Monday, July 23, 2012

2,490: The Company We Keep by Robert Baer and Dayna Baer

I love a good spy story, I do.  I’m not generally bothered by whether it is a James Bond/Jason Bourne style action-fest or a George Smiley/Alec Milius paranoia splurge.  I’m also a bit of a sucker for a spy or military memoir.  So, The Company We Keep was, at least in part, right up my street.
What I am not, however, is a sucker for a love story.  Not generally my thing at all.  So, The Company We Keep was, at least in part, nowhere near my postcode, let alone my street.

You see, The Company We Keep is both spy memoir and love story.  Written by Bob Baer (the alleged inspiration for the film Syriana) and his spouse, Dayna Baer, it tells, in alternating chapters, the story of how each of them came to join the CIA, wreck their marriages, meet each other, fall in love, leave the Agency and marry each other.  Given that it’s a pretty slim volume, this means it is crammed full of content.
Dayna, the younger of the two, was a Southern California native who had never lived outside the state when, bored with her job, she applied to join the CIA.  Having been stuck in a dull admin role, she was chosen to become a “shooter”, an expert in firearms, unarmed combat and high speed driving.  After completing her training, she was assigned to a deep cover team, travelling the world to carry out surveillance on persons of interest to the Agency.
Bob, by contrast, had a cosmopolitan and well-travelled childhood and had made a successful career as a field officer in the CIA, specialising in being stationed in countries undergoing political upheaval.
The two meet for the first time in the course of an operation in Bosnia and the book describes how their relationship grows, including a rather memorable drive from Bosnia to the south of France for dinner, which all sounds rather glamorous, as do some of the other episodes in the book.
But the glamour is deceptive and the book reveals far more about the corrosive nature of spying and the effect it has on the character and lives of its practitioners.  Dayna had, to all intents and purposes, deserted her first spouse, a judge in California, when she was assigned to work outside the USA by the CIA and Bob’s marriage had, according to the book, been in trouble for some time when he first met Dayna.  To cap it all, Bob admits to having a very distant relationship with his kids and Dayna is upset when she goes home to spend time with her father, only to find that he has found an “adopted” daughter, another woman with whom he has a paternal relationship and prefers to spend time that with Dayna.
Both, and Bob in particular, appear to take a very cynical view of human relationships.  In one episode, Bob uses his own mother, a charming and sociable individual, to entice a KGB officer to become an agent for the CIA and strikes up a friendship with him for just this purpose.  He then arranges a meeting for the potential double agent with another CIA officer.  Unfortunately, this officer turns out to be the treacherous Aldrich Ames, who betrays him to the KGB.  For her part, Dayna doesn’t even know the real names of her work colleagues, as they use aliases even with each other.
The world of espionage that the Baers paint for us is one of deceit and isolation, where agents cannot engage fully in the world around them for fear of discovery or betrayal.  It’s a world where friendships aren’t given but are bought and where paranoia is a constant.  It doesn’t seem a particularly salubrious place, even for someone like me who would quite liked to have been an intelligence agent.  It certainly seems closer to the le Carré end of the spectrum than the Fleming end
Eventually, there is a happy ending of sorts.  The Baers’ relationship deepens and the pair, becoming disillusioned with the CIA, retire and settle down together.  But even here, the happiness isn’t unalloyed – their relationships with other family members don’t appear to improve and they continue to be paranoid about the appearance of strangers in their new hometown.
As I read the book, I was at first quite hostile to Bob and Dayna, finding them self-aware and seemingly flippant about the effects of their lives on their existing families.  By the end, however, the hostility had faded to be replaced by a kind of pity at how their chosen profession had played havoc with their ability to lead the kind of personal life that most of us take for granted.
The Company We Keep was kindly sent to me by Random House, the publisher, for which I am, as ever, grateful, is an intriguing read for anyone with an interest in espionage and should be of interest to a far wider readership.

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