Lessons from the World of Espionage


            Sun Tzu’s Art of War advises the wise general to lay his plans in accordance with the character and disposition of his enemy.

If he is secure at all points, be prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, evade him.

If your opponent is of choleric temper, seek to irritate him. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant.

If he is taking his ease, give him no rest.

If his forces are united, separate them.

Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected.

These military devices, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.

Sun Tzu, Art of War 1:21-25

This principle is central to warfare, and to all types of conflict. In order to defeat your enemy, you must know him.

Hence the saying: If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.

If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

Sun Tzu, Art of War 3:18

While most of the Art of War is devoted to tactics, terrain, and maneuvers, in the thirteenth chapter he turns his focus to this central problem, confronting the general with a simple reality concerning the nature of his profession.

Thus, what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is FOREKNOWLEDGE.

Now this foreknowledge cannot be elicited from spirits; it cannot be obtained inductively from experience, nor by any deductive calculation.

Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.

Hence the use of spies[.]

Sun Tzu, Art of War 13:4-7a


            The art of war is first and foremost the art of intelligence—know your enemy—and only after that the application of that intelligence to your situation. This is not a piece of merely pagan wisdom, some Machiavellian realpolitik foreign to a Biblical view of warfare. It is a simple fact of the universe as God created it.

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it—lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’? Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace.

Luke 14:28-32, NKJV

Nor is this a merely abstract piece of wisdom, The Bible also gives us examples of Israelite leaders who initiated intelligence gathering missions in preparation for warfare. These operations were not incidental to Israel’s success, either. The conduct and report of the spies impacted the decision making process of the children of Israel, and their relationship with God. Some within the CIA have drawn lessons from the operations of Moses and Joshua, which I heartily recommend reading.


            Of all the things film and television have romanticized, the portrayal of espionage has perhaps been the most distorted and misleading. James Bond’s lack of oversight and operational security, Jason Bourne’s memory wipe drama, and Ethan Hunt’s mask-machine and exploding sunglasses have about as much to do with the real world of spies as the Millennium Falcon does with being an astronaut.

Espionage is not about secret assassinations—which are often far more trouble than they are worth—or about keeping superweapons out of enemy hands. Spying is about information. The job of a spy is to collect intelligence on the enemy, or potential enemy, which will enable people in positions of authority to make informed decisions and either prevent conflict, or ensure victory in the event that conflict does happen.

In some ways, spies are like journalists with a very select audience. They have a particular story they want to pursue, or an area in which they are generally on the lookout for a story, and they hunt for good sources. And, like journalists, they have to protect these sources. When they have done the research, spoken to the right people, collected the information they need, they put it together and send it back home. Eventually—in one form or another—it winds up on the desks of people who need to be informed.

The chief difference is the level of secrecy involved. While most countries are not entirely opposed to the presence of the press, journalists are not often out to reveal the most dangerous of secrets. Spies are. The entire point of espionage is to uncover the most sensitive information, information which can be used against the country in question, or her allies, by a foreign power. Journalists might be bad for PR, but spies are bad for business on a whole other level. As a result, the consequences of being caught are for more severe than for your average journalist, and so secrecy is far more important.


            Not all intelligence, however, comes from covert sources. Intelligence is simply the business of knowing your enemy, and a certain degree of knowledge is lying right there on the surface. People talk. They write books, they make speeches, they appear in the media, and sometimes they appear on the record before their own congress or parliament. Understanding foreign officials can come simply from studying open-source information, information which any citizen may get his hands on and requires little or no risk.

This is particularly true in the age of the internet. Scads of information about every conceivable topic is available with a simple google search. Virtually anyone of importance has some online presence, and anyone who draws any sort of public attention has something written about them. While spies on the ground are assuredly important, the internet is today often the intelligence community’s best friend.

This goes even for online services with a certain degree of security. However your passwords and security settings may make you feel, social media is not impenetrable. Nor are most email servers not run by the government. Even assuming an intelligence service limits itself to collecting metadata, that information is not insignificant.

In that respect, the intelligence business could be seen as something like academic research, with a slightly shady side. Go collect the information, figure out how it fits together, and write your papers. Of course, the effects this research has can go far beyond that of most scholarly articles.


            So far this portrayal of the world of intelligence gathering has ignored a crucial distinction. Intelligence gathering is itself often somewhat separate from analysis. The CIA is actually divided into four directorates.  The Directorate of Support is basically the financial and HR side of the business, while the Directory of Science and Technology is what it sounds like—the guys who build the gadgets and help the spies use them. The two that concern us are what used to be called the Directorate of Operation and the Directorate of Intelligence.

