Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Delicate Truth

A Delicate Truth
By John Le Carré

Because governments are so inefficient at everything, and making war is expensive, why not privatize the military? With tongue in cheek, John Le Carré, master spy novelist, attacks that question in A Delicate Truth. Set in Britain and Gibraltar circa 2008, this story shows what might happen if England’s Junior Foreign Minister answered “Yes” to privatizing the armed forces and military intelligence. The Junior Minister in question (a pugilistic Scot named Fergus Quinn) does so by stealth with an American-British military contractor, Ethical Outcomes (don’t you just love corporate branding?).

The result of their first joint operation, which is to extract a high-profile Islamist terrorist from Gibraltar, is, well...inefficient: they can’t even find the terrorist, but Ethical’s trigger-happy mercenaries gun down an innocent Muslim woman and her child. Furthermore, the fallout puts a career Special Forces soldier into guilt, poverty, and deep depression for not being able to save the two innocents. From there, two British bureaucrats then struggle to right this wrong, at great cost to their own careers and personal safety.

For me, this book was a page-turner, but the moral quandaries of the two bureaucrats—young Toby Bell, Private Secretary to the Junior Foreign Minister, and sixty-year-old Kit Probyn, who was the Minister’s “eyes and ears” at the ill-fated Gibraltar mission—fill every sentence with tension. I was forced to think, “What would I have the guts to do in this situation?”

Toby and Kit act with integrity against the odds, and the results are chilling, if effective. Le Carré (interviewed on CBC radio) has said this novel is a symbolic study in miniature of Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War. So while I was on the edge of my seat reading A Delicate Truth, the story is also a practical warning and a morality tale for “inefficient” governments everywhere.

- Bob Young

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