Tom Clancy is lousy at writing sex scenes between a man and a woman. But he's great at writing sex scenes between a man and a weapons system. In Clancy's Red Storm Rising, it's boy meets plane, boy gets plane:
Colonel Douglas Ellington's fingertips caressed the control stick of his F-19A Ghostrider attack fighter....
Lockheed called her the Ghostrider. The pilots called her the Frisbee, the F-19A, the secretly developed Stealth attack fighter. She had no corners, no box shapes to allow radar signals to bounce cleanly off her. Her high-bypass turbofans were designed to emit a blurry infrared signature at most. From above, her wings appeared to mimic the shape of a cathedral bell. From in front, they curved oddly toward the ground, earning her the affectionate nickname of Frisbee. Though she was a masterpiece of electronic technology inside, she usually didn't use her active systems....
Or consider this episode from The Cardinal of the Kremlin:
Slowly, the Archer raised the launcher and trained its two-element sight on the approaching helicopter. His thumb went sideways and down on the activation switch, and he nestled his cheekbone on the conductance bar. He was instantly rewarded with the warbling screech of the launcher's seeker unit.
... The helicopter was sideslipping right at him now, expanding around the inner ring of the sight. It was now in range. The Archer punched the forward button with his left thumb, "uncaging" the missile and giving the infrared seeker-head on the Stinger its first look at the heat radiating from the Mi-24's turboshaft engines. The sound carried through his cheekbone into his ear changed. The missile was now tracking the target....
The missile screamed its readiness at the Archer now, but still he was patient. He put his mind into that of his target, and judged that the pilot would come closer still before his helicopter had the shot he wanted at the hated Afghans. And so he did. When the Hind was only a thousand meters off, the Archer took a deep breath, super-elevated his sight, and whispered a brief prayer of vengeance. The trigger was pulled almost of its own accord.
... As always, it was almost a sexual release when the launcher tube bucked in his hands...
All this caressing! All this nestling! This warbling, whispering, and bucking! In Clancy's world, war takes on the romantic allure most of us find in something else. What was it that Clancy said after the Army let him drive a tank and fire its cannon? "Sixty tons, 1,500 horsepower, and a four-inch gun--that's sex!" And what was his comment after the Army staged mock battles for his viewing pleasure? "It was Disneyland with guns! It was better than sex!"
Well, so what? Clancy is, after all, great airport reading. What's the harm in having such a hoot on paper with wars that never happened? The harm is that a lot of people read at the airport--to date, 20 million of them have read Clancy's five books. And there could be at least that many customers for the first Clancy movie--The Hunt for Red October--when it comes out next spring. That's millions and millions of people who have gotten most of what they know about warfare and the U.S. military from an ex-insurance agent who never served a day on active duty.
Government by bestseller
And the further misfortune is that some of those fans control the U.S. military. Ronald Reagan called Clancy his favorite author and had him in for a private chat at the White House. With patronage like that, Clancy has had no trouble getting the ear of the National Security Council, the CIA, and the FBI. The Navy lets him go to sea and the Army lets him drive tanks. Dan Quayle is also an admirer; once, in a speech on the Senate floor, Quayle advocated funding the ASAT antisatellite weapon on the grounds that it was what won the war in Red Storm Rising. "They're not just novels," Quayle explained. "They're read as the real thing."
Late last summer, George Bush made sure he got a copy of Clancy's newest novel, Clear and Present Danger, within hours of its publication, and he recently said that 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." It's more than a little eerie that just a few weeks after reading Clancy's latest effort, in which the U.S. government turns away from confronting the Evil Empire in order to tackle Colombian narcoterrorism, Bush decided to do the same thing. Have we finally arrived at a new form of polity? Government by Bestseller.
With all this official acceptance, it's hard to remember that Clancy writes fiction. Now admittedly, fiction can point to real truths--just think of Oliver Twist and The Grapes of Wrath--that government and society should take account of. But has Tom Clancy done anything like that? Does he know what he's talking about? He certainly seems to know a lot about how planes, subs, and missiles are supposed to work, and how we and the Soviets intend to use them. And this makes his books that much more seductive. But is there any reason to think that he knows what will happen when those weapons and those intentions are put into the pressure-cooker of combat? The more complex war has become, the more ways there are for missions to go bad, and the graver the consequences. The history of modern warfare is replete with counterexamples to Tom Clancy's vision. The problem is that history hasn't sold 20 million copies.
