The dedication page of this Behemoth carries a lapidary, capitalized inscription, “To Ronald Wilson Reagan, Fortieth President of the United States: The Man Who Won The War.” And this is only fair. In 1984, the Naval Institute Press paid Tom Clancy an advance of $5,000 for The Hunt for Red October. It was the first fiction that the Naval Institute had knowingly or admittedly published. There matters might have rested, except that someone handed a copy to the Fortieth President, who (then at the zenith of his great parabola) gave it an unoriginal but unequivocal blurb. “The perfect yarn,” he said, and the Baltimore insurance agent was on his way to blockbuster authorship. Putnam this past August issued a first printing of 2,211,101 copies of his newest novel, Executive Orders, and, on the Internet site devoted to Clancy, mayhem broke out as enthusiasts posted news of pre-publication copies available at Wal-Mart. Clancy’s nine thrillers, as well as exemplifying an almost Reaganesque dream of American success, have catapulted him into that section of the cultural supermarket which is always designated by the hieroglyph #1. And this, too, is apt. Remember when America itself was #1? Are we not #1 today? Must we not be #1 tomorrow?
There are other superficial resemblances between the Reagan phenomenon and the Clancy one. Tom Clancy, the true-grit chronicler of air combat, has an aversion to flying and will not get on a plane unless he absolutely has to. Ronald Reagan became phobic about flying in 1937 and did not board another aircraft for almost thirty years. (While grounded, he played heroic airmen in Secret Service of the Air, Murder in the Air, International Squadron, and Desperate Journey.) When he wrote Red October, Clancy had never been on a submarine unless it was tethered to the dockside. Ronald Reagan, who never got further than the Hal Loach Training Studio on a Los Angeles backlot, told Yitzhak Shamir and Simon Wiesenthal that he had been present in person at the liberation of the Nazi camps, and often referred fondly to the wartime years he had spent “in uniform.” Tom Clancy talks like a leatherneck when interviewed by the press, and keeps a large green M4A1 tank parked on the main lawn of his 4,000-acre estate on Chesapeake Bay. (There is a shooting range in the basement of the main house.) So the nation’s two leading fans of vicarious combat make a good pairing. We cannot therefore be sure which “war,” in the dedication, Reagan is supposed to have “won.” It may be one of the wars that took place only in his head. I think that the millions of Clancy-consuming vicarious-war fans are supposed to assume, however, that it was that “cold” war, in which Tom Clancy was proposed by Vice-President Dan Quayle as a member of the National Space Council.
Clancy’s fictional projection of his rather rotund and unadventurous self is Jack Ryan, who has now been animated on screen by Harrison Ford and Alec Baldwin. A child of the national security apparat, Ryan has captured a Soviet nuclear submarine (The Hunt for Red October), done battle with IRA gunmen (Patriot Games), outpointed the KGB (The Cardinal of the Kremlin), taken the war to the foe in the matter of the Colombian cartels (Clear and Present Danger), foiled a world-domination plot by the Indian Navy and a Japanese business consortium (Debt of Honor). On the cusp between Debt of Honor and Executive Orders he becomes Vice-President and President of the United States, all on the same day. Since Ryan has always been represented as an uncomplicated patriot with a distaste for politics and politicians, this transition might seem to offer a difficulty. But Clancy resolves it with a tremendous plot device, whereby a Japanese airliner crashes into a joint session of Congress, killing the Chief Executive, most of the members of the House and the Senate, most of the Cabinet, the Joint Chiefs, and all the Justices of the Supreme Court. Ryan has been appointed as a stopgap, can-do, pinch-hitting Veep, in the wake of the resignation of a scoundrelly incumbent. By nothing short of a miracle, he escapes the hecatomb of the Joint Session and finds not only that he is Leader of the Free World, but that he has a huge number of vacant appointments in his gift.
It rapidly becomes clear that Tom Clancy’s political beau idéal is not really Ronald Reagan so much as it is Ross Perot. Ryan decides to hire a new Treasury Secretary and goes straight to a friend on Wall Street. He tells him:
Buy a mop. I want your department cleaned up, streamlined and run like you want it to make a profit someday. How you do that is your problem. For Defense, I want the same thing. The biggest problem over there is administrative. I need somebody who can run a business and make a profit to cull the bureaucracy out. That’s the biggest problem of all, for all the agencies.
There’s a great deal more in this style of what I call “gruff stuff”: husky admonitions and semper fi shoulder-punches and injunctions not to stand on ceremony or go by the book. Is this, for one thing, a great country or is it not? As one young aide reflects, squeezing his eyes shut in a manly fashion:
Only in America could a working-class kid who’d scratched into Harvard on a scholarship get befriended by the great son of a great family.
