/ 3 July 2010

In this age of terror, the Cold War seems comforting

Are you familiar with the amazing tale of Hiroo Onoda? Lieutenant Onoda was a Japanese army intelligence officer, who in late 1944 was deployed to a Philippine island, where he was ordered to resist and derail any Allied attacks. Surrender or suicide were not an option, he was informed, and along with a cell of three other soldiers he went about discharging his duties — wrecking any area that could be used as an airstrip, keeping watch, that sort of thing.

In October 1945, according to his fascinating memoir, his unit came upon a flyer. “The war ended on August 15,” it read. “Come down from the mountains.” Judging this to be propaganda, they ignored it, until some months later an aircraft dropped more flyers, these ones printed with a surrender order. This contravened their orders on never giving themselves up, so again had to be ignored. On they ploughed, until after four years, one of their number decided he’d had enough and trekked off to surrender. Understandably, the remaining officers feared this could compromise their mission and redoubled their defences. Suffice to say that Onodo’s two remaining brothers-in-arms met their ends over the next 20 years, and he was only discovered and persuaded World War II was over in 1974.

His strange story came to mind this week, what with news that the US had uncovered a cell of Russian agents apparently still under the illusion that the cold war was in full swing. In an age of one-man jihads and martyrdom videos, here was a group of people still engaged in what at present appears to be an almost heartbreakingly outmoded game of park-bench assignations and morse-coded transmissions.

The minute the news broke, it produced the most nostalgic of frissons. How high did it go? Who had they turned? Were indictments of state department officials merely days away?

No, disappointingly. Without wishing to denigrate the vital work of parent-teacher associations in Boston, it seems fair to hazard this one doesn’t go all the way to the top. With the exception of the chap who enterprisingly based himself in Washington, and whose social-networking page shows him smiling gauchely outside the White House, the rest of the accused seem to have infiltrated east coast suburbia. And while the thriving American burbsploitation genre would have you believe that all the interesting things only happen in suburbia — murder, age-inappropriate sexual obsession, cannabis factories run by hot widows — one can’t help feeling that if technological or state secrets are your bag, Wisteria Lane isn’t the place to be.

Thus far, the spies appear so smalltime that they can’t even be charged with espionage. Polonium to PTA meetings in four years suggests a remarkable weakening in Russian intelligence capabilities, while Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Stay-at-Home Dad lacks that le Carré edge.

Perhaps we are dealing with a Truman Show scenario, a giant ruse designed specifically to convince the Russians they were secret agents, when in fact they were an entertainment property whose amusement value is only now becoming clear (to seemingly everyone bar themselves and their poor children).

Certainly, there is something very comforting about this tale for us spectators. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, there was something very comforting about the cold war. One knew where one was with it all, which is presumably why so many people can’t let it go — even power players such as Condoleezza Rice, the Russian-menace specialist whose insistence that she was up to speed with the al-Qaeda threat before 9/11 never really convinced.

Bin Laden may be the breakout star of the modern era, but back in the day he’d never have got on within our side, much less the Russkies’, because he wasn’t the right sort. There was a wonderful moment in Michael Cockerell’s recent BBC4 series, The Great Offices of State, when a former senior foreign office official explained wryly about “the Wykehamist fallacy”, a trap into which FO mandarins are prone to walking.

“Intelligence failures very often come not because you can’t see what’s happening,” he smiled, “but because you misinterpret the intentions. You read their intentions as if they’d been educated at Winchester, you know, and they haven’t been — they’re a bunch of thugs. And actually their intentions aren’t our sort of intentions, and they may not be bluffing — they may be out to do something catastrophically dangerous.”

The nice thing about these alleged Russian spies is that they behave precisely in the manner decent enemy agents ought. They do things we used to expect Russians to do. They exchange money-stuffed newspapers in parks. They use invisible ink. They create elaborate fake identities. They’re not unknowable bearded crazies hiding out in the Hindu Kush with no demands other than the total obliteration of our way of life — they’d probably just quite like to know how to upgrade some Kremlin computer operating system. So, given one really can’t work with the other sort, do let’s enjoy this deceptively encouraging interlude. – guardian.co.uk