Fiction is a way to tell the truth. It is also a useful way to mask the facts, a necessity when one is dealing with the world of real-life espionage and special forces.
James Stejskal is a veteran of that world, and he has written about it factually in his book ‘Cold War Berlin’ (more here.)
His latest book, ‘A Question of Time’ does something different – it uses fiction to shed more light on what went on in Berlin during the Cold War, but without revealing precise details or individuals.
What follows is an introduction to James’ book and his thinking behind it.
Article by James Stejskal
I am thinking of writing a story about a military operation - a real one. A mission conducted by intelligence officers and special forces operators.
While parts of the writing process can be aggravating, this is counter-balanced by tales that are unbelievable, and sometimes amusing. In other words, I both experienced and know things that would make a great story.
But I doubt it can be told fully because so much of what happened during the Cold War was classified as secret. I could try to get it cleared by the US Government’s Office of Prepublication Review, but it would probably end up with half of each page being redacted with swathes of black ink.
Moreover, I wonder if it would be responsible to publish the story anyway, and possibly endanger someone who was involved? When I started to write military history, one of my goals was to tell stories in a way that eliminated the fog of war. I wanted to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be directly involved in events.
I say this because I have had the experience of living through and participating in certain historical events myself, as I worked in what were, let’s say, quite a few interesting places. Given just how interesting they were, ‘worked’ might be the wrong word, since each mission was a new adventure. There were days of tedium, times of physical and mental exhaustion, a number of moments of sheer terror, but the way I looked at it, getting paid to do the things I did was well worth it.
Because I held a security clearance for the entirety of my career, I am obligated to send manuscripts related to my work (or rather, my adventures) off to have them reviewed. People in high places have to look at them to ensure I am not revealing any information that would give away the keys to the castle. I always understood that process, but, along the way, I realized that many stories could not be told because of these restrictions.
One of the most influential experiences in my life was the time I spent in Berlin serving with a formerly-classified US Army Special Forces unit.
Some thought of Berlin as the largest POW camp in the world. There was, however, one small contingent of American soldiers who thought that the ‘City’ would be a great place from which to launch strikes into the heart of the Warsaw Pact if war did ever come.
Most of the people who knew those soldiers thought they were a bit crazy. Maybe we were.
But, while World War III thankfully didn’t happen, other interesting things did. And because of that, Berlin was a great place to grow stories. Many authors, Le Carré and Deighton among them, have written about “the City,” as we called it, and the Wall that surrounded it and which made it so unique. Furthermore, their stories reflect reality, and as Albert Camus put it:
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”
It also gives the United States Government a fig leaf to say:
‘It’s fiction, it never happened.’
Though still, many things took place in Berlin (and other places) that, even if written about as fiction, would be hard to believe.
If I made a list of such events, would you be able to tell which was true and which was not?
— An underground listening post extended into Communist East Berlin manned by American and British intelligence officers who were nearly captured when the Russians found it?
— A sensitive piece of equipment was “appropriated” from a Soviet installation inside East Germany by a 2-man American team in a Mercedes?
— An auto mechanic recruited a soldier to spy on his own country?
— An intelligence officer pretended to be a drunk so he could sneak into a restricted area to steal documents?
— An army officer took the wrong subway train and ended up in a gunfight inside East Berlin?
— The head of East German intelligence, the dreaded Stasi, was ordered to be assassinated by an American sniper team. Oddly, he didn’t show up that day?
— An East German with a home-made hot-air balloon escaped to the West?
— An American signals intelligence sergeant was found by police unconscious in his car. He was wearing a dress and lay alongside a suitcase full of top secret papers?
What I have written is a series of stories that follow the evolution of Special Forces and special operations after Vietnam, through the Cold War.
The series describes the emergence of terrorism in Europe as it affected the West (the Munich Olympics, Iran, etc) as well as the people who dealt with it.
The characters who appear are amalgamations of many folks I worked with and if you knew them, you might recognize a trait or two.
The same is true with the action. The incidents, some funny, some traumatic, all happened, maybe not quite as I describe but I leave it to the reader to decide where fact ends and fiction begins.
The series is called the “Snake Eater Chronicles”, “Snake Eaters” being the politically incorrect way to refer to the men of the US Army Special Forces, aka, the “Green Berets”.
As I said, daily life in Berlin was always “interesting”. It’s what I lived.
In 2016, I wrote the definitive, non-fiction history of my unit, ‘Special Forces Berlin: Clandestine Cold War Operations of the US Army’s Elite’, and managed to get it cleared for publication in only 15 months.
With that trauma behind me, I decided to tell some of the stories that couldn’t be told, but in a way that would keep people happy. Fabrication would be my shield.
I had some experience writing fiction — never published because I never finished the stories — but after writing four non-fiction books, I thought it was time to try what I call “retroactive reality”.
My first novel, ‘A Question of Time’, is a combination of incidents that actually took place during the Cold War. Whether a high-ranking Communist spy was extracted from behind the Iron Curtain by the methods I describe in the book, I cannot confirm.
What I can say is that there were high-ranking officers in the Warsaw Pact that worked for the United States and there was a secret Special Forces unit stationed in East Germany.
A Question of Time is a Cold War story about what happens when the CIA’s most important agent is compromised and they must turn to an unconventional team of specialists to save him before he is arrested and his secrets revealed. The clock is ticking …
Again, it will be up to you to decide which parts of the story are fiction and which are grounded in fact.
As for the list of weird and interesting events listed above, in case you were still wondering, every one of them is a true story.
To pick up a copy of James Stejskal’s book ‘A Question of Time’, click here. A Kindle version can be purchased now on Amazon.co.uk, whereas advanced physical copies can be ordered from Casemate Publishing.
Use the discount code FORCESNEWS25 to get a 25 per cent discount off the normal retail price when ordering a physical copy of the book from Casemate.
Finally, to read James Stejskal’s article on Lawrence of Arabia and the beginnings of special forces, click here.