Reviews by Alec Chambers

Review of Laffin, Brassey's Book of Espionage

Laffin, John. Brassey's Book of Espionage. London: Brassey's, 1996.

As with the end of World War II, the end of the Cold War has led to the writing of all sorts of histories of the era. Although it has a number of respected intelligence authors on its rolls, Brassey's turned to John Laffin, a prolific writer on military history, to compile what the dust jacket describes as a "...new modern history of espionage and counterespionage...." Unfortunately for Brassey's, this was not a wise choice. Laffin may be a good military historian, he is certainly an energetic one, but he does not seem to have managed the transition from the structures of military operations to the more abstract and uncertain world of intelligence.

Despite the claims that this is a new and modern history of espionage, it is not. A new history would have made use of disclosures from declassified Eastern European, ex-Soviet and U.S. documents to give us a history of remarkable richness. The book is largely dependent on secondary sources and the occasional confidential informant. There are better popular histories of intelligence out there. Ernest Volkmann, for example, has produced at least two comparable but superior works.

The book starts off as a primer, starting with the obligatory spying out of the land of Canaan, but omitting Sun Tzu. There are then two short chapters that are lists of definitions of various terms (a peculiarly eclectic set) and of a number of intelligence organization past (Abwehr, SMERSH, etc.) and present (CIA, Mossad, and so on).

Subsequent chapters discuss various aspects of intelligence, including human intelligence successes and failures. There are the customary paeans to the Israeli intelligence services, the customary brickbats for everyone else. Many of the analyses are peppered with Laffin's opinions about what is right and what is wrong. It is at points like this that Laffin's inability to deal with the imprecision of intelligence becomes particularly annoying. Despite the extensive bibliography of secondary sources and references to interviews with intelligence officers, it appears that Laffin has studied much and understood little. He understands black and white very well, but not the many shades of gray; this is unfortunate because much of what he chooses to discuss is quite, quite gray.

One wonders if the book is really aimed at a high school social studies class. The style of writing is didactic and perhaps strident, especially when the author disapproves of something (which is often). Laffin's opinions about intelligence appear to have been formed in the 1970's and have not been altered or amended since then. His opinions of the agencies he covers are pretty much of the same period: the CIA are cowboys, the Mossad is brilliant, the British are a dotty old boys club, and so on.

There really is little to recommend in this book. It might be useful as a gift for a less favorite nephew, but there is nothing in the book that makes it worth buying. If you are looking for a general introduction to recommend, then Ernest Volkmann's Spies is to be preferred.

 

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