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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Red Sparrow, Palace of Treason, and other CIA Fantasies

Jason Matthews, born in 1951, looks and talks a bit like Leon Panetta, who ran the CIA for a while during the Obama Administration. In other words, he doesn’t  look like a “Jason Bourne” type spy. He is the author of two very popular spy novels, mentioned in the title of this post. His first novel Red Sparrow was made into a movie this year, (2018).  I give it a so-so rating. The second one Palace of Treason is only slightly better.

The novels are of great interest because Matthews updates us on some of the clandestine techniques of both the Russian and American intelligence agencies. As a former spook himself, Matthews writes quite openly about the internal battles within the American Intel world (CIA vs FBI, with DIA, NSA, and NIC all having peculiar minor roles with their characters and quirks.).  Matthews is a sharp intellect, and is a competent, if unlyrical writer who obviously has a broad range of non-spy related interests. The novels are filled with many Russian latinized phrases that show Matthews’ command of русский (russkiy).

One recurring feature in the novels, is that at the end of every chapter Matthews has a culinary recipe, usually of some Russian or Middle Eastern dish but sometimes just sandwiches or salads. He started this in Red Sparrow and continued it through his second book, Palace of Treason.  That means that every chapter has to have an eating scene, because the recipes reflect the most recent meal consumed in the story. This actually puts Matthews in a narrative box.  Eating is important of course, but most novels don’t have a meal stuffed into every chapter. I suppose this is entertaining and informative for some readers, but I find it annoying and think it detracts from the flow of the story.

The main character is Dominika Egorova, the beautiful young niece of the one of the department heads of the Russian SVR (Sluzhba vneshney razvedki or Foreign Intelligence Service). She has powers that rival Wonder Woman's  “...Dominika was born a synesthete, with a brain wired to see colored auras around people and thereby read passion, treachery, fear, or deception.” She is a former Prima Ballerina for the Bolshoi, highly connected into the Russian power structure, and who speaks fluent French and English and can practically read other people’s mind.  And because she is a graduate of State School Number 4, Sparrow School, or as she calls it “whore school” she is a master of sexual technique and the art of bringing maximum pleasure to her lovers.

Her counterpart is Nate Nash, a son of a Virginia lawyer who turns away from a life of mint juleps and horse country leisure, to serve his country. He is brave, resourceful and speaks Russian. His task in Red Sparrow is to manage the relationship with the Russian Mole, MARBLE, a high official in the Russian Intelligence Service, with access to the highest level of Russian policy, a position similar to that of Bill Haydon in Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy.

Red Sparrow got rave reviews from former CIA officials and the refrain from the mainstream reviewers is that it is an authentic and realistic account of the Spy vs. Spy battles being waged today. Red Sparrows were (usually) women who were trained to use sexual attraction to flip their targets. Both novels are filled with details of “tradecraft”. Honey Traps, (compromising with sex), Rapid burst transmission, (Condensed encrypted radio transmissions) and the Canary Traps (where you leak different secrets to different mole targets to see which info (canary) flies home, thereby identifying the mole) Window dressing, (a cover story for spies to convince the opposition that what they are seeing is genuine, rather than a set-up.)  Much of this tradecraft has already been deeply explored by Le Carre.

Matthews writes long books.  Both books together are over one thousand pages in soft cover. So he gives his readers their monies worth.

His competition, at least if you read what some reviewers say, is John Le Carre who invented the genre.  Tradecraft terms like Mole, Dead drop, brushpast, lamplighters, scalphunters, sleeper agents, all of these phrases and many more were invented by Le Carre.  Now everyone, including the spies themselves, use these terms to describe the various facets and specialties of modern spying.

One thing that separates them is that Matthews was  62 when he published his first book, while Le Carre (JLC) was still in his twenties when he began writing fiction.  Being a Brit JLC was also a bit more elegant in his storytelling. Matthews gets right to the short strokes like he is composing a cable back to headquarters detailing the state of his case. JLC takes his time and gives space for even his minor characters to blossom.

I think a lot of people who support our INTEL community see Matthews’ novels as a forceful answer to Le Carre.  Throughout LeCarre’s work there is an anti-American subtext. Sometimes it was just smug, pointing out the clumsy American over-reliance on gadgets and gizmos and lack of finesse on the human elements of spycraft.   Other times it is more pointed, wondering if the American INTELs had a vested interest in maintaining the game and overestimating Russia’s capabilities. Le Carre saw that in order to maintain the military funding the US had to have a big evil boogie man to arm against and so therefore it was in the CIA’s interest to make the threat bigger than it really was.