The Directorate of Operations is what inspires spy movies. These are the guys who go out and gather intelligence in foreign countries. Most of the time they have a diplomatic cover that allows them to be there, and works as insurance in case they get caught. Some of them work with a much shadier sort of cover, and put themselves at much greater risk. Regardless, their job is to find and take care of sources, and to bring in the information.

The Directorate of Intelligence is a whole other ballgame. These are not the men on the ground collecting the information. These are the analysts, like Jack Ryan in the Tom Clancy novels, who have more of an academic background, and combine everything from open source info, to satellite and spy plane photos, to intercepted communications and things the DO guys bring in. They have a more removed, global perspective than the men on the ground, and they are supposed to be putting it all together into a finished product the guys in government can actually use.

These are obviously two very different kinds of people, with different focuses and different jobs. While there are certainly other ways of achieving both on-the-ground intelligence from sources who know the context and expert analysis from a more widely informed and global perspective, that essential distinction between the two must be kept in mind. Intelligence is certainly about gathering good information, but at some point all the information has to be put together and a judgment has to be made about the object of study. Gathering and analysis are two halves of the same coin, neither of which should be neglected.


            Now what makes a layman with no firsthand knowledge of the intelligence community want to address this topic? I have to admit that part of it is simply that I find it intriguing. The world of intel combines the thrill and hard work of investigative journalism with what is intended to be a very practical, very real world purpose. That purpose, at its best, is the service of one’s country, and the defense of her citizens.

The topic was first brought to my attention by a link to the blog of John Schindler, a man who has worked in the real world of intelligence with the NSA, and alongside the CIA, as well as in the world of academics. He is sharp and insightful, and knows far more than I could ever hope to on this subject, and others. It will be noticed that most of my links are to his work, and several of these sections are essentially summaries of his articles.

After that, I finally started reading Tom Clancy. He’s made his way around the bookshelves, nightstands, and TV screens of my family for years, but as my taste in fiction is in the direction of the decidedly more fantastic, I’ve only just now got around to reading him. In the early books, Jack Ryan is a CIA analyst, who occasionally steps out of his role in the DI to do DO work. However dramatized those stories may be, they certainly crystallize that central idea of the right information, the right analysis, coming from the right man, at the right time, making all the difference.

One of the things that struck me in all this dabbling around the shallow end of the world of espionage is simply its purpose. It is good to know both what your enemy—or potential enemy—can do, and what they are likely to do. The purpose of intelligence to assess the target’s capabilities and his character, so that those who make decisions can make good ones.

The book of Proverbs is devoted to this idea of assessing character. Look at the wise, and look at the fool. See how they act. Observe the flaws in this kind of behavior, and the strength in another kind. Beyond the marking of these two paths, Proverbs is also a book designed for kings. There are men in this world who are called to render judgment, to give mercy and to enforce justice. In doing so, wisdom is not simply a good thing to have on your resume, it is a practical necessity. Real world decisions have real world consequences, and the men who make those decisions ought to understand the situation they are in, and know all the players.

Intelligence has application in war, as Sun Tzu so clearly saw. It has an effect on international relations in times of relative peace, as most modern nations understand. But it also has a much broader application. Insofar as a man is called to make decisions in the real world, he is also called to study his situation, and to ably evaluate the character of the people involved and effected by those decisions. Judgment calls for wisdom, and wisdom calls for careful study.


            Living in a democracy is a unique privilege. Common people, without any qualification, without any training or investment in the art of government, are allowed to select their leaders on a regular basis. Scriptures call for kings and governors to seek wisdom, and speak of the blessings such men can bring to the nations they lead. We have the ability to choose whether such wise men sit in office and make those judgment calls, or whether the seats of power will be inhabited by fools.

My interest in the world of intelligence is not entirely political, but it does have political implications. Earlier I made a comparison between spies and reporters, how both make contact with sources, and both must guard them closely. The principle certainly applies to the press, but it is far more important in the world espionage, as lives are often on the line.

There is a curious situation that comes about in the world of intelligence. On occasion you are given information that is vitally important, but to use that information would be to reveal the source. Some information, after all, can only come from a very limited pool of individuals. This is why espionage is a dangerous trade. When this situation occurs, those in positions of power have to ask whether to use that crucial information and so expose their source, or to ignore it and suffer the consequences of apparent ignorance, but protect the source. Sometimes this leads to amusing situations, but sometimes the consequences can be deadly serious.