Read with any care, this assertion is only true to the extent that Harvard is in America. But care is just what Clancy doesn’t exercise. As he once told an interviewer about an earlier volume in his oeuvre:
I was never thinking about whether this was a good book or a bad book. I was thinking of the mission. You have to focus on the mission, and the mission is finishing the book, and everything else is a sideshow to the mission.
Here is the authentic voice of a man who must sometimes wish that he had not been excused from the draft on the grounds of his myopia. How he loves the argot, of “doing what you have to do to get the job done.” Regrettably, in Executive Orders he sets himself too many missions and succumbs very early to what might be called imperial overstretch.
The outside world is, as is now notorious, a dangerous place. President Ryan is not to be allowed his honeymoon. In far-off Iran, a scheming ayatollah sees his chance. In distant, throbbing Zaire, a young Iranian physician starts to culture the Ebola virus. The glacial Stalinist mandarins of Beijing decide to test “this Ryan”—a very Fleming-like locution, incidentally, often employed to characterize the speech of a devious and fanatical foreigner. Even the nasty female who heads the government of India is in on the convoluted Sino-Iranian conspiracy, though it turns out to be a conspiracy with no objective beyond itself. The humiliation of the naive unsuspecting Americans is the general idea. They are so—heh, heh, heh—enfeebled by their attachment to democracy…
Nor are things at home all that propitious. Some bucolic fascists in Montana decide that their hour has struck. There may be a mole in the President’s security detail. And of course, political and journalistic enemies never sleep. This salad of sub-plots, plucked alternately from the marquees of the Cineplex and the filler copy at US News and World Report, is narrated by means of intercutting, but will present serious problems of continuity for the studio which options it.
For a while, it seems Jack Ryan doesn’t have a friend in the world. But he does, he does. There is Prince Charles, who of course we remember from Ryan’s heroic rescue of the royals in Patriot Games. And there is the Israeli Mossad, without which no writer in this genre since the days of Frederick Forsyth has dared move a step. At the memorial for those massacred on Capitol Hill:
“Mr. President,” said the man in the Royal Navy mess jacket. His ambassador had positioned things nicely. On the whole, London rather liked the new arrangement. The “special relationship” would become more special, as President Ryan was an (honorary) Knight Commander of the Victorian Order.
“Your highness.” Jack paused, and allowed himself a smile as he shook the offered hand. “Long time since that day in London, pal.”
I’m citing this not as a sample of Clancy’s abysmal dialogue, because in point of fact it’s much better crafted and more economical than most of the exchanges that he types, but because it illustrates two recurring Clancy tropes, which are his matey populism and his deference and snobbery. The two are as indissolubly linked, in this as in all Clancy narratives, as his taste for sadistic ruthlessness and his sentimentality.
These qualities are summarized, for me, in the way in which Clancy names his characters. “Jack Ryan” is a nothing name to start with, and the character is just an attitudinal cipher, with a tendency to long and sanctimonious monologues, who is naturally devoted to the children he never sees and who gets in bed with his wife only in order to go to sleep. We are informed at one point that he is “a student of human behavior,” as who indeed is not? His associates and subordinates are called Pat Martin and Dave James and Bob Fowler. There’s a John Clark and a Robert Jackson. And think of the ingenuity tax that must have been levied when Clancy had to come up with some tough but tender FBI veterans to be Ryan’s only friends in the world (apart of course from the Windsors and the Israelis) and named them Patrick O’Day and Tony Caruso. It’s like watching one of those macho “unit” movies from the Second World War, where there is a Kowalski and an O’Rourke and a Gambino in every platoon.
The geopolitics are evoked with the same skill. The Middle East, that renowned cauldron, is described as “a part of the world known for its interlocking non-sequiturs.” I will say that I enjoyed that effortful oxymoron more than the immediately following revelation: “Like most Russians, Golovko had a deep respect for history.” There is, then, inevitably, some talk about wolves and steppes and the uncomfortable conclusion that “Lying on the ground, the horizon could be surprisingly close.” I dare say it could, if one were dangling. We meet a handsome pro-American Saudi prince called Prince Ali Bin Sheik—a name as absurd in Arabic as it is in English. At one point, the saturnine Iranian doctor in the outback of Zaire makes a decision, lifts the phone, and calls the Iranian embassy in Kinshasa. Mr. Clancy’s travels obviously haven’t taken him to Zaire. The telephones there are down. You can’t call the Iranian embassy—even if there is one—if you are already in Kinshasa.
