The Common Good
May 1990

A Clearly Present Danger

by Jim Rice |

The Mythical World of Tom Clancy

President George Bush once told a group of reporters that novelist Tom Clancy has made “a marvelous contribution ... to our literary world and, I also would like to think, to the national security interests of the United States.”

Bush is wrong on both counts. Clancy writes a gripping yarn—for those who are into the “techno-thriller” genre he almost single-handedly created—but beyond the compelling story-telling, Clancy’s books have little literary merit. His stick-figure caricatures won’t win him any Nobel Prizes for literature—he has characters saying things like, “So, my Captain, again we go to sea to serve and protect the [Motherland]!” And I’m afraid the Peace Prize is out of the question, too: Clancy’s message, assumptions, and influence are a downright danger to the security of people here and around the world.

Twenty million people have read Clancy’s five books, and at least as many are likely to see the movie version of Clancy’s first novel, The Hunt for Red October (1984), directed by Die Hard’s John McTiernan. Ronald Reagan called Clancy his favorite author, and several times had him in to the White House for a private chat. Dan Quayle once gave a speech on the Senate floor urging funds for the ASAT anti-satellite weapon system on the grounds that it was what won the war in Clancy’s second book, Red Storm Rising (1986). “They’re not just novels,” Quayle explained. “They’re read as the real thing.”

And that’s the problem. The books are exciting, exhilarating, captivating—all the things a good airport-read should be. But they’re not, as Quayle maintains, the real thing.

CLANCY, IN LARGE part because of his technical verisimilitude (that is, he likes to be extremely accurate in his high-tech details), gains credibility far beyond what is deserved by his background. He has no technical training, and he’s never served a day on active duty in the military. And yet the novelist puts himself forward—and is treated—as a military expert, doing interviews and op-ed pieces advocating research and development of the systems he writes about in his novels. Even Hollywood’s Red October has been given more-than-deserved credence by the media: NBC, for example, sent its Pentagon correspondent, not its movie critic, to review the film.

Clancy’s mutual love affair with the military—and he has been much honored by the armed forces since his books have come out—is a case of preaching to the choir: His message is just what military personnel want to hear, and so they echo “Amen! The man’s right!” Clancy was even invited to serve as consultant to the National Space Council, a role that led Washington Monthly editor Scott Shuger to remark, “... it makes about as much sense for the Pentagon to consult Tom Clancy as it would for the Supreme Court to consult the producer of LA Law.”

A core of Clancy’s message is that military weaponry works—especially the highest-tech elements—and that the people who run these weapons work, too. It’s not surprising that military personnel, who have devoted their lives and careers to the assumption that such things “work,” would find solace in Clancy’s writing—especially in light of how poorly things work in the real world.

If you were an admiral, would you rather have systems like those of the Vincennes, which misidentified and shot down a commercial airliner, or the novelist-perfected Aegis anti-air radar system that effectively identified and categorized large numbers of incoming missiles during an attack in Red Storm? The choice is clear, and it goes a long way toward explaining the attraction that some military-minded folks feel toward Clancy: His stories are their dreams-come-true. The greatest danger from this fallacious thinking is that military planners—and their politician counterparts—are tempted to make real-world decisions based on the erroneous assumption that complex and risky operations can be pulled off cleanly and without a hitch by these super men and machines. The screen’s Red October and the Clancy books contain some of the most detailed description of military weaponry and procedures the public is likely to see. And people want to believe it: Clancy’s world is one in which technology can provide security and the so-called experts can be trusted to protect us. He takes a complex world and doesn’t merely simplify it, but rather creates super humans and super machines that can manage the world’s complexities.

Without an accurate frame of reference, people are likely to accept as real elements of the story that are pure fantasy. A small example lies in the sets used for the Soviet and American subs in Red October. The U.S. Navy cooperated with the filmmakers—in the expectation that Red October will serve as an effective recruitment tool for submariners, much as Top Gun was for fighter pilots—and invited the film’s production team to visit two U.S. submarines.

The look of the submarines did not fit the image sought by the filmmakers—“It didn’t look 1980s high-tech,” explained production designer Terence Marsh—so they constructed sets for the sub control rooms that more closely resembled what they felt would look right to the audience. For the public, most of whom have never seen the inside of a real sub, the fiction will reside as unchallenged fact. And despite such artistic license, reviewers will still tout the “authenticity” of the film.

The world depicted in Red October, like that of all of the Clancy novels, is virtually devoid of women. The few exceptions tend to be either superwomen (like the president’s black-belt bodyguard in Clear and Present Danger (1989), Clancy’s latest, or world-renowned eye surgeon Cathy Ryan, protagonist Jack Ryan’s wife and victim of terrorist attack in his 1987 Patriot Games) or helpless victims of violence, and often rape, who are rescued or avenged by the of-course-male heroes. Clancy’s books contain conspicuous evidence the author is unable to identify with women as living, breathing human beings.

TOM CLANCY, NOT unlike Ronald Reagan, seems to be driven by a longing for the mythical days of yore, when men were men, women were mostly unseen, and good was here and evil there—with no confusion as to who was who. Clancy seems to be one of those dwindling few who lament the passing of the Cold War and the clean, dualistic clarity it brought to his worldview.

The Hunt for Red October is an anachronism, a Cold War movie in a transfigured world. Its visceral attraction, however, is based on something far deeper than even global political realities: the human need for a clear-cut division between self and other, between us and them, between friend and enemy.

A careful read of human psychology and history suggests that people need a place to put evil outside themselves, where it can be seen and opposed and finally destroyed. Whether it be the Communist menace of Red October and Red Storm Rising, or the Irish republican terrorists of Patriot Games, or the “narco-terrorists” of Present Danger, Tom Clancy’s antiheroes—and the heroes who oppose them—will continue to speak to a deep need within the human psyche. And his stories in print and on the screen will help to shape the way the American public views the world. Therein lies the danger.

Jim Rice is editor of Sojournersmagazine. A version of this review appeared in the May 1990 issue.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)