Far from the clear divisions of right and wrong often depicted by other writers of the genre, the moral fog that pervades the air of the espionage world remains a clear theme throughout Le Carre’s work.

While many people, especially in today’s society, have strong feelings about the use of intelligence-gathering tactics such as the ones depicted in Le Carre’s novels, it seems as if – at least for the foreseeable future – they’re here to stay. And although it might not seem like ordinary people can do much about things like this, that misconception has already been proven wrong numerous times in the past, where the efforts of common citizens have set into motion much larger and more significant movements, much like the smallest disturbances – in the right places – can start a mighty avalanche. But in the end, John Le Carre undoubtedly deserves society’s appreciation and respect – both for bringing this issue to the attention of a far greater audience and for providing the world with exciting, “edge-of-your-seat” stories such as the ones told in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and the other novels that he wrote throughout his long and successful literary career. Without a doubt, John Le Carre will be remembered by the world as a defining author in the spy genre, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy will go down as one of the paragons of the genre. “The mole is on his way,” Smiley declares at one point (Le Carre 353). In the world of modern espionage, though, the mole is almost certainly already here.

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