How unlike fiction is real war! Clancy has it in his head--and his readers are getting it drummed into theirs--that the U.S. military is a precise instrument, capable of almost effortless accuracy. In Clear and Present Danger, a Navy bomber pilot en route to the target of his laser-guided bomb thinks of his mission as "too easy." A few pages later, Clancy almost lovingly describes the bombing itself as sure-fire mechanized ballet:
It landed within inches of its target point, striking the top of the truck. Unlike the first test shot, this bomb was impact-fused. Two detonators, one in the nose and one in the tail, were triggered by a computer chip within a microsecond of the instant when the seeker head struck the fiberglass top of the truck. There were mechanical backups to the electronic triggers. Neither proved necessary, but even explosives take time, and the bomb fell an additional 30 inches while the detonation process got underway. The bombcase had barely penetrated the cargo cover when the bomb filler was ignited by both detonators. Things happened more quickly now. The explosive filler was Octol, a very expensive chemical explosive also used to trigger nuclear weapons, with a detonation rate of over eight thousand meters per second. The combustible bombcase vaporized in a few microseconds. Then expanding gas from the explosion hurled fragments of the truck body in all directions--except up--immediately behind which was the rock-hard shock wave. Both the fragments and the shock wave struck the concrete-block walls of the house in well under a thousandth of a second. The effects were predictable....
Likewise, in Red Storm Rising, it's precision that turns the tide: Stealth fighter-bombers illuminating targets with lasers allow bombers to destroy 30 of 36 key bridges aimed at and to damage the rest. Indeed, the Soviet commander in chief of the invading forces gets killed by a TV-guided bomb that practically lands in his lap. It's worth noting that although Red Storm Rising narrates an all-out conventional war between NATO and the Russians, Clancy's idolatry of precision leads him to overlook the kind of combat that would almost certainly dominate such a war--infantry fighting. It's as if the next war will be all radar and sonar and no firefights in the mud.
And no Libyas. Where was all that precision, all that predictability, that night in 1986 when the U.S. tried to use Clancy's beloved laser-guided bombs to punish Qaddafi? Was that mission "too easy"? Hardly. Although more than 130 U.S. aircraft and nearly 100 tons of explosives were used against Libya, the raid was at best ineffectual and at worst disastrous. Of the nine planes flying over Qaddafi's compound, only two managed to drop their bombs. Both missed their intended targets. Other raiders mistakenly lobbed ordnance into a residential neighborhood, damaging the French embassy and a hospital. One of the Navy raids was said by its commanding admiral to have delivered only 10 percent of its weapons onto its target. And for all the trouble our bombs had in finding targets, they had no trouble finding innocents. The raid killed 43 civilians, including several babies.
Scratch one tugboat
In the same misleading vein, Clancy describes carrier air operations as "going as smoothly as a ballet," even though so far this year, nine U.S. carrier aircraft have been lost at sea, none due to hostile fire. Once, during one of the peacetime carrier cruises I made when I was in the Navy, we lost two aircraft in the same hour. When Washington Post reporter George Wilson observed the launch of an unsuccessful carrier airstrike against Syrian positions in Lebanon, he found more bungle than Bolshoi:
The [ordnance men], who had thought launch was going to be at 11 a.m., not 7:20 a.m., had not had time to break out the ordered mix of bombs from their packing cases and get them attached to the bombers. Planes were being assigned to crews as they got loaded, snarling the usual assignment process....
[The crewmembers] looked at each other aghast. There were no bombs on their plane. Yet they were supposed to launch in a few minutes. The [ordnance men] could not get enough Rockeyes, the assigned cluster bombs, broken out and loaded to get them on the bombers waiting to go.
