Fighting Words: Spies, Soldiers, and Stylish Scribes

January 8, 2016

Many diplomatic officers and military analyst are fine writers, but their talents for prose are often washed out of their reports in the name of objectivity, clarity, and accountability. They leave it for others to add joy and color to their work. For historians, this is evident within official internal reports, but sometimes a flare for writing survives and makes its value manifest.

In her stunning book, Spies of Arabia, historian Priya Satia covers the cultural world of British imperial exploits and disasters in the Middle East before, during, and after the Great War. One charming reveal is that many of the Edwardian officers in this “sideshow” craved literary accolades: Arabia would be their canvas. Some, such as T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, Percy Sykes and others produced grand works after the war, but many cut their teeth by applying their writing chops to reports. Lawrence and Bell wrote articles for the Arab Bulletin, the voice of Britain’s Arab Bureau in Cairo. Many reports were so evocative, as well as filled with details of intelligence and operations, that they became a security concern: Readers were tempted to share them with people not authorized to receive secret information. The combination of literary skill and the Edwardian fascination with the ancient cultures and peoples of Arabia could make these documents contrast starkly with harrowing reports from the blood, mud, and industrial nightmare of the Western Front.

A case in point is Lawrence’s missives from the field. Sometimes they read more like travel literature than operational reportage. The T.E. Lawrence Studies website tells us that on January 18, 1917, in the tenuous early stages of the Arab Revolt, Lawrence reported in the Bulletin on the beauty of the region, creating a picture in the mind of the reader:

The road down to Nakhl looked very beautiful today. The rains have brought up a thin growth of grass in all the hollows and flat places. The blades, of a very tender green, shoot up between all the stones, so that looked at from a little height and distance there is a lively mist of pale green here and there over the surfaces of the slate-blue and brown-red rocks. In places the growth was quite strong, and the camels of the army are grazing on it.

Lawrence then described Arab forces in the region. Such marriage of description, action, and military intelligence were part of the wide scope and unique voice of the Arab Bulletin, though one can imagine a brass-polishing martinet screaming “GET ON WITH IT, LAWRENCE!”

I was thinking of Dr. Satia’s work while nearly going blind reading vital but boring reports of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the U.S. National Archives.

The OSS (1942–1945) was the United States’ first global intelligence agency. Though its most dramatic episodes were in special operations akin to Lawrence and company, the Research and Analysis (R&A) Branch was the OSS’s core intelligence capability. R&A was filled with a wide range of stellar foreign and American scholars in history, journalism, anthropology and more, including Felix Gilbert, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Cora DuBois, and eight future presidents of the American Historical Association. Some of the most talented men and women of prose, analysis, and argument would write hundreds of reports and analytic works on global issues relevant to the war.

But William Langer, noted historian and chief of R&A, reminded his charges that their “sole purpose” was to turn intelligence data into rigorously objective analyses for the use of the government, and “not to suggest, recommend, or in any way determine the strategy or tactical decisions of the war.” Unlike the writers of the Arab Bulletin, who pushed the Bureau’s support of the Arab Revolt (which was highly contested), the R&A units were told that if they had an opinion on any matters, they should keep it to themselves. In fact, OSS established the Projects Committee (PC) to make sure such standards and practices were implemented in R&A. Along the way, the PC made sure that any literary ambition infecting the work died. The gaze of geographer and PC chief Richard Hartshorne watched over all. Literary ambition was to be exchanged for the “rhetoric of anti-rhetoric,” an Orwellian term before such nomenclature existed, a grey language without any literary flare or flamboyance. A scholarly history of R&A reports that Hartshorne warned that “intelligence reports find their literary merit in terseness and clarity rather than in expressive description.” And that meant nothing modernist or experimental, too. “Proust, Joyce, or Gertrude Stein would all be equally out of place in R&A.” Imagine the wonders denied of James Joyce discussing the economic value of railroads in South East Asia!

Notably, Ernest Hemingway, America’s master of clear, terse prose, was not included in this list of forbidden voices. Perhaps that is why a tough, smart, American voice was occasionally allowed to bleed into some OSS reports.

While R&A’s headquarters was in Washington, it had outposts in the major theaters of the war. The writing standards there were rather different. On January 15, 1945, almost 28 years to the day from Lawrence’s description of grass growing on the road into Nakhl, one Mr. Kent (presumably Sherman Kent, historian and OSS R&A maven) wrote up the instructive memo “Functions of an Outpost.” After outlining the purpose of the outpost and its relationships with headquarters, and warning that valuable R&A detachments can get poached by other services, Mr. Kent dared outline the means of gathering intelligence with American flare.

When gathering information that was not otherwise available, Kent instructed OSS personnel to observe and interview, i.e. use the “eyes open technique.” They could also use the purchase, request, and requisition method, which he called “the hands-out technique.” Last, they could also “swap,” information with others, AKA “the back-scratching technique.” While Kent’s colloquialisms do not read with the eloquence of Lawrence’s detailed recasting, they hold a refreshing post-Depression cadence that avoided Hartshorne’s dictum. Kent’s vernacular spoke to a generation raised on Papa Hemingway, Jack London, Jim Tully, and John Steinbeck: an American voice that was clever, cynical, and clear.

There are excellent reasons for official reports to be clear and without a note of artistic color. And denying subordinates’ space to spin tactical and strategic thinking best left to the higher-ups also holds water. But as someone who enjoys writing as an art, not just a means, I can’t help but feel that we have lost something valuable to anti-rhetoric. George F. Kennan’s paradigm analysis of Soviet intentions didn’t just state the facts. He created an argument fueled as much by love of language as by fear of Stalin’s aggression. And, lest we forget, the Long Telegram was written outside the normal parameters of diplomatic parlance and reportage. Kennan apologized for having to answer “questions so intricate, so delicate, so strange to our form of thought, and so important to analysis of our international environment that I cannot compress answers into single brief message without yielding to what I feel would be a dangerous degree of oversimplification.” The father of containment apologized for not keeping it simple, stupid.

A cynic would say Kennan, Lawrence, and even Kent are too exceptional to be models. Best to focus on functional writing, not great prose. But writers are made, not born, and if the gift of quality prose is not rewarded by professional culture, we reduce the probability of more great writers coming to fruition within the walls of analysis. To answer the “so what?” so often echoed on these matters, I offer one possible value beyond the obvious. America’s weaknesses in appreciating cultural dynamics of foreign cultures might be soothed by a literary approach where description, empathy, and nuance are as important as Detective Joe Friday’s no-nonsense method. Indeed, reading and writing literature that forces you into the world and minds of others is a force-multiplier for empathy. So, when you find writers of merit in the world of official analysis, scribes that sing off the page as well communicate their requirements, hold on to ‘em. They can be as rare as dragon eggs and phoenix feathers.


Dr. Jason S. Ridler is a military analyst and historian, writer, and improv actor. His book, Maestro of Science: Omond McKillop Solandt and Government Science in War and Hostile Peace, 1939-1956, was published in 2015 by the University of Toronto Press. He is currently writing a monograph on unconventional scholars involved in military. An adjunct professor at Norwich University, he also runs Soldiers & Scholars, a Facebook page dedicated to soldiers and academics involved in military affairs and history. He teaches for Norwich University. This work was made possible thanks to the support of the Smith Richardson Foundation.