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August 13, 2008

Brendan Simms asks, couldn't James Bond be doing more in the War on Terror? For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond at the Imperial War Museum

Posted by Brendan Simms

For Your Eyes Only: Ian Fleming and James Bond
Imperial War Museum, London
17th April 2008 to 1st March 2009
Daily 10am - 6pm

The Imperial War Museum is currently hosting a special exhibition on James Bond. On display are all sorts of memorabilia from the novels and the films: drafts, garish dust-jackets in various languages, photographs, movie posters, Ian Fleming's dinner jacket, cuff-links, bow tie and Eton tailcoat, Daniel Craig's blood-soaked shirt from Casino Royale, and Halle Berry's bikini from Die Another day.

There is a fascinating gallery of Bond villains, many of whom have distinctly German names like Klebb, Goldfinger, Blofeld and Bunt. (They are also rather Jewish-sounding, something which may or may not have been significant in the age of communist spies such as Klaus Fuchs and the Rosenbergs). There is even the ultralight-style Heath Robinson contraption with which Bond does aerial battle in You Only Live Twice.

All this has provoked the wrath of the redoubtable Waldemar Januszczak in the Sunday Times. He asks:

Why is the Imperial War Museum celebrating James Bond, when James Bond and his Aston Martin and his girls and his gadgets have nothing to do with the terrible realities of war, and when our young men are having their legs blown away in Afghanistan and Iraq?
When, he wondered, "did intellect head for the exit"?

Is the exhibition then simply "cold war lite", part of the universal dumbing-down of British culture, another egregious example of the penetration of "cool Britannia" even into the shrine of the nation's military tradition?

The charge, though understandable, is unfair for two reasons. First of all, the exhibition provides ample background on just how much real war went into the creation of the fictional hero. Ian Fleming's much-loved and admired father was killed on the western front in 1917. His brother, the celebrated traveller and writer Peter Fleming, served with distinction in many theatres of the war, and some have seen him as the model for Bond.

Fleming himself spent the war in Naval Intelligence, and although he never saw action, he did witness the shambles at Dieppe in 1942 from the uncomfortable closeness of an offshore destroyer. His much-loved boss Admiral John Godfrey was the model of Bond's wry superior "M".

Moreover, Fleming's wartime travels to the United States and the Caribbean informed some of his fictional locations. If one were to criticise the exhibition here, it is that - to borrow the terminology of the doyen of British intelligence history, Professor Christopher Andrew - the emphasis on glamorous human intelligence work or "humint" tends to obscure the very much more important contribution made by signals intelligence or "sigint".

Secondly, the whole Bond brand is actually part and parcel of British power projection. We tend not to miss this because the phenomenon has often been seen as a piece of escapism to sweeten the end of empire: the exhibition text tells us the stories also:

offered an eager readership... [the solace] that Britain was a force to be reckoned with.
In fact, as has been pointed out, this is not true of the novels which were launched into a world in the early 1950s when the British Empire still stood tall and the "New Elizabethans" looked forward to the future with optimism. In the subsequent films, by contrast, British decline and American power cast an ambivalent shadow. In Casino Royale, the Treasury runs out of money to bet and the US acts as lender of last resort, in return - maddeningly - for the credit. Likewise in the most recent novel by Sebastian Faulks, Bond says that it is always "re-assuring" to have the Americans in the background.

All the same, Bond functions as a force-multiplier for Britain. He has persuaded millions of foreigners that the British secret service is an organisation of mythical reach (which it manifestly is not). Bond did more than anybody or anything else, including the revelations about the Enigma triumphs, to repair the disastrous impact of the Burgess, Maclean and Philby scandals.

Bond has also been a compelling advertisement for the western way of life: quick repartee, fast cars, elegant women, and high-tech gadgets - all the things that make life worth living. For sheer generic product-placement, hedonism and consumerism, the Bond brand is hard to beat. No wonder the Royal Mail issued a set of commemorative James Bond postage stamps in January of this year.

This leaves one wondering whether Bond might not make a more substantial contribution to the "war on terror" and the war of ideas with radical Islamism. Could he not be sent to neutralise Teheran's nuclear programme, or to liberate the Arabs in Khuzestan (where the Iranians already believe us to be up to no good)? Couldn't he smuggle bibles into Saudi Arabia, much as the Beatles subverted the Soviet Union? Sadly we often cannot do without the military "hard power" to which most of the Imperial War Museum is devoted. The power that makes people do what we want them to do is indeed important. But let us also recognise the seductive power of Bond who helps us to persuade people to want what we want.

The author thanks Miss A. M. Knox for research carried out in support of this piece.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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