One of the things I love about John le Carré’s spy novels is that they often puncture the James Bondian myths of sinisterly perfect shadow ops, reminding us they can be run by the fallible, the petty and even the unlucky; in short, by human beings. Turns out that as dramatic music swells, the lantern-jawed hero may just have a booger hanging from his nose.
And it’s not just fiction. One of the most elite units in the American military, Delta Force, suffered a humiliating debacle with Operation Eagle Claw when they tried to rescue the hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries in 1980. The investigative report prepared for the Joint Chiefs makes it clear that a combination of bad luck and human error led to an aborted mission as well as the deaths of nine US military personnel and one civilian, even though they never encountered a single enemy combatant.
In college, I went to a gathering of the Society for Creative Anachronism in Rochester, NY. The SCA is a national organization that recreates medieval and renaissance tournaments, royal courts, feasts and dances, and many of its members participate in aggressive battles with full armor and padded rattan weapons.
In Rochester, I saw an eye-opening example of Murphy’s Law in action, medieval style. I was allowed to observe as a group of armor clad combatants went into battle. They were moving single file through the woods, looking to catch their adversaries by surprise.
As they ran beneath the weight of armor, Vader breath echoing in their helms, the birds of the forest chirped on, utterly indifferent. The scene took on this oddly authentic feeling. Then one of the knights disturbed a hornet’s nest. Suddenly, people in great helms and chainmail were waving their hands like maniacs and high stepping through underbrush to escape the angry swarm. And somehow in that moment, the spectacle transformed from convincing to straight-up real.
There’s a lesson of some sort in this experience. What it is, I don’t know. It’s been tapping on my forehead for years, saying, “Hello, McFly?!! Anybody in there?!!” Perhaps you’ll have better luck figuring it out.