Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Bondian Way of War?

In Britain and Her Army, 1509-1870, Corelli Barnett lamented what he saw as the failure of the English people to accept an efficiently run standing army as a necessary fact of life for a nation wishing to have a say in the affairs of Europe and the world. Writing of the later Victorian era, he observed that in contrast with, for example, the science and system the Germans applied to their military affairs, in British thinking about the country's army, colored as it was by its routine of small colonial expeditions,
There was an emphasis on the man rather than the system, on smallness instead of greatness of scale, on great variety of task and terrain instead of a single eventuality.
Indeed, the impression seemed to widely prevail "that wars were distant and exotic adventure stories" and the belief "that to win a modern war, you called for a hero"--a Roberts, a Wolseley, a Kitchener.

Such ideas left Britain ill-equipped to face the challenge of the world wars, wars which proved to be the opposite of those old colonial campaigns in every respect. Vast, attritional contests decided by the size, organization and application of the human, industrial, technological resources of whole nations and alliance systems, it was beyond question that the quality of the system mattered. Amid all that, heroics were simply not enough, and a fixation on them problematic at best.

Yet, it seems that the older view endured in British culture through the conflict--what Simon Winder termed a "chivalrous, romantic, freebooting, aristocratic" attitude toward war which imagined that "guts and personal ingenuity . . . individual pluck and initiative . . . special forces, the individual boffin who cracks some military problem . . . the single, isolated hero" could yet "save the day." And as he observes, it persisted into the post-war era, Winder relating it to the fascination with the Special Air Service.

It seems possible that some clung to this view the more tightly, because of the changes in Britain's position. While in 1878 the music hall refrain that gave the English language the word "jingo" held that "We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too," by 1945 it was beyond all doubt that it was the Americans (and the Soviets, and an increasingly long list of others) who had more ships, more money, more men, which seemed all the more reason to focus on intangibles.

Those optimistic about Britain's continuing to be a world power fancied that the country could still call on a greater-than-average quality of men, a higher-than-average percentage of heroes to win its wars for it. Indeed, they even hoped that a superiority in such resources would enable Britain to be the equal partner of the U.S., the superior personal experience, judgment, personal prowess of English gentlemen making it a match for the vast material supremacy of, for example, the rich and technically sophisticated but otherwise untutored Yanks--the vision of the "special relationship" which has been romanticized on both sides of the Atlantic.

Ian Fleming was no exception, certainly not as an officer of Naval Intelligence during World War II. Given to this exaltation of man over system, war as a chivalrous, romantic, freebooting affair where single, isolated heroes carried the day, he developed a reputation for coming up with audacious, colorful schemes, like an elaborate plan for hijacking a German minesweeper in aid of Bletchley Park's code-breaking effort that was never put into action, and his more successful development of 30 Assault Unit--a force of Royal Marine "intelligence commandos" operating ahead of the rest of Allied forces for the purpose of capturing intelligence material.

Freer to indulge in such ideas as a writer of thrillers, such thinking was even more evident in the unusual career he wrote for James Bond. It was particularly evident in the ways in which, after acknowledging the tiny rivet reality of intelligence work, worked around it to showcase a more individualistic sort of activity. The fact that Bond takes his orders personally from the head of the Service makes it easier for him to get it, as does the fact that by the time Bond comes along, those doing more routine work have already put much of the picture together in a handy dossier, so that his purpose is typically to go after a known target (like Le Chiffre, or Auric Goldfinger), and typically alone.

Once out in the field Bond may have allies, but from Casino Royale to The Man with the Golden Gun, he works with a team rather than being part of a team. This is all the more the case in the fact that as a double-o he is as unspecialized as he is elite. The underwater demolition job of Live and Let Die, the murder investigation of Moonraker, the undercover infiltration of a criminal organization in Diamonds Are Forever, the counter-sniper job of "The Living Daylights," the negotiations with Tanaka in Twice, to say nothing of the numerous, more arcane tasks assigned him (like bankrupting Le Chiffre) might each be thought to call for a special expert, but he does them all; and where intelligence and special forces personnel are apt to be specialists in a particular region of the world, he does this work anywhere and everywhere, because a hero was needed, pure and simple.

As with so much else having to do with the vision of the world underlying Bond's adventures, this is all especially pointed in You Only Live Twice. Instructed to go to Japan to perform the difficult task of securing an intelligence-sharing agreement with their Japanese counterparts, Bond thinks of the fact that he "had never been east of Hong Kong," and did not know the language, so that he flatly asks M "why have you chosen me, sir?"

M's answer is "the simple reason that the job's impossible," or at least, "totally improbable of success," while Bond has in the past shown "an aptitude for difficult assignments." It also occurred to Bond that he had advantages over those who did have the cultural knowledge one would think suited for the job: "Orientalists had their own particular drawbacks--too much tied up with tea ceremonies and flower arrangements and Zen and so forth." Moreover, what the job ultimately calls for is not cultural knowledge, but a display of personal prowess that would demonstrate to Tanaka that Britain is still a nation to be reckoned with, and Bond proves just the man to provide that. Of course, reality proved more intractable than that, the world-power stakes allowing no substitute for an abundance of the stuff of hard power--but Bond's continuing adventures are nonetheless a legacy of that earlier thinking.

My Posts on Ian Fleming's Novels
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)

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