And where, in the world according to Clancy, is there more precision than in our submarine fleet? Why, you wonder, with page after page of our subs almost instantly locating and identifying theirs, do the Russian subs even bother putting out to sea? The reason is that most subs--theirs as well as ours--go undetected most of the time. More than a decade ago, when there were dozens of U.S. ships and planes in the South China Sea looking for the one Soviet submarine then on patrol there--and it was an obsolescent one at that; this was before the big Soviet naval build-up of the Cam Ranh Bay naval base in Vietnam--it would still go unlocated for weeks on end. Imagine the difficulties presented nowadays by the increased numbers of quieter Soviet subs. And if Clancy is so well plugged-in, why doesn't he seem to know that the typical Navy sonar contact report is rarely more definite than "a possible Charlie/Victor [two distinct classes of Russian submarines comprising five different models] was last estimated in the vicinity of...," and that the position given is usually several hours old?
A key scene in The Hunt for Red October comes when a U.S. submarine and a British carrier consummate a pinpoint rendezvous with a defecting Soviet submarine--such a precise rendezvous that a blinker message can be sent to it. It's an exciting and clever scene. But is it real? If this kind of close maneuvering could be depended on, then why have U.S. submarines been involved in at least 11 collisions at sea since 1980? In the Mediterranean in 1986, a U.S. and a Soviet submarine conducted a much less refined rendezvous than Clancy envisioned--they crashed into each other. And then there's last summer's collision between the U.S. attack sub, the Houston, and a tugboat. The Houston's sonar failed to detect the 97-ton tugboat, snagged its towing cable, and sank it--killing one of the tug's crewmen. The calamity occurred while the Houston was being used for the filming of. . . can you guess?. . . The Hunt for Red October.
Clancy also hallucinates military precision when, in Red Storm Rising, he describes a battleship blasting a Soviet artillery position by putting shells within 200 meters of it:
The center gun of the number two turret loosed a single round. A millimeter-band radar atop the after director-tower tracked the shell, comparing its flight path with the one predicted by the fire control computer. Not surprisingly, there were some errors in predicted wind velocity. The radar's own computer forwarded the new empirical readings to the master system, and the remaining eight main-battery guns altered position slightly. They fired even before the first round landed.
Compare this to the battleship New Jersey's performance off Lebanon in 1983-1984, where its inaccurate fire failed to neutralize military targets while causing many civilian casualties. Even more directly to the point, the battleship in Clancy's scene is the Iowa, and the "center gun of the number two turret" on the Iowa is the one that blew up in April of this year, killing 47 sailors. Could there be a clearer contrast between the real military and Clancy's than this?
It's not surprising that Clancy is popular bedtime reading at the White House. In the higher reaches of civilian and military command there is a yearning to believe in something that the Clancy image plays right into: You could call it the Ollie North fantasy. Leaders have a powerful need to believe that when they authorize a military or intelligence operation, it will happen just the way they ordered it. This need--and its seductive power--is simple enough to understand. If you are served by experts in command of magic technologies, then all you have to do is make the "go/no go" decision. Your experts with their magic machines will take care of the rest. That's all there is to leadership! No need to be up at 3 a.m., worrying if your subordinates are doing the right thing and doing it correctly. You just give the word to go, and then it's off to work for your people, and off to Camp David for you. Isn't that wonderful?
Clancy's quasi-sexual fascination with weapons means that according to him there's nothing like tech and the best tech is high tech. At virtually every turn of a Clancy novel it's the wonder weapons that carry the day. For him the importance and feasibility of Stealth, ASAT, and SDI is beyond question. In an oped piece in The Wall Street Journal last year, Clancy wrote, "What SDI can and will do is make the process of launching a nuclear strike infinitely more complex and therefore, far less likely. That is something worth doing regardless of cost or effectiveness."
Consider this scene in The Cardinal of the Kremlin, where the experts are testing the SDI computer system's ability to handle a massive incoming Soviet ICBM attack:
"Okay, there's the last shot," an engineer observed. "Here comes the score. . ." "Wow!" Gregory exclaimed. "Ninety-six out of a hundred!. . . People!"--he jumped to his feet--"we have done it! The software is in the fuckin' can!"
