Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to the nature and morality of war. Putting this in context, over the years, a number of nations have attempted to characterise the initiation of hostilities as being “just” in the abstract philosophical sense of the word. The preemptive nature of each attack across national boundaries is said to be moral when the utilitarian rule of proportionality is satisfied. That the harm resulting for the few injured or killed during the attack will be outweighed by the good for the majority of citizens who survive. Of course, this requires us to overlook the morality of inflicting the actual injury or death of all the victims in the first wave of the attack and assess the extent of the benefits retrospectively: something the victor has no difficulty in doing when in control of the measurement process. One of the wars in which neither side thinks the proportionality test was satisfied is the ironically named Great War. This was war by attrition. The side still having some men able to fight would win. Indeed, so many died that any measurement and balancing process became rather meaningless. So chaotic was the management of this war that any progress made in the ebb and flow of the conflict was often due to simple luck or accident.
The German Agent by J Sydney Jones (Severn House, 2014) is built around the history of the Zimmermann Telegram which, in 1917, was a backdoor deal between Germany and Mexico that the latter would enter the Great War should the US decide to intervene against Germany. The idea was that Germany would assist Mexico to recover Texas and so tie down US forces on home soil. This book explores the political and dangerous physical world of negotiation when an equivocal America is to be tempted into joining with Britain in fighting against the German Empire. The problem from Britain’s point of view is twofold. It must be able to satisfy the Americans the telegram is genuine. But in doing so, it must attempt to conceal the fact the intelligence service has cracked the code in which it was written. Once the Germans realise the telegram has been intercepted, they need to prevent it from being delivered to the Americans. In this, they rely on an agent, Max Volkman.
His background is not quite standard. He managed to survive one of the many futile charges across No Man’s Land, killing an impressive number of the “enemy” in the process. He was decorated for his heroism but, when he showed little enthusiasm for returning to the frontline, they retrained him as a spy. He should be the perfect weapon. He’s gone beyond fear, facing death and not flinching. But in reality, the experience has left him damaged. He’s not the coldblooded killer the Germans think him to be. This does not mean he’s incapable of killing. Far from it. But this is a man whose mind is trying to decide what’s right for him. After two years in America as a sleeper, he’s to intercept the British man thought to be carrying the Telegram. Almost immediately, he has to kill a local, an innocent civilian, an old man who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In trench warfare, death is dispensed anonymously. This is the first time he has killed someone face-to-face. This is murder. It’s unsettling to a man like this agent. In a war, killing the enemy is the job. By killing the enemy, you are shortening the war and protecting your comrades in the trenches. In a neutral country, killing an old man is what? Perhaps this is a question only a man with a conscience would ask. Well, as this book’s plot develops, the question becomes more personal and less avoidable.
The problem with the book is easily stated. Because the actual history of the Great War is reasonably well known, there’s little suspense. The average reader will know whether the agent succeeded in preventing the Telegram from being delivered to the US President. This does not mean the book is without interest and some excitement. Obviously, the agent is initially determined to carry out his role and there are some good chase sequences and the way in which he stalks the British man carrying the relevant information is fascinating. But the focus of the book fails to create any real degree of empathy with the protagonist. It would have been possible to give us a better view of the man as his fledgling conscience comes back into play and he has real decisions to make. Those with a more jingoistic view of the world will want to cheer if the German fails and boo if he succeeds. In the end, perhaps, neither response is appropriate because he proves just as human as the rest of us. This leaves me slightly ambivalent. The German Agent is beautifully written and the details of the period hold great interest but, for me, it lacks dynamic tension. It’s a book I admire but I’m not entirely convinced it succeeds as a historical thriller.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.