Featured Post

Tom Clancy: Bestselling Prophet of a war that never was

The bestselling spy thriller author purveyed technoporn, espousing advanced weaponry as the sole key to military victory

Tom Clancy had the answer to the Israel-Palestine problem. Vatican Swiss guards, in the armoured infantry role, faceless behind lexan face shields, would enforce the international status of Jerusalem. The US would impose this, and the Israelis and Palestinians would, after an initial period of grumbling, fall into the natural kinship of the Abrahamic faiths.

Of course, he wrote this before that great experiment in the natural kinship of the Abrahamic faiths that was Operation Iraqi Freedom. Given the opportunity to impose peace in the Middle East, we discovered that for pretty much everyone in the region victory was everything and peace was nothing.

Tom Clancy was never strong on the human condition. He was, instead, a prophet of a certain view of technology in war. He represented the fiction wing of a revolution, the Revolution in Military Affairs. Its guiding principle: that the nature of warfare had been changed by leaps in technology.

Ten Tom Clancy paperback covers
Tom Clancy novels. (Credit: CC-BY Flicker, Chris Drumm)

Unlike Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who formed the nonfiction wing of this revolution under contract to US generals like Don Starry, Clancy wasn’t a prophet for hire. From his early work with Larry Bond he wrote technologically deterministic fiction because there was a market for it.

Nobody believed that there would be a market for what some now call ‘military technoporn’. Clancy first published The Hunt for Red October with the Naval Institute Press, the only imprint geeky enough to fall in love with a book in which a Soviet Typhoon and an American 688-class submarine were characters in themselves.

In Clancy’s early novels the characters never develop. They are there to crew the technology. Name an early Clancy character, whether a strapping American naval intelligence analyst or a strapping Soviet armoured officer, and I am hard pressed to remember whether he was in Hunt for Red October or in Red Storm Rising.

The first big change in Clancy’s writing came when he tried to introduce real human characters. His first attempt was a version of Charles, Prince of Wales, who felt unmanned after a naval history lecturer saved the life of the Princess of Wales and the infant Prince William. By the end of the book, an elaborate prelude and fugue on the theme of Irish republican terrorism, the Prince of Wales is a whole man once again after helping the same naval history lecturer kill and capture a team of Irish republican terrorists.

The book was a literary car crash, but it still sold. The loyal readers, who had relished every technical detail of the Abrams tanks roaring across the inner German border in Red Storm Rising, squinted their eyes and looked elsewhere while a wooden puppet of Prince Charles was bucked up by the heroic naval history geek, knighted the heroic naval history history geek, and went to a dinner party at the naval history geek’s house in Anne Arundel County, Maryland (where Clancy lived).

In the mid-1990s the History Department at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, had a photo of Dr John Patrick Ryan (played by Harrison Ford), the heroic naval history geek, posted alongside the photos of the real members of the faculty. We military and naval historians loved the idea of the professor as hero, and wistfully dreamed of going into archives the way Jack Ryan did, taking notes on an exotic computer small and lightweight enough to carry in his briefcase.

He was genuinely able to envision scenarios which reeked of realism.

For the rest of Clancy’s career as a fiction writer his loyal readers would ignore the silliness of his ever-more-poorly-researched books. In one, eco-terrorists are ready to poison the spectators at the Sydney summer Olympics, in a hot Australian summer. In September. Then, British special forces gratefully put themselves under the command of a CIA operations officer. India made common cause with China and Japan as a sort of Yellow Peril Dream Team against the US. His readers concentrated on the brand-name equipment and forgave him his indulgences as the heroic naval history geek became National Security Advisor, Vice President and eventually POTUS.

When General Norman Schwarzkopf blamed his subordinate General Fred Franks for letting the Iraqi Republican Guard escape encirclement in 1991, it was natural for Franks to enlist Clancy to assist in his defence. Clancy had already used his famous name and appeal to genuine soldiers and Walter Mittys alike to expand his brand to nonfiction writing. Franks, who commanded the US Army Training and Doctrine Command after the 1990-91 Gulf War, opened his archives to Clancy who wrote a book about Operation Desert Storm that made Franks a hero.

Further brand expansion in the late nineties yielded appallingly written novels about subjects like cyber warfare that were established ideas among science fiction authors and readers but new to Clancy’s readership.

Clancy wasn’t a bad author with a forgiving audience. He was genuinely able to envision scenarios which reeked of realism. He gave us Central Asian Islamist extremists before almost anyone in the West had considered the possibility. He gave us blowback in Afghanistan before the Soviets had even left. He gave us mass terrorist murder on American soil before the end of the Cold War. He was as appalled as the rest of us when his 1994 vision of an airliner used as a weapon came true in 2001.  His depiction of dueling submarine captains gave a new lease on life to the term ‘taut thriller’ in the years when Frederick Forsyth and Len Deighton struggled with new realities. His World War Three scenario knocked spots off most of the other entrants in that now-forgotten genre (Shan Hackett’s two Third World War books excepted).

In the nasty little wars of the nineties and the noughties they were unable to look past the equipment to see the human character that underlies all war.

Clancy believed that the technology was the hero, and as the Cold War ended and the New World Order gave way to the messy world that followed the armed forces he wrote about believed the same thing. The doctrine of the Revolution in Military Affairs, grounded in Marxian dialectic as interpreted by Soviet writers, promised perpetual victory to the armies with the best equipment. Low-tech would always lose to high-tech, and never mind the human terrain. The idea was durable: as late as 2002 the Adjutant-General of the British Army still insisted that officers study and accept the ideas of the Revolution in Military Affairs.

Like Clancy, the armed forces he wrote about fell over when it came to humanity. After the illusion of victory won in Iraq in 1991 the NATO armed forces mortgaged their futures for the kind of shiny kit that Clancy wrote about. The Soviet, then Russian, armed forces clung to their founding myths and equipment-based ethos. In the nasty little wars of the nineties and the noughties they were unable to look past the equipment to see the human character that underlies all war.

It surprised nobody that Patrick Hennessey’s Junior Officers Reading Club did not read Clancy, or at least did not admit to it. After the first couple of Iraq tours the Revolution in Military Affairs quietly dropped out of the syllabus; and while Clancy’s technoporn still sells, he will be remembered as the man who gave us the clearest-ever picture of the Third World War we all prepared to fight but never did.

Tom Clancy died today aged 66.

About the Author
Dr Lynette Nusbacher is a strategist and devil's advocate. She is a core partner in Nusbacher Associates, a strategy think-tank. She has been a senior national security official in the United Kingdom and was Senior Lecturer in War Studies at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.