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Saturday, August 05, 2017

Tom Marcus' "Soldier Spy": truth and narrative

At the airport I bought Tom Marcus’ “Soldier Spy” (Penguin edition, 2017)[1]. This purports to be, and may be, an entirely true account of the life and work of an undercover MI5 officer. 

However, as a reader I have the lingering suspicion that I am being played. As with accounts by soldiers of the SAS, a work like this requires official permission to be published and the question arises, what reason would MI5 have to allow this into the public domain? 

I think it has to do with public reservations about MI5’s past and present behaviour. For example, there is the alleged role of MI5 in the case of Binyam Mohamed,[2] who claims that they were complicit in his illegal “extraordinary rendition” to Morocco at the behest of the United States in 2001 and that they supplied information and lines of questioning for his torturers.

Then there is the case of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian electrician who was shot dead by undercover agents on the London Tube in 2005. The press release from the BBC's Panorama programme the following year[3] says that the decision to pursue and kill him was a consequence of the implementation of operation Kratos, a policy approved at MI5 headquarters in 2003. The shooting of Menezes came 15 days after the 7th of July attacks on the London public transport and it has since been alleged that Menezes was armed with a pistol and far from being an innocent electrician was involved in preparing the explosive mechanisms used in those attacks.  However, these allegations by Michael Shrimpton in his 2014 book “Spyhunter” may have to be taken with a pinch of salt, firstly because they come so late after the event and secondly because the author himself appears to have crossed the line somehow or other - perhaps not relating to this case - and ended up in jail.[4]

Generally there is growing public concern about the intrusion of the intelligence services into the daily activities of (so it seems) almost everybody in the country. Many will still recall former agent Peter Wright’s claim in his 1987 book “Spycatcher” that MI5 agents “bugged and burgled their way across London at the State’s behest while pompous, bowler-hatted civil servants in Whitehall looked the other way."[5] Perhaps readers will also recall how hard the British State fought in court against the publication of Wright’s book. Since that time 30 years ago, we have seen massive growth of spying on personal electronic communication and social media via GCHQ and its foreign intelligence partners.

So true or not, Marcus' book comes to us in a social and political context and therefore has to be seen as playing a part in a “narrative”, to use a term favoured by such media spinners as Alastair Campbell. The postmodern approach to truth is that it does not exist and to me the implications open the road to madness, for what are we to make of the beliefs held by the spinners themselves? Further, at the same time as taking account of the public’s perceptions and attempting to mould them into a story favouring the powerful, other elements are carefully excluded and if an attempt is made to introduce them into the public discourse there are sustained attempt to discredit the objector. For example the admittedly colourful George Galloway’s opposition to the developing momentum for the second war on Iraq  was turned into insinuations of his having sympathy with terrorism, as indeed more recently have Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's remarks  past and present on similar subjects. The “military industrial complex” must be somewhat discomfited by the fact that Corbyn's views on Gulf War Two, which he consistently opposed, now appear to be held by the majority of people in Britain.

Either Marcus is a gifted writer or he has been expertly edited. He has certainly been professionally presented for a target audience. The cover of the paperback edition shows the lower half of a face with no visually distinguishing marks as per SAS requirements and half obscured by a hoodie which he also wears for TV interviews.[6]  Perhaps the hoodie is a subliminal appeal to directionless youngsters, similar to the way in which Andy McNab appears to nod to boys and gang lads by featuring them in some of his stories. The lower cover also shows a lone figure standing in mid-road in a cityscape, rather as in a typical Jack Reacher tale.

Like McNab’s Nick Stone, the character of the protagonist in “Soldier Spy” starts out as a loser from a broken home, but is saved by his determination, intelligence and physical ability together with his courage, all qualities to be refined and used by the Army and subsequently the Intelligence Services. He almost forces his way into the Royal Engineers and soon makes his commanding officer retake the physical fitness test, as a result of which the CO pushes him in the direction of the SAS.  He is later handpicked by MI5, a rare honour. The descriptions of his undercover work with all its danger and privations are highly thrilling but also underscore the importance of what he does to protect the public.

At least as edited, Marcus is at pains to repeat that MI5 is the best in the world at what it does, which might be disputed by the Israeli intelligence services and perhaps former members of the RUC, to name a couple of alternative contenders for the crown. This is where a little bell rings:  I recently read “Soldier Five” by Mike Coburn,  one of the members  of the now famous 1991 Bravo Two Zero SAS patrol in the Iraqi desert. This account acts as a corrective, sometimes with embarrassing implications, to some of the earlier accounts by other members. At the end of his book Coburn recounts the difficulties he had in getting his book published against the wishes of the British Establishment.  It appears that an important motive of the latter was to preserve the reputation of the SAS for the purposes of saleability of their services. Part of the court transcript[7] runs:

WT: In your view, this case is all about enforcing the [secrecy] contract to safeguard the employability of the Regiment, keeping ahead of its competition within the UK and to protect your customer base…

ST: Yes the reason I hesitate to answer it kind of is putting a market spin on this...

WT:  They are words in your cross brief document…

 ST:  Which words?

WT:  Employability, customer base, protecting the market, competition...

ST: Yes.