You get no such doubts from Matthews. His Russians are either evil, (Putin makes an appearance in Palace of Treason) sadistic, or lackey stooges.   

Well - except for our super girl Dominika and the American Mole in the Russian infrastructure. Both of them represent all that is good and cultured in Russia. Both of them are traitors to their country, but Matthews paints them as people who have been dehumanized first by the Soviet system, and now by Putin’s.  But how helping the Americans win (win what?) is not made clear. With Dominika we do get to see some complexity. She is a killer, and she is good at it. But she loves Nate, (and sometimes hates him) her American spy (they both are assigned to watch the other by their respective agencies). But other than her longing to be with Nate, she is motivated by hatred of her Kremlin masters.

These days, it is hard to put a political label on these books, although the arch American traitor is a woman Democratic Senator from California, so I think it is pretty clear where Matthews probably stands.  But with Trump, who is (IMO) partially a creation of the Russian Intel services, many liberals look to the CIA et al as one of the institutional backstops against the creeping fascism that Trump represents.  But it is not that simple. If the election of Trump was the ultimate spy coup of modern history then what does it say about our services which allowed it to happen? Doesn’t it indicate that Le Carre is right, that our guys are queer for the gear, but that are clueless as to what is really at stake?  

What is at stake in Matthews books?  New satellite technology (gear) that the Democratic Senator is selling to the Kremlin. Or (shades of Tom Clancy) submarine schematics. Meanwhile, our democracy got hacked in a big way. This seems to escape Matthews notice, although he seems to promise to address it in his third book in the trilogy The Kremlin's Candidate.  We’ll have to wait until it comes out to see.  But the summary from Kirkus Reviews doesn’t seem too promising.

And then there is the movie Red Sparrow.  Poor Jennifer Lawrence.  I felt so sorry for her as she spread her legs in every other scene for men that she hated.  It was an inspired performance, but for what? The other cameos by Jeremy Irons (a Russian General), Charlotte Rampling ( the Matron of the Sparrow school) and Mary Louise Parker (who seemed to think it was a sequel to Weeds as she stumbled around as  the corrupt American traitor) they all gave a perfect definition of “mailing it in”.  In fact, it almost seemed like they were hanging poor Jennifer out to dry, (which is what both the Russians and Americans did in the story.) It was a long, disjointed and boring movie, and I read the book and knew what was happening.  I can’t imagine watching otherwise.

Anyway, my final thought is if that if this is the best we can do to “advertise” our Intel agencies, then maybe Trump is right about the CIA.  No. No. Oh my gosh, I didn’t really say that, did I? These are not happy times.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Review of The Killer Angels


It is surprising to me that I have waited so long to read Michael 
Shaara’s epic story of the Battle of Gettysburg, published in 1974.
I visited the battlefield a long time ago, and "The Killer Angels" is about
that land. It is a story about the actual place because topography
is the real determining factor in the battle. You can see how Sharra 
imagined the battle as he walked over it on vacation with his family,
which he says is the spark for his decision to write the book.

The story takes place over the three-day battle and is told through the eyes of a few of its participants. There is a Confederate spy named Harrison who works for General Longstreet, General Lee’s second in command. Those three and the Confederate General Armistead speak for the Confederacy in the story.

Harrison hangs around taverns and Union camps and picks up gossip about Union movements and lets Longstreet know that the North's Army of the Potomac is closing in on the Army of Northern Virginia which is invading Pennsylvania. Harrison is an actor by trade and is a fictional creation of Shaara, because he appears nowhere else in the historical record. But in fact, there was a spy who told Longstreet about the Union movements.

General Buford, a horse soldier, and Colonel Lawrence Chamberlain, a professor of “rhetoric” at Bowdoin College in Maine speak for the north. General Buford's cavalry division is the first to arrive in Gettysburg which is the nexus point of about seven or eight main roads coming from all directions. It is surrounded by ridges, whose names have come to be legendary in American history - Seminary Ridge, Cemetery Ridge, and some rocky outcroppings, Little and Big Roundtop. Buford can see the coming battle and knows the importance of land and of the relative defensibility of high ground. He knows he will soon be vastly outnumbered and that he has to hold the high ground for the Union Army behind him.

