Cold War ethics

My WIP is a cold war cozy, a somewhat traditional cozy mystery with spies. The setting is 1967, the peak of the spy craze on TV and in the movies.

One of my favorite shows from this era is “Mission: Impossible.” I love the series for the top-notch writing, complex plots and logical structure. But on re-watching the show, I’m dismayed at some of the distressing ethical values.

Members of the IM Force, for unclear reasons, are not allowed to directly assassinate the villains (which would make for short and dull episodes). However, they can lie, cheat and steal as well as deceive, trick, con and manipulate other people into doing the killing for them. How is this better than simply doing the dirty deed themselves?

The end justifies the means. Trampling on emotions is acceptable as long as it brings about the desired results. In the first-season episode “The Short Tail Spy,” Cinnamon Carter carries on a lengthy romance with the mark, even spending the night with him. Does she really fall in love with him or is it all an act? We never really know how Cinnamon feels about the affair. But if she does have feelings for him, she never lets her emotions compromise the mission. Like an actress, she can conjure up fake emotions to serve her purpose.

In another episode, the IM Force is leaving the building at the end of the episode and they hear a gunshot. When someone asks who was killed, Jim Phelps replies rather coldly, “Does it matter?” A rather callous attitude, but necessary in this business.

Bruce Geller, the series creator, stated that he wanted the characters to be “ciphers,” completing the mission with no emotion or revealing their own personality. In a few episodes, we catch tantalizing glimpses of the team members joking and interacting with each other (in a seventh-season episode, Barney and Jim briefly enjoy a friendly game of tennis on a day off). But the agents, for the most part, remain pawns in the spy game. We see the agents portray every type of character expect themselves, yet sealing off their own emotions doesn’t appear to cause mental health issues.

And they are expendable. The government will deny their existence in the event the agents are caught or killed. So they are on their own. How can the agents remain loyal to a government that needs them but wants nothing to do with them?

The missions work because the villains have no ethics. The missions/cons work because the baddies are ruthless, greedy, egotistical. lusty and cruel. A con game only works on a mark that wants to be conned.

Yet “MI” has some positive aspects. Compared to most spy shows of the time, the body count is low. In the first season, the team members engaged in some gunplay, but soon that was phased out.

The team members had an extraordinarily high moral sense. They lied and conned only evil individuals and not for personal gain. They felt a need to rid the world of drugs, dictators, nuclear bombs in the wrong hands, corruption and brutality.

They never defected to the other side or were never tempted by the money or power. They never took bribes or betrayed another team member (unless it was part of the mission). If a team member was captured, the others made sure he/she was rescued.

They were willing to put their lives in danger for—what? Not for fame or fortune. They received no public recognition for their service. Due to secrecy they probably had few friends outside the agency. Their only reward was a personal satisfaction for bringing about justice in a wicked world.

My WIP looks at the ethical nature of the spy game. A spy agency recruits my heroine, a civilian, to help with a case. At one point, a spy tells the heroine she will have to kill the enemy. The heroine is shocked—murder goes against her beliefs and morality. In another situation, she must do something she feels isn’t right or else risk blowing her cover. This being a cozy, everything works out to a happy ending, but it’s interesting to explore how she reacts to these situations without compromising her own ethics.

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4 Responses to Cold War ethics

  1. gbpool says:

    It’s been so long since I’ve seen an episode of MI, but how interesting your very good take on the ethics. There is a Magnum P.I. where he kills a bad guy in cold blood because the guy killed his friend. I didn’t like it then and I still don’t like that episode. But then there is always Get Smart. My dad and I would keep track of the body count. It was always high, but that was a comedy. Go figure. I have three spy novels in my SPYGAME Trilogy, but those stories are based on history, both my dad’s life in the military and the history of World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Cold War. I just tried to keep the history accurate while I wove my tales. Your new book sounds like a great way to look at that era. Best of luck, Sally.

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    • Hi, Gayle. Yeah, “Get Smart” was one of the many spy TV shows on the air in 1967, although it was a spoof, not intended to be realistic at all. You’re right about the body count, as nobody seemed to mind when Max killed numerous baddies and no one came around to take away the corpses. The weird thing about “Smart” was that the only way a dumbbell like Max could succeed would be through sheer luck or the villains were more stupid than he was, in which case, why was the government so worried about them?

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  2. Susan D says:

    Well, that takes me back. Interesting thoughts on the people of MI, especially Cinnamon Carter. Really. Even as a teenager I knew that was a pretty fluffy name (stripper name?) for a serious spy. I distinctly remember watch with my Mom, and her saying, “She’s a cool customer.”

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    • Hi, Susan. I loved Cinnamon because she was one of the few female spies of that era who didn’t scream or get frightened when she was in danger. I couldn’t stand Agent 99 of “Get Smart” for her constant “Oh, Max, what are we going to do?” In a few early episodes the script made a big deal of Cinnamon flirting with men, but that phased out and the show focused more on her brains. In some episodes, she was in a disguise that was not flattering at all! I never thought of the “stripper name” as being fluffy. In fact, I liked Cinnamon so much that I named one of my character in my other series after her!

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