On betrayal

Espionage feeds off betrayal. And yet we find it difficult to love those who betray their country even in a just cause.
Harold ('Kim') Philby, a former British official in Washington, is shown at a press conference in London, at which he refuted charges of having been the mysterious Third Man in the Burgess-Maclean spy case. Credit: Bettmann
Harold ('Kim') Philby, a former British official in Washington, is shown at a press conference in London, at which he refuted charges of having been the mysterious Third Man in the Burgess-Maclean spy case. Credit: Bettmann
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At the age of twelve I played Macbeth in a school play. I had all the lines. But Duncan, who I betrayed, had one in particular. It was about the Thane of Cawdor: ‘He was a gentleman in whom I built an absolute trust’.

Trust is the key. And there are two reasons why trust is so important in our lives. Evolutionary psychologists tell us that we are biological beings born with a profound sense of fairness. Fairness allows us to work together. Language allows us to work closely together. It allows us to evaluate others: to make value judgements, to decide whether someone is worthy of our trust or not.

Psychologists spin another tale. They tell us that betrayal begins early, in childhood. The child knows nothing but betrayal from an early age: from the moment it leaves the safety of the womb into a hostile world; from the birth of a sibling (or rival for affection); from the Oedipus complex to puberty. At each of these developmental stages, the child suffers a breach of trust, a loss of entitlement and a diminished sense of specialness.

We have all been betrayed at some point in our lives, and we have all betrayed someone close to us. That is why occasionally we can identify with some of the great betrayers of history in a way that we would never wish to identify with the great embezzlers, murderers or adulterers. Take Mordred in the Morte D’Arthur, or Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello, and of course the greatest betrayer of all time, Judas Iscariot.

Read Luis Borges’s extraordinary short story, The Three Versions of Judas, a tale in which a Swedish theologian Nils Runeberg stumbles upon the true identity of Christ in the great Judas/Jesus reversal. Runeberg begins his career stating that Judas’s role was necessary in the Redemption plan. Later on he suggests that this role was deliberate—a form of self-sacrifice in which Judas mirrored Jesus. In his last version, Runeberg ends by uttering these words: ‘God was made totally man, but man to the point of iniquity, man to the point of reprobation and the abyss. In order to save us, He could have chosen any of the lives that weave the confused web of history: He could have been Alexander or Pythagoras or Rurik or Jesus; He chose an abject existence: He was Judas’.

In other words, the Great Redeemer was not a man who spent a few hours of excruciating pain on the Cross, but a man who suffered for all eternity in hell, reviled and unknown as the prophet Isaiah predicted. In Dante’s Inferno he can be found in the lowest circle of hell with all the great betrayers of history. Betrayal may not be one of the seven deadly sins (those of most concern to God); but it is certainly the sin that we find most irredeemable.

Now, here is the thing (as my students might say). Betrayal is essentially double-edged. After all, you betray yourself. The year before I played Macbeth I was taken to the cinema to see David Lean’s great biopic, Lawrence of Arabia. The scene I found most gripping pitted Lawrence (just back from Aquaba in his traditional Bedouin dress) against General Allenby’s political adviser, played by the aging Claude Rains, that great British actor in what was to be his last screen appearance. Impeccably dressed like the best British Foreign Office official, he turns to Lawrence and remarks: ‘You know, Lawrence, to the outside eye we appear to be so different. But actually we are much the same. For example, we are both telling the Arabs that after the war they will gain their independence. And we’re both betraying them. I am doing so because I am paid by my Government to lie to them. You are lying to yourself. I just wonder who history will hold to be more morally culpable.’ On leaving the cinema that evening, I turned to my mother and said that I wished to be ‘that man’. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she replied—‘you can’t be Lawrence. The Empire’s over.’ ‘Don’t be silly,’ I responded tetchily. ‘I don’t want to be Lawrence. I want to be Claude Rains. I want to betray the Arabs for a profession.’ And had I gone into the Foreign Office, as my parents wished, I would no doubt still be betraying them to this day.

But Rains was right. Lawrence was betraying himself. He was, to use today’s language, ‘in denial’. Whenever we find ourselves betrayed we realise that we are partly at fault for exercising poor judgement, or for becoming over-dependent on one person over time, or for over-investing in one man or woman, emotionally, psychologically, sexually or politically.

Literature—especially the novels of war—illustrates this more vividly than any other medium. Betrayal, of course, breeds and festers in the environment that war produces. Armies produce mutual webs of unreliability. A soldier may desert his post and betray his friends. An officer may put his men at risk for very little in pursuit of his own career. He may betray a code of honour and act dishonourably in the field. Betrayals multiply in the world of war, and each act can have multiple meanings.

