In seventh grade, my Jewish day school English teacher declared that I needed to start reading more “adult” books. “You like spies and the military,” she said. “Why don’t you read Tom Clancy?”
I went home and found on my parent’s bookshelf a hardcover copy of Patriot Games, with its deep blue cover, bold lettering, and picture of an AK-47. I even remember the opening line: “Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.” As my dad pointed out, that was a great first line: don’t you want to know who this Ryan guy is, and why he almost got killed twice?
And so over the next many years Jack Ryan became as familiar a hero to me as Indiana Jones or Luke Skywalker; or maybe even more so, for while I was unlikely to ever wield a lightsaber or discover the Lost Ark, I could aspire to government work with the kind of idealism and integrity exemplified by Jack Ryan. For a teenage boy with an abiding interest in history, foreign affairs, and, yes, spies and the military, Clancy’s novels and nonfiction books offered up irresistible descriptions of life on board submarines, the tactical advantages of the F-15, the composition of nuclear weapons, and the radio chatter between Secret Service agents protecting the President.
There was an element, too, of “being in the know”, thanks to Clancy’s uncanny ability to foreshadow events and hint at government secrets. Thanks to Red Storm Rising, I already “knew” about stealth aircraft when they became an object of fascination in the years following the First Gulf War. And September 11? Clancy’s final scene in Debt of Honor attuned his readers to the idea of terrorists crashing aircraft into national landmarks. Clancy’s works may have been fiction, but they were situated in the real-world, thus offering an impressionable young lad like myself a way to consider present-day conflicts.
From Patriot Games I first learned about terrorism. From Clear and Present Danger, the fallacies of America’s war on drugs. From Sum of All Fears, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. From Debt of Honor, the nexus between economics and military conflict. From Executive Orders (my favorite), the inner workings of the U.S. government. Cardinal of the Kremlin: espionage. Without Remorse: Vietnam. The Hunt for Red October: Sean Connery! And so on. Clancy’s books were my early introductions into what would become lifelong passions.
My immersion in Clancy’s world made my occasional forays into the real world depicted in his novels both thrilling and surreal. In college I interned with the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, where I got to ride in motorcades, learn surveillance techniques, and help protect foreign dignitaries (complete with my dark suit and darker sunglasses standing alongside an armored Suburban). A few years ago, while working in Congress, I found myself pressed up against the back window of a KC-135 tanker on an aerial-refueling training mission. Here’s a picture:
My hunger for Tom Clancy opened up an evolving new world of other authors, each one leading to the next – Michael Crichton, Ken Follett, Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler. Sure, I have other favorite books and authors in perhaps more “sophisticated” genres, but none have proved as ground-breaking for me as Tom Clancy. Like a next-generation technology from one of his books, that moment when I picked up Patriot Games marked a life transition as clear as my bar mitzvah that same year, or hearing Pearl Jam’s Ten album for the first time then, too (wow, I just realized seventh grade was really significant!).
Tom Clancy admirably disdained the literary critics who dismissed his books as nothing more than escapist red meat for the XY chromosome. Sure, they were. And to be honest, I haven’t read a Tom Clancy book in years. I think after The Bear and the Dragon the ideas felt staid, the characters too one-dimensional, and my interests had turned more toward historical fiction than techno-thriller. But that doesn’t diminish the impact Clancy had on stoking my passions and pointing towards a career path in government. Like remembering an old friend, I think I’ll pick up one of his newer Jack Ryan novels to see how much he – and I – have changed.
Tom Clancy deserves to be recognized. Whether or not he got all the geopolitics right, and whether or not his works fall into the realm of High Art, Clancy inspired a generation of readers to care about the world around them and to consider the impact of war, violence, and conflict. He offered an outlet for our interests and an opportunity to understand how global forces operate: governments, the military, spies, terrorists. And come on: how could you NOT find aerial refueling totally cool?!
But most of all I’ll remember one thing about Tom Clancy. He, together with my high school journalism teacher, taught me the single most important rule I’ve ever learned: tell a story.