Somebody should tell this to the Office of Technology Assessment. In OTA's report entitled "SDI: Technology, Survivability, and Software"--published the same year as The Cardinal of the Kremlin--you instead find conclusions like this:
The nature of software and experience with large, complex software systems indicate that there may always be irresolvable questions about how dependable [ballistic missile defense] software would be and about the confidence the United States could place in dependability estimates. . . . In OTA's judgment, there would be a significant probability (i.e., one large enough to take seriously) that the first (and presumably only) time the [ballistic missile defense] system were used in a real war, it would suffer a catastrophic failure.
Unfortunately, while The Cardinal of the Kremlin has so far sold about 4.3 million copies, the print run for an OTA report is only about 2,000 copies. That means that for every American who knows experts believe SDI will fail catastrophically, there are thousands who, thanks to Clancy, think it's "in the can."
Clancy also has a crush on the Aegis antiair radar on the Navy's Ticonderoga-class cruisers. Here's his description of the system from Red Storm Rising:
The group antiair warfare officer ordered the cruiser's Aegis weapons system into full automatic mode. Tico had been built with this exact situation in mind. Her powerful radar/computer system immediately identified the incoming missiles as hostile and assigned each a priority of destruction. . . .
But where was all this immediate identification when the Aegis on the Vincennes was confronted not by waves of incoming Soviet cruise missiles but by a single commercial airliner? Iran Air flight 655 was never correctly identified by the Aegis system or the men in charge of it before being shot down. And I'm willing to bet that aboard the Vincennes at the very moment of its dismal failure, there were more than a few dog-eared Clancy yarns in circulation. It's not farfetched to think that part of the reason the ship's crew members refused to disagree with what Aegis was telling them was that they were well-steeped in Clancy's world, where the starring roles are played by miracle machines, not common sense.
Clancy's seduction by high tech also leads him to portray some rather hard-to-swallow results in air-to-air combat. In Red Storm Rising U.S. planes achieve a 20 to 1 kill ratio against the Soviets. But in reality, the best kill ratio U.S. warplanes ever achieved--it was during the Korean War--was only half that good. In Vietnam, the ratio was only one-tenth that good.
Another whiz-bang fantasy Clancy gets in bed with is that modern military communications operate smoothly and almost instantaneously. Here's his description of how word gets out to the fleet at sea:
The message was automatically relayed to four separate communications stations, and within 30 seconds was at SACLANT headquarters. Five minutes after that, Toland had the yellow message form in his hand. He walked immediately to Admiral Baker and handed the message over.
It's instructive to contrast that with communications between the Pentagon and the Liberty, the Navy special intelligence collection ship that was operating off the coast of Israel during the 1967 Middle East war.
Reach out and ignore someone
Late one afternoon Washington time, senior officials at the Department of Defense, alarmed by developments in the war between Israel and the neighboring Arab countries, decided that it was no longer wise for the Liberty to proceed as close to shore as was originally planned, and they sent a "Flash" message to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) telling them to move the ship further out to sea. Around midnight the JCS responded by drafting a message addressed to the ship telling it to remain at least 20 miles offshore. Command and communication procedures required that the message go first to the United States Commander-in-Chief, Europe, who would then pass it on to the Commander-in-Chief, United States Naval Forces, Europe, who would then pass it on to the Commander of the Sixth Fleet, who would then pass it on to the Liberty. Despite being a "Priority" message, this new order wasn't transmitted for another 14 hours. And worst of all, even when the message was finally sent, it was mistakenly transmitted to the Philippines. A follow-up JCS message, instructing Liberty to withdraw 100 miles from the coast, was also misdirected to the Philippines, and then back to the Pentagon and finally to Ft. Meade, Maryland where it was filed without further action being taken. A third JCS message ordering the Liberty far out to sea was sent "Top Secret," but this time the JCS communication center selected an address list that the Liberty wasn't even on. None of these messages was ever received by the Liberty, which proceeded unawares to its original close-in station, where Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats mauled it, killing 34 crewmen.
