Strumpets And Spooks Are Cut From The Same Cloth
Everybody knows what the term “World’s Oldest Profession” means. If prostitution is the oldest, what might be second oldest profession? Though a bit tongue-in-cheek, that title often is given to espionage, the shadow world of spooks. That makes sense, to be frank. The two ancient and noble pursuits happen to share a great many things in common, neither will ever go away, and what it takes to succeed in either is remarkably similar.
The great novelist Graham Greene did not start out to be a writer, but instead was first a spy, serving in the UK’s MI6. Not widely known is that one of his early Division Chiefs and mentors was Kim Philby, the Russian Mole. More widely known, perhaps, is that Greene was always attracted to and never lost his fascination for the world of demimondaines and carnal pay-for-play. It’s possible that other than a penchant for the prurient, Greene may have seen in ‘professional women’ a good bit of himself and his world, and thus felt kindred spirits with the women.
What could Greene have seen? What does it take to succeed in the world of espionage, and is there any common ground among—let’s get local here—between what spies need to succeed and what bargirls need to prosper?
Outsiders might jump to the conclusion that both require an inherent immorality. While that may be true to some extent, the connections are much more complex. In a nutshell, the commonalities might include cynicism often coupled with an almost child-like naivete, the ability to role play, the occasional need to rationalize, and the inherent ability to manipulate and deceive. There’s also a willingness to accept a certain amount of personal danger and a tendency toward what outsiders might call recklessness. He—or she—who dares, wins. That phrase isn’t just for the SAS, but for the SIS, CIA and the best of Billboard and Butterflies.
A successful bargirl can make any man feel like ‘You so han-sum!’, even a soft, pudgy, balding, middle-aged guy. She can make him believe his stories are riveting, his humor top rate, his tender—or not so tender—caresses enough to make her weak in the knees. She knows his hooks and she knows how to get him to provide what she wants, which is not passion and affection, but simply money. In a sense she must view him as a mark, a chump, a sucker (that last in the figurative, not literal sense). He’s her ATM, and if she’s good, she has his ‘PIN’.
That is not so different—in fact it parrots exactly—what it takes to be a successful spy. A case officer identifies a target, makes contact, works to develop some sort of relationship, discovers a hook, then wins over the target by giving the target what it needs, all the while keeping the eyes on the prize, which in the case of a spy is secret information or having the target perform some act on the spy’s behalf.
Both the efforts of the bargirl and the spy are built on deceit. Both need to be manipulative. Both need to be able to assess and read a target quickly and accurately. The bargirl probably doesn’t really have any affection for the punter, and the spy need not really care for his target, but the targets must think otherwise. Both the spy and bargirl also must take chances to continue moving the contact to the ultimate goal, or else realize it’s not going anywhere and it’s time to move on to the next target. For both it’s a numbers game.
Both the bargirl and spy must be somewhat Machiavellian, too: the end justifies the means
The bargirl is looking for money, and she can justify or rationalize her behavior as it serves what she determines is a greater need. That need might be living expenses, it might even be a desire for frivolous possessions. It could be ego gratification, reinforcement that men find her attractive. Quite often it stems from a need to take care of a child or a family, which makes things easiest to justify. She isn’t really ‘using’ the punter, just giving him what he wants in return for what she needs. It’s a fair trade. At least that is how she rationalizes her behavior, if her ego needs any salving. Of course, she might be so cold that she couldn’t care less, but merely will do whatever it takes to fill her own needs, the punter’s ego be damned.
The spy operates by the same calculus. He needs to get secrets his government needs to protect itself or maintain its position in the world. He also needs to perform in order to further his career. He might be manipulating and deceiving his asset, but he can justify it by believing his government actually needs what he can deliver, and his asset is also getting something he or she needs, be that money, a sense of purpose or importance, revenge, or whatever motivation the spy has identified and exploited in his targeted asset. Like some bargirls, the spy might also be so cold that he couldn’t care less if he is deceitful, as his own goals come first and foremost.
