Tom Clancy never served in the military, the intelligence community or any other part of the U.S. government. Instead, he wrote stories of submariners fighting the Cold War, infantrymen fighting the drug war, and spies and analysts looking for enemies in dark alleys and satellite photos. In doing so, the best-selling novelist not only captured the imaginations of many readers, he created a literary bridge across the civil-military divide — inspiring many, including us, to join the units and agencies he wrote about so colorfully.
One of us, Erin, grew up in suburban Kansas, where, despite nearby Fort Leavenworth, home of the Army’s Combined Arms Center, and Lawrence, the setting of the Cold War shock flick “The Day After,” foreign policy and military affairs had little presence. It was hard to compete for attention with Jayhawks basketball, after all. But spy novels did — and “The Hunt for Red October” was the first spy thriller she read in elementary school. Nearly two decades later, she wrote her dissertation on intelligence in irregular warfare, taught operations and counterinsurgency to Marines, and later deployed to Afghanistan as a civilian adviser.
The other, Phil, grew up in West Los Angeles, a part of Southern California where you were more likely to meet out-of-work actors than veterans, despite the massive defense and aerospace industry there. But it was hard to resist the pull of the military after hearing Navy stories from Grandpa and Army stories from Dad — and then reading “Red Storm Rising,” about a World War III scenario in Central Europe, and “Patriot Games,” about global terrorism. Clancy’s characters, such as the immortal Jack Ryan, also set forth a career path that seemed perfect: four years in the Marines (or the Army, in Phil’s case), followed by graduate school and a civilian career in national security.
For Gen-Xers like us, Clancy’s novels provided our first view of the inner workings of national security: the weapons systems, the sensors, the command structures and the acronyms. (Oh, did Clancy love acronyms!) Of course other books and movies covered similar ground, but none with Clancy’s technocratic detail. Unless you subscribed to various Jane’s publications — one of which is on Jack Ryan’s desk in “Red October” — you would never have been exposed to minutiae about sonar buoys near Iceland. You felt like a 12-year-old military expert reading those books.
But the novels weren’t just about the military. Jack Ryan was a Marine turned history professor turned spy turned president, a final twist that probably jumped the shark. Clancy’s characters included diplomats, soldiers, analysts and civil servants of any number of agencies and varying degrees of loyalty. These were the people — along with the admirals and sonarmen — who influenced and executed foreign policy.
Indeed, Clancy’s world, especially in the early books, was one of doers. One of the things that distinguishes his thrillers from those by Robert Ludlum, Vince Flynn or Lee Child is the constant juxtaposition of senior-level policy decisions — at the National Security Council or the CIA — with the highly trained, skillful and more realistic individuals implementing them. As a kid you might have trouble imagining yourself as the national security adviser — seriously, what does that guy do? But you could see how you might enlist in the Navy to drive a submarine or join the CIA to become an intelligence analyst.
Clancy’s novels were also some of the first works to cast the military in a positive light after Vietnam. When “The Hunt for Red October” was published by the U.S. Naval Institute in 1984, that war still dominated the nation’s conscience. “Apocalypse Now” was released in 1979; the first “Rambo” movie was out in 1982. Such movies painted the military and many of its veterans as inept and unwise at best, corrupt or evil at worst. But Clancy’s books presented admirable lead characters such as John Clark, a Navy SEAL and Vietnam veteran turned CIA clandestine officer, and “Ding” Chavez, an Army infantryman who earns his master’s degree while learning to be a spy under Clark’s tutelage. Clancy’s stories also helped fuel a genre of books and movies such as “Top Gun,” and the film version of “Red October” helped rehabilitate the military’s image in the nation’s imagination.
That pop-cultural shift came with a price, however. For all the realism of Clancy’s Cold War novels, he described a very technical view of war, of wars made easy. Weapons systems and omniscient intelligence platforms win the day in Jack Ryan’s world. This was hardly the bloody mess of nonfiction masterpieces such as Mark Bowden’s “Black Hawk Down” and Nathaniel C. Fick’s “One Bullet Away.” Clancy’s take on warfare applied well to the first Gulf War, but less so to the more recent fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even his characterization of the war on drugs revealed an all-too-easy faith in the military’s ability to resolve complex conflicts. “Clear and Present Danger” offered simple solutions: Surgical strikes with smart bombs and gutsy raids by light infantry could incite a battle within the Medellin drug cartel — and thus restrict the flow of drugs to the States. Unfortunately, as U.S. drug policy eventually embraced Clancy’s militaristic worldview, we learned that force alone could not win that war and, more broadly, that military options were more difficult than Clancy made them seem. As his later novels became more overtly political and less compelling, Clancy’s hunger for military solutions became clear. He had lost his appreciation for the diligent analysts and diplomats that made the early books great.
Nonetheless, Clancy’s legacy lives on in the generations he introduced to the military. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans serve in uniform; far fewer serve as diplomats, development specialists or intelligence officers. Clancy’s stories helped the rest of society understand and imagine this world of national security, and his efforts will be missed by civilians and veterans alike.
Erin Simpson is the chief executive of Caerus Analytics, a strategy and design firm in Arlington. Phillip Carter is a senior fellow and counsel at the Center for a New American Security.