Friday, August 3, 2007

The Company, by Robert Littell

Littell is one of the best spy story writers, in part because he weaves so much real history into his stories and in part because he doesn't get carried away with demonizing one side or another.

The Company is a massive spy story that takes us from the end of WWII through the tearing down of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet states. In other words, it traces the history of the cold war.The cold war is seen through the eyes of several characters, most prominently Jack McAuliffe.

Jack is fresh out of Yale at the start of the story, and is ending his career with the CIA at the end. He joins the CIA with other close friends while a Russian roomie (Yale) takes up spying for the Soviet Union. We follow each of these characters, along with a few significant others, though the bad times and the good. We learn how "The Company" thinks, how convoluted plans and thinking can become. We also gain some insight into the KGB through a few of its operators.

Different readers are going to take away different messages from this book. It can be seen simply as a "good read" and be done. It is well written and carries the reader along literally for days. It can also be seen as a recognition that "good" is often indistinguishable from "bad" if you can get out of the way of the intent of the perpetrators. There are some scenes in which the Soviets are portrayed simplistically, as badasses blindly following a leader. Fortunately, there are many others that feature complex Soviet characters just as capable of good as of evil. In the end, it is the fundamental theory that "the ends justify the means" that gives me greatest pause.

If one were to count bodies chances are as many would lie at the feet of the CIA as the KGB. There is a distinction in this book that United States laws prevent us from torturing and killing those we suspect of being spies, while the KGB has no such compunction. I don't know if this was true then. It certainly isn't true now. Similarly, operations like the Bay of Pigs fiasco suggest that when we plan operations rather than simply gather intelligence we can go badly awry, and the cost of those mistakes is many lives not American. Throughout the book it appears that one of the prime aims of the CIA is to keep itself in business. Yet more than once I wondered how much good it has actually done. On balance.

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