Take Norman Mailer’s first and greatest novel, The Naked and the Dead, and the figure of General Cummings. Mailer’s novel is about the ambiguities of betrayal. Cummings is not an ogre. He is not especially wasteful of his men’s lives. What makes him truly monstrous are not his actions but his thoughts. The twentieth century was an intensely ideological age and Cummings is an iconic twentieth-century figure. He deals with life at a level of abstraction that is now alien to us—he thinks in terms of historical destiny and the ‘march of history’ and is largely indifferent to the collateral damage it brings in its wake. Like the Cambridge traitors, he is seduced by thoughts of the future; except in this case it is the idea of the American Century, not communism and the Soviet state. This was the cruelty of history as the ‘will to power’. Its subject was not the individual but the representatives of humanity who could take many forms: a nation, a class, or even a civilisation. History was the place in which humanity became many: slaves and masters, workers and the bourgeoisie, peasants and the state. History was a discourse between two opposing forces.

Like the Cambridge traitors, Cummings has to deceive those around him. He is one of Nietzsche’s ‘honest liars’. He lies and is fully aware of it for a purpose he knows the enlisted men would never understand, which is why he regards them not with contempt, but simply as potential collateral damage in pursuit of a larger historical end. The seeds of the betrayal of his men are to be found in his thoughts. When he returns from visiting an artillery unit in the Front Line, he meditates on the asymmetrical parabola of a shell rising into the sky before falling on the enemy below. It reminds him of Spengler’s theory of the life cycle of all cultures— growth, maturity and decay. An epoch, too, seems to reach its zenith at a point past the middle of its orbit in time, and the fall is always tragic. One of the forces that prevent the projectile from rising ever further is wind resistance—the resistance of the medium, the mass inertia, or inertia of the masses, through which the vision, the upward lead of a culture, is blunted, slowed and brought to its early conclusion. To be fair, the moment he commits his thoughts to paper he feels some distaste for what he has written, but he is not willing to give up on his thoughts any more than the men, pushed to the limits of endurance in the campaign, will give up on their dreams of surviving the war and returning home. They have no interest in their general’s Spenglerian musings. They have integrated the acceptance of death into their life in different and no less heroic ways.

Thankfully we have escaped the grip of the twentieth century. We are no longer given to such musings. Generals who still betray men in war do so in lesser ways, ones with which history is more familiar: soldiers are still sent to their deaths for an officer’s reputation. As for Cummings, Mailer leaves us with one last sight of the general, recognising that the hacks, not the great men, will soon occupy history’s seat after the war. Cummings suspects that he will not be in the coming war with Russia, that he will be bypassed for command—a final betrayal.

And then there is Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. The three novels that comprise it are all about betrayal: Churchill’s betrayal of Western civilisation in throwing in his lot with Stalin in 1941; Guy’s discovery that the old country, England, had been betrayed by the ‘modern age in arms’; the betrayal of Britain by those secretly working for Stalin, such as the Foreign Office official de Souza; Britain’s betrayal of the Royalists in Yugoslavia, which in real life involved a Soviet spy at Special Operations Executive, James Klugmann; and de Souza’s betrayal of his fellow Jews in Croatia, whom he abandons to their fate, to be killed by Tito’s partisans in the name of a ‘higher good’, communism.

But the greatest betrayal of all is personal, as is often the case. Guy is betrayed in Crete by his friend Ivor St Claire: ‘The flower of them all, quintessential England, the man Hitler had not taken into account.’ St Claire betrays the men under his command by deserting, justifying his decision by saying that it is perfectly honourable for officers to desert their men to enable them to go on to train new recruits—surely the ‘modern thing’ to do. Guy does not betray Claire when he escapes from Crete; he doesn’t ‘out’ him. In the last pages of the trilogy he meets him at his Club and maintains the cover story. But the key to the episode is the awful Mrs Stitch, who puts friendship before country. Guy doesn’t do so because his friends are a reflection of himself. To act dishonourably is to betray your friends. Even at this stage of the war he still remains convinced that the old values are still worth preserving, and more importantly, can still be saved.

‘I hope I would rather have the guts to betray my country than my friends’, E M Forster famously averred after the treachery of his Cambridge colleagues Burgess and MacLean became known in the early 1960s. Julia Stitch is reading Forster’s book on Alexandria when Guy first meets her. The connection is purely accidental, but serendipitous. Julia is very much of Forster’s persuasion—she would never betray a friend. Of course, St Claire’s betrayal is on a very different scale from that of the Cambridge spies. He does not betray his country. No one dies as a result of his desertion; he does not endanger any positions; his decision makes no difference at all to the outcome of the war. Yet it does make a terrible difference to Guy himself. If he is not a traitor, he has a traitor’s heart.