In line with what I take to be MI5’s preferred narrative, Marcus omits mention of the cockups and issues that might detract from the overall message of the State as guardian angel. Is there an element of brand protection and promotion here, also?

Even his motivation is slightly incoherent, for more than once he tells his superiors that he is not doing the job for Queen and Country but simply because he is good at it, yet he concludes his story with a theatrically jingoistic flourish, a message to the country’s enemies that “we are strong and united; that strength has been built on thousands of years of hardship and if you even think about trying to hurt us my friends will find you and f****** destroy you. Semper Vigilat.

Just as with the latest interpretations of Batman and James Bond,  our hero is flawed and vulnerable, having his career cut short by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a suffering to which Andy McNab also refers in his books,  noting that the support given to its Service victims in the UK compares unfavorably with that provided to American Special Forces. Again, Marcus's misfortune may be perfectly true but it fits into the way that modern hero narratives are told, appealing to our sense of shared personal weakness and confusion while at the same time increasing our admiration for the hero.

In all these tales of derring-do there is an element of deliberate presbyopia: we are encouraged to focus on the challenges immediately before us and allowed a certain blindness as to the conditions that gave rise to them. Our attention is diverted by fear and hatred from a consideration of how not to get into such situations in the first place. Undoubtedly there are enemies who now have to be dealt with, but there might not have been so many had we conducted ourselves in a fairer and juster manner. If I had to choose between the life of a secret agent fighting an endless succession of foes, and that of a public protester like Brian Haw[8] trying to obviate the need for conflict (and see how the GLA and Parliament unsuccessfully tried various sledgehammers to crack his little egg[9]), I hope I would follow the latter. We in the UK, who are the most CCTV-watched in the world, might then have greater privacy and personal freedom.

“Soldier Spy” is a skilfully packaged and well-sweetened coating for a pill that treats symptoms rather than causes, and has undesirable side-effects.

[6] E.g. on 5 News, October 2016:
[7] Page 302 in the hardback edition:


Sackerson said...

JD comments:

That's a very good post but as I approached the end of it I began to think of Shelley's poem 'Ozymandias' and then of the Christian truth that those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.

The ethos of this United Kingdom of ours is rooted in the philosophy of the Greeks and the Romans and yet both were warrior cultures and were, in reality, barbarians. Their decline and fall was a consequence of that; otherwise known as the Law of Karma, which is inescapable.

I have written about the Greeks here-

In Yogananda's autobiography he writes, "Though India possesses a civilisation more ancient than that of any other country, few historians have noted that her feat of survival is by no means an accident but a logical incident in the record of devotion to the eternal verities that India has offered through her best men in every generation..... India has given the worthiest answer of any people to the challenge of time. Gone are the empires of mighty nations, skilled in the arts of war, that once were India's contemporaries: Egypt, Babylonia, Greece, Rome."

The UK is going the same way as all previous warrior empires, as will the US; both will eventually disappear unless, as you say with reference to Brian Haw, we seriously follow the path set out by Gandhi or Martin Luther King.

It should be pointed out that our Christianity will not save us because, as Yogananda points out in another of his books, the real message of Christianity (i.e. the esoteric, occult root) was replaced by Churchianity between 300 AD and 550 AD; it became a dogma, a book of rules, a graven image in fact.

The immortal Private Frazer was right: "We're all doomed, ah tell ye! Doooomed!!!!"

A K Haart said...

I see a number of Amazon reviewers have described the book as lacking credibility and some go further and describe it as fiction.

"Our attention is diverted by fear and hatred from a consideration of how not to get into such situations in the first place."

Yet oddly enough most of us are accustomed to avoiding dangerous situations and tend to overestimate the likely risk when we do so. Risk has always been a political football but if we ever acquire a clearer perception of it then things may change - and that's a risk to the establishment.

Paddington said...

The comments on psychological health which I remember from McNabb's 'Bravo Two Zero', were that the tests found no difference before and after his confinement in Iraq. In other words, he was still a psycho.

Sackerson said...

But since the suicide of his friend and SAS mucker Frank he says he checks his own mental health from time to time.

Paddington said...

As for the comment above, Re: Christianity, Sackerson is quite right. In fact, there are many passages in the NT attributed to Jesus that say that adherence to rules is far less important than how one treats one's fellow man. Paul put a stop to all of that hippy nonsense, and set up a structure which could survive. He was definitely not an ideas man,but a middle manager.

Argyll Tony said...

It's easy to pull apart a story after giving it serious consideration but many of your comments are cheap shots aimed at some of the quotes which are described as jingoistic. You forget that a book is written to SELL to interested people and most books have jingoistic remarks which are there for a purpose.....that does not make them false. Also, it's a fact that many terrorist acts are prevented on a weekly basis by men and women such as this........I couldn't bring myself to criticise those who choose this line of work, whether jingoistic or otherwise.

Sackerson said...

@ArgyllTony: I appreciate your comments. It's just that I don't like being lied to, and there is so very much disinformation these days. I know we have enemies though we might have had fewer if we had behaved justly and with restraint in foreign parts. Perhaps I've grown out of James Bond. Thanks for visiting and commenting.