Similarly balky communications dogged the U.S. military at Grenada in 1983, where Army troops often found themselves without the authenticator codes, call signs, and frequencies required to communicate with carrier-based Navy aircraft. Almost every one has heard the story about the leader of a group of pinned-down Rangers who was only able to call in air support by placing a credit-card telephone call back to Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
The smart salute
And when toting up Clancy's beloved gizmos, don't forget the satellites! Not only max-tech but the ultimate point-of-view device for a plot-starved novelist who has to deliver on a three-book deal! They're like having God as a character! In a Clancy book not much gets past all the Rhyolites and KH-14s floating around up there. Read enough Clancy and you'll soon think that for our military, the rest of the world is an open book with pictures. But wait a minute--despite the constant use of satellites, we still don't know where our Middle East hostages are. And remember the raid into the Son Tay prison camp in North Vietnam? The raiders didn't have a clue that the camp, which had been checked out by satellites for weeks, was empty.
It wouldn't be accurate to say that nothing ever goes wrong for the "good guys" in a Clancy book. In Red Storm Rising, the carrier Nimitz is hit by three cruise missiles after its defending pilots get suckered by a Soviet trick. And a U.S. sub is depth-charged by a Soviet ship right on top of it. But Clancy has the Nimitz and the sub survive. I give Clancy credit for having an F-15-launched ASAT blow up in that book. But I take it away again because he doesn't have that mishap destroy the fighter plane or kill the pilot. In Clancy combat, almost all the fog of war settles on the other side.
There's a corollary to Clancy's apotheosis of military technology: Since it's machines that interest him most, the characters in his stories are machines too. Here's an Air Force pilot from Clear and Present Danger:
As some men were born to play baseball, or to act, or to drive race cars, Bronco Winters had entered the world for the single purpose of flying fighter planes. He had the sort of eyesight to make an ophthalmologist despair, coordination that combined the best of a concert pianist and the man on the flying trapeze, and a much rarer quality known in his community as SA--situational awareness. Winters always knew what was happening around him. His airplane was as natural a part of the young man as the muscles in his arm. He transmitted his wishes to the airplane and the F-15C complied at once, precisely mimicking the mental image in the pilot's mind. Where his mind went, the airplane followed.
The Clancy character who best personifies this kind of mechanical perfection is Jack Ryan, the protagonist of four of Clancy's books. A crack shot, Ryan's a former Marine officer with lightning reflexes; he's also a steel-trap Ph.D. who teaches history at the Naval Academy and who periodically helps the CIA save the day. In Clancy's world, our military and intelligence people are almost routinely this high-powered, this perfect. That feature sets up in the reader's mind the most dangerous expectation of all: No matter how major the problem, no matter what's at stake, just let "our people" handle it. They know what they're doing, they've got everything under control. They'll take care of it. Don't worry about a thing.
But no matter how well-trained the soldiers, there's always something to worry about. Eighty percent of the elite British airborne troops in the air assault on Arnhem in 1944 were killed or captured because commanders failed to correctly analyze the intelligence they had indicating the nearby presence of German armor. Despite incredible levels of proficiency, the Navy's SEALs were ineffective in Grenada and the Army's Delta Force was unable to rescue TWA 747.
On the eve of the Bay of Pigs invasion, a veteran Marine colonel was dispatched by Washington to inspect the Cuban Brigade. President Kennedy was depending on his expert opinion. The colonel sent back this message:
My observations have increased my confidence in the ability of this force to accomplish not only initial combat missions, but also the ultimate objective, the overthrow of Castro. The Brigade and battalion commanders now know all the details of the plan and are enthusiastic. These officers are young, vigorous, intelligent and motivated by a fanatical urge to begin battle. . . . They say they know their own people and believe that after they have inflicted one serious defeat upon the opposition forces, the latter will melt away from Castro, whom they have no wish to support. They say it is a Cuban tradition to join a winner and they have supreme confidence they will win against whatever Castro has to offer. I share their confidence.
Kennedy was initially skeptical of the exile invasion plan that he'd inherited from Eisenhower, but he'd already been buffeted by similar positive assessments from the Joint Chiefs and the CIA, so he took this eleventh hour message as the final assurance from the "experts." It convinced him to authorize the operation. The invasion, pitting 1,200 ragtag exiles against 200,000 Castro soldiers, and operating without adequate aircover, was crushed within days.