The explanation for his reasoning I think can be found in Pascal’s Pensées. ‘What do we most like about our friends?’ he asks at one point. It can’t be their beauty, which will fade over time. It can’t be their mind, which may degrade with the years. And it can’t be their soul, which is a mere abstraction. ‘We never love a person, but only his qualities,’ Pascal remarks. Our friends, in short, are defined by their behaviour. Even earlier, Aristotle told us that perfect friendship is a form of self-love, not unlike that of a mother for her children: what is done by one’s friends is done to oneself, which is why Guy feels so implicated in his country’s betrayal of the old values. And if you do not take personal responsibility for the betrayals committed by your friends or your country, you are really betraying yourself.

And so we come to the great betrayers of our own times: to Edward Snowden and Bradley/Chelsea Manning and narcissists like Julian Assange. And of course, to one of the greatest betrayers in Soviet history: Oleg Gordievsky. But we cannot put Gordievsky in the same bracket.

I come back to Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth. To what extent is betrayal ever tragic (for either party)? Remember the witches warn Macbeth that he will become king ‘when the battle is lost and won’. This is an important but frequently overlooked line. The man who has betrayed Duncan, the Thane of Cawdor, is not a tragic figure, though he dies nobly enough—as Macbeth tells the king, ‘Nothing in his life became him as the leaving of it’. But Macbeth’s betrayal is tragic because he is the larger man, and that is the paradox of the witches’ prophecy. He both wins the battle and loses it at the same time; he wins power, but loses his soul. Shakespeare can make even betrayal heroic.

Unfortunately, history rarely does. Gordievsky’s betrayal of the Soviet Union was not tragic, but it was heroic. He did the right thing, just as Jesuit martyrs such as Father Campion also believed that they were right to put their loyalty to the Pope before their loyalty to Elizabeth I. Campion was the subject of a brief biography by Waugh, who admired his martyrdom—the price of his betrayal—for the ‘true religion’. Betrayal can be perfectly consistent with honour, value and belief. It can even be noble to betray a bad regime or a bad cause (or a good cause turned bad).

We should also remember that espionage feeds off betrayal. Citizens are turned against their own state or paid to betray it, but they are rarely suborned, and even less often blackmailed. To blackmail someone into betraying their country is to demean oneself, for betrayal always involves the self. As Nietzsche warned: make sure in fighting monsters, you don’t become a monster yourself.

Ultimately betrayal is not a matter of perspective. It is not a question of a freedom fighter who can be someone else’s terrorist, or vice versa. But we find it difficult to love those who betray their country, just as those who work in an institution find it difficult to embrace whistle-blowers and just as we execute spies, enemy combatants who have deceived us by not donning a uniform. All of these are deemed in many cases to have subverted the natural order. As I wrote at the beginning of this essay, we are hard-wired, after all, to put an absolute premium on trust.

Years ago, I was told a story by Peter Naylor, who was Harold Macmillan’s naval attaché at the Bermuda Talks in 1962 in which the United States, after much hesitation, agreed to sell Britain the Polaris nuclear system. Back in London, Macmillan told Naylor to ask the American Ambassador whether the US would have any objection if the Royal Navy returned the favour by naming one of its new boats the HMS Benedict Arnold. Whatever Benedict Arnold’s motives in betraying the rebel cause, I doubt whether the Royal Navy would have been very happy to name a ship after a famous traitor—even one who betrayed the fledgling United States to the mother country.

This essay by Christopher Coker was originally published in The Future of Intelligence and Espionage, Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation.

Christopher Coker

Christopher Coker is Director of LSE IDEAS, LSE's foreign policy think tank. His publications include Rebooting Clausewitz (Hurst, 2015), Men at War: what fiction has to tell us about conflict from the Iliad to Catch 22 (Hurst, 2014); The Improbable War: China, the US and the logic of Great Power War (Hurst, 2015); Future War (Polity, 2016). His most recent book is The Rise of the Civilizational State (Polity, 2019). His latest book is Why War? (2020). He was Professor of International Relations at LSE, retiring in 2019. He is a former twice serving member of the Council of the Royal United Services Institute, a former NATO Fellow and a regular lecturer at Defence Colleges in the UK, US. Rome, Singapore, and Tokyo. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the National Institute for Defence Studies In Tokyo, the Rajaratnam School for International Studies Singapore, the Political Science Dept in Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok and the Norwegian and Swedish Defence Colleges.

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