Having commissioned the assassination of Saddam Hussein, the Iranian leadership is able to unite Iraq and Iran, on the basis of Shi’a solidarity, in a matter of days. The newly fused army is ready to reinvade Kuwait at once. Switzerland, on the other hand, hasn’t changed since it was visited by Paul Erdman and Robert Ludlum. It is still, you will be reassured to hear, “a cold country in terms of both climate and culture, but a safe one, and for those with money to invest, an anonymous one.” Books like Executive Orders depend on a species of paradox: vast changes in the natural order which leave the landscape of conventional wisdom unchanged. This is why Clancy, in a yarn of 874 pages, invents a few shocks but cannot bring off a nanosecond of real tension.
There comes a point when, chopping one’s way through the hopeless tangle of Clancy’s thoughts and Clancy’s prose, one is compelled to ask who, if anybody, edits this stuff? Is it assumed that the customers will simply buy anything that bears the TC #1 franchise label? Even if so, both they and he are ill-served. That sinister Iranian physician “walked out of the room…, removing his protective garb as he went, and dumping the articles in the proper container.” A few pages later, “He left the room, stripping off his protective garb as he did so, depositing it in the proper containers.” Sometimes the inattention creates miniature hilarities. “For the first time in a very long time, Clark went pale as a ghost.” “Barry, I’ve never committed public suicide before.” Sometimes, though, it results in a syntactical pileup from which there is no extrication:
At every stop, the information was handed over raw, sometimes with the local assessment, but more often without, or if it were, placed at the bottom so that the national intelligence officers in charge of the various watches could make their own assessments, and duplicate the work of others. Mostly this made sense, but in fast-breaking situations it very often did not. The problem was that one couldn’t tell the difference in a crisis.
I believe that I can guess exactly the point at which Mr. Clancy gave up on his “mission” but kept going blindly on. Having been at some pains to show us the Ebola virus being bottled with diabolical care in vials of blood, he allows this blood to spill and permits the ultra-vigilant physician to notice that something sticky and liquid has escaped, only to dismiss the thought. The next person to encounter the spillage finds that “his seat was wet, with what he didn’t know, but it was sticky and…red? Tomato juice or something, probably.” The man making this suggestive blunder is an Iraqi Ba’athist secret policeman, who might be expected to know the difference between blood and Bloody Mary.
Clancy is forgiven much by his fans because he can deliver the high-octane military-industrial prose that is his hallmark. Writing of this caliber is essentially non-fictional, as is shown by Clancy’s latest boy’s-own guidebook, Marine, a breathless history and description of the real-life past and present of America’s #1 military corps d’elite. But even Marine has a closing section in which fantasy is given its head and we are asked to accompany our boys on a future mission against those described as “rag-heads” in Executive Orders:
Two minutes behind the B-2s came eight B-1B Lancers from the 7th Wing at Dyess AFB, Texas, also launched from Anderson AFB and refuelled from KC-10As at Diego Garcia. Their targets were two battalions of troops in barracks adjacent to Bushehr airport. Each unloaded twelve AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapons (JSOWs) from their weapons bays, well outside Iranian airspace. Following a two-minute gliding flight, the ninety-six JSOWs, guided by onboard GPS receivers, unloaded their payloads of BLU-97/B Combined Effects Munitions (CEMs). They blanketed over a hundred acres of troop billeting and vehicle-parking areas with thousands of CEMs, and the effects were horrific. The two minutes since the bombs from the B-2 strike had given the troops time to thrown on their boots, grab weapons, and rush outside to be shredded into hamburger by exploding cluster munitions.
Here is another pileup, this time acronymic, culminating in a moment of sub-Mickey Spillane. It is the on-page equivalent of the “smart” videos from the Gulf War. (With this difference. After the Gulf War, staff officers who had viewed the non-virtual effects of cluster and fragmentation weapons decided not to put these triumphs on the air. The videos are still classified by the Department of Defense, whether out of squeamishness or not. But Clancy the gloating civilian is subject to no such inhibition.)
Descriptions like this bear the broken-backed weight of Executive Orders, too, and carry the badly injured plot toward its final foxhole. It’s interesting to notice the amount of product endorsement that Clancy throws in to enhance the industrial side of his uncomplex military-industrial writing. Tributes to the excellence of Merck chemicals, Gulfstream aircraft, and Merrill Lynch brokers are plentiful, as are fulminations by Jack Ryan against the capital gains tax. The acknowledgments to Marine include the good people at Bell Textron, Boeing, Sikorsky, Texas Instruments, General Dynamics, and Hughes Aircraft. Are we entering the age of sponsorship in airport fiction?