In light of this fact, the cavalier way certain government officials treat classified information is shocking in the extreme. We often get so caught up in our culture wars and playing petty political games that we forget that elections are not a game show. There are real consequences for the foolishness of our leaders, real consequences for the decisions we make at the ballot box. Real lives are at stake, and the future of our country as a whole.

As the election season progresses, and we are called to make our decision, there is something to be learned from Sun Tzu and the world of intelligence. We cannot choose leaders solely based on their agreement with our points of view. The economy matters, healthcare matters, civil rights and criminal law all matter. But so does the character of our leaders, sometimes in a far more immediate way.

Looking at the field of candidates, there are people I favor for ideological reasons, and people I strongly disagree with. On the other hand, there are people who evoke far less of a reaction. They just don’t shout their views as boldly and unreservedly. They aren’t shocking enough. They aren’t playing the game as well.

But that’s not all that matters. It also matters if a leader has integrity—and some do, left, right, and center. It also matters if they can keep a level head—and some can, left, right, and center. It matters if our leaders can humble themselves, and let the safety and security of our nation and its citizens come before their position in the culture wars and power politics of the day. Some do so. Some do not.

In making this evaluation, we are ourselves called to gather intelligence, to analyze it, and to render judgment. All forms of government rely on the ability of someone to do this. It is only democracy the relies on the ability of the general populace to seek out information and make informed decisions in this manner.

So let me encourage you, one citizen to another. The internet exists. Use it. For all its faults, our press is still free. Make us of it. You yourself know people, and perhaps you know people who know people. Use that. We live in a country where education is widely available and encouraged. Take advantage of that. Be the sort of citizen that makes decisions based not on emotion or borrowed opinions informed by propaganda, but on genuine intelligence.


Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.

The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat: how much more no calculation at all! It is by attention to this point that I can foresee who is likely to win or lose.

Sun Tzu, Art of War 1:26


Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Cimmerian

The Hyborian Age—where all the women were supple and all the men had mighty thews.

The world of Conan is a riot of wildly diverse races, cultures, and civilizations. Roman-inspired troops fight pseudo-Egyptians, there are echoes of Babylon and Persia, grim Celto-Germans, fearsome steppe nomads, and Picts that more closely resemble a caricature of native Americans than ancient British tribes. Speaking of native Americans, there are Aztecs too, or perhaps Mayans, though considering one of their number is named “Olmec,” it’s hard to tell. An Iranistan resembling old Orientalist legends of the Ottoman Empire butts up against a desert filled with Cossacks and a distant pseudo-India. The Far East is out there somewhere, and the jungles, plains, and deserts of “the Black Kingdoms.”

This incoherent mix of cultures from every era and part of the world is engaged in a constant struggle for survival, where only the mightiest races can survive. And race is very key in the story. If you cut Howard, he bleeds with that old style of Darwinian racism that is no longer in vogue among scientifically minded progressives. The darker the skin, the more savage—usually—the person. Peoples’ characters are defined by their bloodlines, genetics having a strange amount of weight in an otherwise Nietzschean, will-centered story universe.

The overall effect is an intriguing one. Are Aquilonians Roman or high medieval France? How did a Mesoamerican people sprout out of what appears to be Egyptian stock? Are the Egypt-inspired Stygian sorcerers actually any different from the Shemite villains Conan meets elsewhere? Are the Cimmerians Celts, or Germans, or Scythians, or something else altogether? What is the difference between the black men whose race makes them little more than animals in Conan’s sight, and the black men Conan is willing to call his friends?

This wild riot is intriguing. There’s always something new—if not terribly so—and each piece of the puzzle is just suggestive enough to make you want to fit them all together, to form a coherent view of Conan’s world. At every turn, however, you are confronted with contradictory bits of information, or some strange new problem that destroys the picture you thought was coming into view. Still, the fruitlessness of the exercise does not diminish its effect. With each new story, you are drawn into the world and wondering at every new and exotic person, city, custom, or creature that comes around the corner.

While Howard’s Darwinian racism is more central to his stories, and expressed in far more violent outbursts than in those of his friend, H. P. Lovecraft, it is qualified in an interesting way. Though Conan looks down in contempt at so many peoples for being uncivilized and barbaric, barbarism is clearly something both Conan and his creator admire. There is something more primal and more excellent about a wild man, a barbarian, a wolf in human form, than in the soft folk of more civilized stock. It is always the city folk who are the first to die, and one particular story makes it startlingly clear that all civilization goes this way. In Conan’s world, the natural state of man is wild barbarism, barely elevated above the animals. That is the place where human excellence thrives, and all civilization must ultimately bow before this fact as it is swept away in the sands of time and only the strong, the wild, the primitive remains. In such a world, how seriously can we take the supposed inferiority of Pictish hordes or Afghuli tribesmen?