It is Chamberlain who starts off the tale by talking a company of deserters out of sitting out the coming battle. He is a silver-tongued orator, conversant in Latin, Greek and is knowledgeable of the great speeches Cicero to Shakespeare, but his talk to the deserters is very basic and down to earth and he convinces all but 4 of the 100 plus men to join his regiment. Chamberlain would then be assigned to defend the far left end of the Union line on Little Round Top. He will hold it on the second day, barely, and the 100 deserters who joined him probably made the difference. If they would have broken and the Rebs had taken the hill, they would have decimated the Union line with artillery and the battle and the War would have been lost.

These are big armies - Lee has 75,000 troops and General Meade, the newly appointed Union commander has 90,000 troops. While the enormity of the battle and casualties (one in three from both armies were killed or wounded) is hard to grasp, Shaara’s book focuses on the psychological pain and suffering of his main characters, and the real greatness of the book is the peek into the minds of the participants. It is more than just believable, it is a great insight into the mind of everyone who has had to contemplate horrible alternatives. The mental strain of General’s Lee and Longstreet is depicted with unusual detail. Shaara mixes the pain from their personal lives, (Longstreet had recently lost all three of his children to an epidemic in Richmond and is fighting to keep the blackness of that event back, away from his thoughts) with immediacy and consequences of their every minor decision. He contrasts General Lee with Longstreet, who is a taciturn, pessimistic grinder, and is years ahead of his times as a military thinker. Longstreet understands that the nature of warfare had changed since Napoleon. Lee, by contrast, believes in honor and character, and that will power and gallantry will eventually be the determining factor in the war.  But Longstreet does the math and can calculate his casualties before the fight based on the estimated firepower opposing him. Longstreet wants Lee to dig in, and let the fight come to him. Lee rejects this and he is the boss. Longstreet almost quits, but his black haunted pain of his lost children somehow makes staying on acceptable.

One of the other interesting points of the novel is that Shaara puts Lee’s heart condition into the mix. Shaara had had a heart attack a few years before he wrote “The Killer Angels” and would eventually die from heart failure. Shaara knows exactly how a failing heart weakens a person’s endurance and psychological outlook, and he makes that one of the salience aspects of Lee’s distracted thought process during the battle.

Many of the other famous participants in the battle show up and reveal themselves. General Pickett is a boy who never grew up. He is dancing and singing before leading 15,000 men up that mile long hill into the teeth of the Union cannon-canister blasts. General Reynolds, who refused Lincoln’s offer to command the entire Army of the Potomac just days before, (allowing it to go to Meade) is a powerful presence who on the first day of the battle and is in the process of helping Buford place his units on the field when he is killed by a sniper. Armistead, who briefly captures some of the Union guns at the end of "Pickett's Charge" at the “high watermark of the Confederacy” on Seminary Ridge, sees his wild attack as a last chance to see his best friend, General Hancock, who commands the Union Corp defending that ridge. But he dies before Hancock gets there.

There are discussions around campfires about what it all means. To Chamberlain the war is clearly about slavery and his explanation why is profoundly convincing. Longstreet knows the war is about slavery too, and it haunts him nearly as much as his dead children. Lee also knows, but he says “we must not think on that.” And then you hear them all think about the nature of war itself. And in spite of the horror, all of Shaara's characters, north, and south, acknowledge in one way or another that war is magnificent, that it projects great power on men's outlook and character, binding men together and its exhilaration is second to no other experience they will ever have.

For me, who avoided Vietnam in college and strongly protested its continuance, my battlefield was a campus on lockdown, under curfew, running from the National Guard in the days just after Kent State. Of course, it was nothing at all like war. But it makes me think that that exhilaration, that incomparable feeling of comradeship that soldiers feel for the man next to them is really the enemy, that feeling is really what keeps us marching off to fight. Leftist analysis says it is the capitalist arms manufacturers and their willing tools in Congress and the press who drive us to war. But I think it is that sense of phony romanticism that soldiers remember from the heat of battle, that psychological state of mind that is revealed at Gettysburg, that that is the “Devil’s Den” that really makes war a continuous inevitably.

He's the universal soldier and he really is to blame
His orders come from far away no more
They come from here and there and you and me
And brothers can't you see
This is not the way we put an end to war.

Buffy St Marie