Jack Ryan manages to battle successfully against the multiple and simultaneous subplots that conspire against him, but he succeeds chiefly because most of them just peter out. The Montana militiamen’s scheme is discarded (by Clancy, not by the conspirators) and the Indians and Chinese seem just to change their minds. The ever-menacing Japanese are left out altogether on this occasion, while entire Ebola outbreaks, including one in Chicago and a nasty one in the Sudan, just vanish from the story. Having found a couple of tycoons to serve at Treasury and Defense, Ryan never does get around to any Supreme Court appointments. He even forgets to have a vice-president, which is a requirement of the very Constitution that he repeatedly tells us he is sworn to defend. Actually, Clancy only comes to life at all on those occasions when he can describe either a president trashing the Constitution or a field officer exceeding orders and kicking ass.
Ryan’s problem was that he really didn’t have a political philosophy per se. He believed in things that worked, that produced the promised results and fixed whatever was broken. Whether these things adhered to one political slant or another was less important than the effects they had.
Will you adhere to my slant? But when it’s a question of proclaiming martial law to combat Ebola, or of violating the prohibition on the assassination of foreign leaders, Ryan’s pragmatism reveals itself for what it is—an authoritarian populism set out with more energy than grammar by its fictional author. The same goes for cutting out red tape on military expeditions:
“How many can we kill before they make us stop, sir?”
“If it’s a tank, kill it. If it’s BMP, kill it. If it’s a truck, kill it. If it’s south of the berm and it’s holding a weapon, kill it. But the rules are serious about killing unresisting people. We don’t break those rules. That’s important.”
“Fair ‘nuff, Colonel.”
“Don’t take any unnecessary chances with prisoners, either.”
“No, sir,” the track commander promised. “I won’t.”
The implication of the passage is quite subtle by Clancy standards, but it shares in the same down-and-dirty, tough-guy pornography of which this is the soft version.
The usual throaty justification for such nastiness is, of course, the existence of women and children. As far as I can see, Clancy has fitted out Ryan with a spouse and some offspring simply so that he can experience paroxysms of justified male wrath when physical attacks are made on them. (“Why my kids, Jeff? I’m the one—here. If people get mad, it’s supposed to be at me. Why do people like this go after children, tell me that…?”) Strong, drivelling men like this are also traditionally very fond of committing minor infractions and then asking their subordinates not to tell the lady of the house or she’ll have his guts for garters. Clancy does not spare us this convention. I lost count of the number of times that Ryan bummed a cigarette and then, likeably and democratically, cautioned the underling not to let “Cathy” know. This makes the mighty appear so much more…human, really.
Even though Clancy often seems bored by his own devices, there is one other subject—apart from political and military bullying—that gets him excited. Like many people who know absolutely nothing about Washington, and who reveal the fact by talking portentously of “this town,” he believes that the press is out to “get” the man in charge. If a Jack Ryan had actually become President in the manner described here, and had then had to face a challenge from a newly united Iran-Iraq federation, he would have had the mass media at his disposal from early morn to dewy eve. “Bipartisanship” would not have been the half of it.
Instead, Clancy shows us a president who meekly submits to atrocious rudeness at press conferences, who is harried by reporters wherever he goes, who does five unrehearsed network interviews one after the other (on the same topic, in his private quarters), and who is subjected to a last-minute “set-up” grilling by a crafty presenter. Moreover, the Pentagon flies hostile correspondents directly to the scene of combat, while reporters call and get the National Security Advisor on the telephone at all times. A clue to Clancy’s resentful caricature of the Fourth Estate is probably to be found in one such scene, where “a very liberated lady” reporter asks an impertinent question about Roe v. Wade. But I never want to read again that, say what you will about Clancy’s losing arm-wrestle with the English language, he is at least good on the details.
Details can be suggestive, however, and some absorbing ones are to be found in Marine. We find that Clancy praises his favorite corps for capturing John Brown at Harper’s Ferry (under the command of Virginia Army officers Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart); for subverting Mexico at Vera Cruz in 1847; for putting down Filipino rebels in 1899 and invading Nicaragua in 1913; for intervening in Haiti between 1915 and 1934; and for “pacifying the Panama Canal Zone” between 1901 and 1914, to say nothing of enforcing the Platt Amendment in Cuba. For Clancy, these are not disfigurements of a record that after all includes Iwo Jima, but glorious pages in and of themselves. As the novel began to recede in my memory, it was deposed and replaced by the image of Oliver North, a disgraced Marine officer for whom Clancy used to “do” fundraisers. There are obviously many “guys” out there, some of them perhaps living near bases threatened with closure, dwelling in the lost world of “choke points” and “arcs of crisis” and “daggers pointed at the heart of.” For them, Clancy is a novelist and North is a hero. With no official enemy on the radar screen (and even the foul Iranians better-armed thanks to North and Reagan), Clancy has become the junk supplier of surrogate testosterone. His books bear the same relationship to reality as Oliver North’s lachrymose and bragging speeches do to patriotism, and his writing is to prose what military music is to music.
Taking Off? March 6, 1997