Conan himself is an interesting puzzle. Like Superman, he’s impossible to beat, but he is far more cynical than that golden-age American hero. The only law he recognizes is survival, the only good he knows is the pleasure of his own belly—supple women, power, and gold. Indeed, the coldly predatory way he sometimes treats women is shocking, despite Howard’s unwillingness to cross certain lines or his studied avoidance of any entirely explicit sexual content. Conan is a creature powered largely by his lizard brain, made unstoppable by the might of his arm and his rough upbringing in the hills of Cimmeria.

Then again, Conan sometimes does make a moral choice. He saves a woman rather than treasure, goes back to save a newly-met traveling companion rather than fleeing to safety. Sometimes this is waved away with a cynical comment about how it was in his own self-interest in a roundabout way, or the careless acknowledgment that risking his neck like that was a poor choice, one he probably will not repeat. But sometimes it seems like Conan is developing human qualities that have little to do with the primitive pleasure-centers of his brain. There might be some character hiding under all the raw barbarian muscle.

The Lovecraft connection really cannot be ignored. Nods are given to that mythos, certainly, but they share a larger underlying logic. Lovecraft sets out in his work to tear down man’s presumptuously anthropocentric view of the universe. He does so by introducing his characters to inhuman beings of great antiquity, of vast power, and who little notice or care what happens to feeble humankind. Entire civilizations struggled up from the slime before us, many dwell beside us, and many more will outlive us. We are less than a footnote in the annals of cosmic history.

Howard also takes a crack at our anthropocentric presuppositions, but from another point of view. Rather than drawing attention to what gods or monsters might exist beyond the limits of our knowledge—though they certainly do exist in this world—Howard draws attention to our own continuity with the forms of life below us. All too often, Conan stumbles across a race of men that look and act a little too apelike. At other times, he runs across apes that act far too human. Conan himself is often said to have more in common with a jungle dragon or a wild wolf than he does with civilized men. He even knows the name and sign of a god the animals worship but man has long forgotten. Always we are reminded that men are merely beasts, and beasts may be more cunning, or stronger, than men. After all, many races of man have little more intelligence than the apes from which they are descended. The illusion that we are special is constantly dashed.

This is why racism is so prominent in Conan’s world. It’s the entire point. Man is just another beast in the struggle for survival. At any point he is arising from another species of ape, or diverging along two evolutionary paths. Just as the Atlanteans once overcame the other stocks of men in their world, and the Hyborians overcame the new races of men after the Cataclysm, so the “sons of Aryas” will soon wipe out what is left of Conan’s world and a new stock of human will come to dominate the surface of the planet—an event of far less consequence than such a creature might think. History is nothing but a succession of species eliminating its competitors and spreading its seed.

That, by the way, also makes the religion of the Hyborian world a far more brutal thing than in many other settings. There is no reverence among the followers of the gods, except on the part of the weak minded and easily killed. One might expect religion to be a superstition in this world, but it is not. No, the gods exist, but they are just another form of life, one more powerful than man, one that might be persuaded to help him if given the right incentive. The gods of Conan’s age are things to be cynically bartered with in acts barely distinguishable from either the summoning of a demon or the hiring of a mercenary. They are far from holy.

This is what makes the Conan movie so very different from these stories. The racism is toned far down, and the gods, though hardly treated with reverence, do not figure as hugely or as savagely in the darkness behind their sorcerous servants as they do in Howard’s originals. Where the written Conan is essentially an escapist fantasy where we get to follow the ubermensch around as his slays, lays, and plunders his way across an exoticized version of our own past, the film is a more sensitive treatment of the riddle of steel, of man’s heart and will and strength. It also asks Conan what is best in life—and wants you to seriously consider the answer as the film proceeds. While Howard’s stories certainly have some deep themes, it is rare that he explores them so philosophically. He sees, perhaps, far less meaning in life than the filmmakers, and far less wisdom to be gained from contemplating it.

Overall, the original Conan the Barbarian stories are quite a diverting smattering of adventures. Though the language gets a bit repetitive and the world never quite coheres, the zest with which Conan engages his world, the thrill of combat, of survival in dire circumstances, the wonder of strange lands—all can keep the reader spellbound for hours at a time. While I wouldn’t want to spend entire novels in this world, the occasional vacation there is enjoyable. It’s not hard to see how it inspired so many imitators and retellings. It’s quite the ride. Particularly “Beyond the Black River.”


Conan’s hand fell heavily on her naked shoulder.
“Stand aside, girl,” he mumbled. “Now is the feasting of swords.”