It's well known from the writings of Arthur Schlesinger that the moral Kennedy drew from the Bay of Pigs debacle was "never to rely on the experts." It's particularly hard to learn this lesson when it comes to military operations. Despite his own firsthand experience of the complex realities of combat, Kennedy let his admitted fascination with military dash--his favorite writer was Ian Fleming, don't forget--carry the day. "If someone comes in to tell me this or that about the minimum wage bill," Kennedy later confessed to Schlesinger, "I have no hesitation in overruling them. But you always assume that the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals."
That assumption, which is at the heart of Tom Clancy's books, is the Ollie North fantasy: The president wonders, "Can we take that hill?" The handsome young officer salutes smartly and says without the faintest quiver in his voice, "Yes, sir. I will take that hill. Don't worry about a thing." And while the president is off riding horses at the aptly named Rancho Mirage, the image of the Officer's impeccable dress uniform still resplendent in his memory, the young officer is losing most of his troops because that hill was much better defended than he knew. Or he's taking the hill but only by razing the surrounding valley for miles in every direction. The better defenses, the surrounding valley--the president didn't ask about them and he wasn't told. For him the smart salute was enough.
The smart salute is never enough. Thinking so is where the Bay of Pigs came from. Where all the Mayaguezs and Desert Ones in our past come from. Reality is rather more complicated. On the one hand, the traditional liberal's reflexive rejection of almost any risky military or intelligence operation is wrong. Heroism and technology do have roles to play. There were, after all, such coups as the Doolitte raid on Tokyo, the Inchon landings, and Entebbe. On the other hand though, the conservative's equally reflexive enthusiasm for such undertakings evinces a naive view about what it takes for them to work. Both sides are wrong: Not all military and covert operations are bad, but all should be thoroughly suspect. They should be planned and conducted in an atmosphere of maximum questioning.
I've talked to Tom Clancy once. His publicist put me in touch with him in connection with a magazine article I was doing. It was a pretty natural fit: we're both from Baltimore, both write about the military, and I was once a naval intelligence officer. The conversation was going along fine until Clancy found out that I'm not as enthusiastic about aircraft carriers as he is. He dismissed my point of view as a "liberal shibboleth" and quickly declared the interview over. Tom Clancy doesn't have room for maximum questioning.
As Kennedy learned in the hardes way possible, the expectations about the military Clancy leaves us with are pure poison, all the more so because they are so attractive. It would be wonderful if they were true; military and covert operations are a messy business--how nice it would be not to have to worry about them! As nice as it is for a child to be able to let Mummy and Daddy worry about the next meal and the new shoes. But the spotty American military record of the past 30 years (a record so spotty that failures like the Son Tay raid have come to be viewed as successes) shows that combat operations cannot be left to "experts" using "magic" machines--they require the hard work of constant outside supervision. There comes a time to grow up. Tom Clancy can be entertaining, but he's not adult reading.
The overwhelming majority of Clancy's readers are life-long civilians who have no direct military experience to help them challenge him. So when they read page piled on page of the marvels wrought by Jack Ryan and his fellow military magicians, readers are more or less defenseless against Clancy's subliminal bombardment of them with the Ollie North fantasy: We've got everything under control. We've got everything under control. Don't worry. Don't worry.
Of course, the scariest part is that so many of our military men and political leaders unflinchingly accept the message too, even though it makes about as much sense for the Pentagon to consult Tom Clancy as it does for the Supreme Court to consult the producer of "L.A. Law." And how could Ronald Reagan's Army experience making propaganda films position him to disagree with Clancy? Or Dan Quayle's National Guard experience? So powerful is the fantasy that even comabt veteral George Bush has obviously succumbed if he thinks Clancy has made "a marvelous contribution to...the national security interests of the United States." On the contraty! DON'T WORRY is warfare's most dangerous phrase. It's the credo for almost all military disasters. No, Clancy's message is a threat to national security. American, stop buying it.
Scott Shuger is an editor of The Washington Monthly.
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|Title Annotation:||author Tom Clancy|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1989|
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