A good bargirl can work several punters at the same time. If she’s really good, she might have two or three punters who support her from abroad ‘to keep her exclusive’. Her danger comes from the possibility that she gets caught, either because one of her punter-supporters has eyes and ears in Bangkok, makes a surprise visit, or because she suffers the bad luck of more than one of her supporters coming to town at the same time. She might end up scorned or worse (depending on the punter and his temper) or lose her money train.
A good spy also works many assets and plays many roles. He might recruit multiple penetrations of the same target organization, so that one asset can corroborate or enhance what another asset provides. The danger he faces is that mistakes can get his asset in trouble, even killed, and the spy might suffer a rough going over by members of the target host government. There are also occasional times when a spy plays a totally false role, using disguise and a fake identity, in order to penetrate something like a terror organization or cell. If he fails or runs into a spot of bad luck, he might suffer anything from a loss of his fingernails to playing the starring role in a YouTube beheading.
In the two cases of failure, both with the bargirl and the spy, that element of danger can even be a draw. Both can be ‘action junkies’ who seek that razor’s edge. The game can be exhilarating.
While a certain degree of cynicism is common to both the bargirl and the spy, there is often a touch of childlike naivete mixed in. The cynic might just be a hopeless romantic clad in a rusty coat of armor. For the bargirl, it might be that her escape from hooking is out there in the form of the right punter eventually coming along, the man who will play her Prince Charming and ride her off to a fairy tale life of love, respect and comfort, all her needs and the needs of her family aptly and lovingly covered by Mr. Right. She just needs to find him, as surely he will come. If she has that dream, it opens her up to being manipulated in the same way she manipulates her own marks, chumps and suckers. Her Prince Charming might have five bargirls, a wife and family, and has zero intention of delivering on any of his pillow-talk promises. Turnabout might not be fair play in her mind, but undoubtedly it happens.
The spy can be equally exploited if he is caught up in the ‘last refuge of scoundrels’, i.e., patriotism. No country is perfect nor is any government, though there are degrees of goodness in the world’s nations. Governments are people, and people have their own peccadilloes and frailties. Governments are particularly good at manufacturing delusions of goodness and greatness, of superiority and perfect ideologies, even of tribes—-and the weak can fall prey to such pabulum. Militaries of the world depend on their ability to inculcate recruits with such delusions, lest nobody would go into harm’s way to meet leaders’ demands and desires. Somebody has to be cannon fodder. Spies can also get manipulated into doing the immoral for some ostensible greater good.
Another thing both bargirls and spies share is the attack on the soul, not the metaphysical mythical soul, but rather the conscience and sense of self. Does guilt ever arise when either truly confronts the degree of deceit and manipulation needed to do the job? Secondly, does there come a point when the skills can no longer be turned off, so that every human interaction and every relationship becomes merely something else to be manipulated solely for one’s own benefit? Finally, is escape or redemption from the manipulative life even possible? Westerners, raised in a culture influenced by Christian theology, might believe in redemption, while the Asian bargirl, raised under an entirely different ideological milieu, might believe she’s stuck with payment, if not now then in a future Earthly iteration. If there is any difference between the two worlds, it might just be that.
Those who can take a clear-eyed view of who they are and what they do, whether it’s a bargirl or a spy, might survive with their wits intact, taking only the occasional wound and barely showing a scar. One professional also can naturally be drawn to the other because they share so much in common. Maybe that is what Graham Greene saw, that commonality of personality and skill set. Maybe he could sit back and applaud the work of a skilled bargirl as she manipulated and came to control her mark. Maybe he just found refuge in the inherent cynicism he had and what he saw in the bargirls. Maybe he just felt comfortable among his spiritual doppelgängers. Maybe all of this is why he never outgrew the fascination for what moralists would call the soft underbelly of society. He viewed life in ways similar to how the bargirl views it, and nothing brings people together faster and better than a shared viewed of all the things, good and bad, that life is all about.
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