07/15/2010 07:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

James Bond, We Hardly Knew Ye

The American religion puts its faith in Divine Progress. But we now begin to look like ancient Greeks and Romans who looked backward to a lost Golden Age. Consider Jack Kennedy and James Bond: 1962, Dr. No.

Granite-gray three-button suits, Bronzoni silk ties (very thin), unfiltered cigarettes, and selbtlade pistolen (caliber very small). A missile crisis over Cuba, averted by JFK, and another atomic incident averted by Bond -- and Honey Ryder -- who emerged into our consciousness like Venus arising, borne on ocean shell.

Contrast Ursula Andress to today's Rossiya Face book Baby Doll, and we have our aperture to loss -- determinedly pointing rearward to untouchable Golden Age.

Keystone Cops, Ham 'n-eggers, "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight" -- such embarrassment goes beyond Russia's Stepford sleeper-cells. What about amateur night follies with the Mossad?

What happened to the glory of espionage?

Shift back to 1962, the year of Dr. No. If Rod Serling and Richard Matheson were writing The Shelter and Third from the Sun -- If Twilight Zone spoke to our Cuban Missile fears of imminent apocalypse, it must be remembered that the 1984 vision of perpetual mobilized war between East Asia (PRC), Eurasia (USSR), and Oceania (Western Alliance) had fizzled a decade before in Korea. The prospect of forever wars in Asia was in some ways more frightening -- because this prospect promised the eventual corrosion of civilization itself.

Instead Ike make the 1950s safe for Beach Blanket Bingo and Viva Las Vegas through the amazing dispensation of "apocalypse deferred." The terrors of sacred blood wars of religious nationalism were magically declared impossible, and at one stroke Napoleon and Hitler and two world wars became antique possibility.

So rather than a dark world "where ignorant armies clash by night" we now could enjoy our newly-discovered Hula Hoops and French Haute Cuisine -- an America living large thanks to the deterrence-power of "massive retaliation."

Yet the grand competition continued -- the "Great Game" of nations jockeying for History's brass ring -- and ideology aside, we were still "going toe-to-toe with the Rooskies."
But this time, not with armies in Super-Kursk panzer battles -- and certainly, thanks to massive retaliation, not with nukes. So what was left?

Bond. [Deploy Ronson] James Bond.

In a world whose conservatism was enshrined in apocalypse deferred, an anointed hero was required who would represent in his person and in his ritual behavior -- even in stylized single combat -- the essence of the nation-state paradigm and its religious insistence on Darwinian competition.

You have heard of medieval single combat rituals: Where two armies who really would prefer to forgo the evisceration of battle and instead mutually agree to choose two champions to decide the issue? The very best cinematic realization is in El Cid -- also of our Golden Age -- How we also sought to substitute a man "licensed to kill" for "the dogs of war."

We know how this story ended. It ended in the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, in Angola, in El Salvador, and in the scores of wretched places where champions became the simple killer-instruments of the state itself -- America in Vietnam and now Afghanistan, and Soviets in Africa and also, Afghanistan.

Grand national religious enterprises -- US, USSR -- began to see their vaunted legitimacy waste away. At the beginning of the 21st century the vision of religious nationalism -- the heart of modernity -- had itself fatally betrayed the sacred center of national identity itself.
Which brings us to the naked heart of espionage itself.

If Bond represented a Cold War compact of apocalypse deferred, what did his predecessors and personal archtypes represent?

In the 20th century's terrible wars of religious nationalism the great spies were like Christian martyrs, sacrificing for the eternal hope of national transcendence.

These were heroes. They gave of themselves and sacrificed themselves, for the cause, the greater good, and the magnificent "imagined community" that defined their sacred identity.
Their moral counterpoint -- in invidious comparison -- are the American traitors of recent times: And how many there are! Dunlop (who sent Penkovsky to his death), Ames, Walker, Hanssen, and yes, my friend Jay Pollard, these were great spies in the sense that the Devil is great. They sold their souls (again, in the relentless context of religious nationalism) for mere money (there is even a prize meter for those "million dollar" winners, check it out). Jay was always passionate with me, back in Fletcher Days, about how committed he was. Back then his commitment was to South Africa -- against the dark evil of Communism and, well, the Dark. Then his passions fastened on Eretz Israel. But Jay was no Kim Philby -- he was in it for the narcissism: the narcissism of commitment in an age of falsehood. I thought his patter was harmless Walter Middy fantasy -- how wrong I was!

So we have something to consider after all. The "great" American spies of the last generation are not, Burnham-like, sacrificing themselves for civilization. They are in fact venal narcissists ready to sell-out their country for a nickel and dime.

This sorry descent from James Bond is a sunset sign of the decline of religious nationalism and surely, also, an explanation of the sorry state of espionage.

We have come full circle from James Bond to the faux spies of today. In modernity the spiritual completeness of the individual citizen was inextricably bound to the "imagined community" of the nation.

Today this claim on us has so declined that the Russian state apparat seeks to assuage bruised and fragile national sensibilities by making its goal keeping a young Russian family together. Spies are part of the national family.

In the West espionage has become a lifestyle choice. In those places still driven by unreconstructed religious nationalism -- like China or Korea -- espionage may still retain its promise of spiritual glory and transcendence in sacrifice. But such promise is dead in the West.

Back to Bond. Bond is now enslaved to the New American vision. Try out his reinterpreted, muscular films. How well they fit the post-9-11 American Way:

For the US today "licensed to kill" means doing so daily with joyless, joystick enthusiasm. "Intelligence" is just data secured to make a good kill. America has a world to tame, and a million deadly drones to make it happen.

Bond: Not. Just: Killer.