Tom Clancy, manufacturer of myths that kept us happy & ignorant

Summary: We loved Tom Clancy’s fiction because it gave a realistic gloss to our myths about ourselves, about America, and about our military and intel agencies. Unfortunately millions of his readers believed they were seeing an accurate picture. In fact Clancy got the details right, but most of the big things totally wrong. Gorbachev was not a wise leader; Prince Charles was not a great family man; Federal agents seldom feel agonies of guilt when killing people in the line of duty. A full listing of Clancy’s distortions would fill a book almost as long as one of Clancy’s. Here one of our top geopolitical experts paints a picture of Tom Clancy, showing how he gained a place on our bookshelves by giving us what we wanted.

Tom Clancy
David Burnett/GP Putnam Sons via Associated Pres

Tom Clancy, Military Man

By Andrew Bacevich
The Baffler, #24 2014: “The journal that blunts the cutting edge.”
Reposted with the generous permission of The Baffler

Word of Tom Clancy’s passing in October reached me at a local gym. Peddling away on an elliptical trainer, I welcomed the distraction of this “breaking news” story as it swept across a bank of video monitors suspended above the cardio machines. On cable networks and local stations, anchors were soon competing with one another to help viewers grasp the story’s significance. Winning the competition (and perhaps an audition with Fox News) was the young newsreader who solemnly announced that “one of America’s greatest writers” had just died at the relatively early age of sixty-six.

Of course, Tom Clancy qualifies as a great writer in the same sense that Texas senator Ted Cruz qualifies as a great orator. Both satisfy a quantitative definition of eminence. Although political historians are unlikely to rank Cruz alongside Clay, Calhoun, and Webster, his recent twenty-one-hour-long denunciation of Obamacare, delivered before a near-empty Senate chamber, demonstrated a capacity for narcissistic logorrhea rare even by Washington standards.

So too with Clancy. Up in the literary Great Beyond, Faulkner and Hemingway won’t be inviting him for drinks. Yet, as with Ted Cruz, once Clancy got going there was no shutting him up. Following a slow start, the works of fiction and nonfiction that he wrote, cowrote, or attached his moniker to numbered in the dozens. Some seventeen Clancy novels made it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, starting with his breakthrough thriller The Hunt for Red October. A slew of titles written by others appeared with his imprimatur. Thus, for example, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Choke Point or Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist Aftermath.

Limits Of Power

Similarly, on those occasions when Clancy partnered with some retired U.S. four-star to craft the officer’s memoirs, the result was a tome “by” Tom Clancy “with” General So-and-So, the difference in font size signaling who was the bigger cheese. And then there is Tom Clancy’s Military Reference series, another product line in the realm of fictive nonfiction. Each title — Fighter Wing, for example, or Armored Cav — promises a Clancy-led “guided tour” of what really goes on in the elite corners of the United States military.

Clancy did for military pop-lit what Starbucks did for the preparation of caffeinated beverages: he launched a sprawling, massively profitable industrial enterprise that simultaneously serves and cultivates an insatiable customer base. Whether the item consumed provides much in terms of nourishment is utterly beside the point. That it tastes yummy going down more than suffices to keep customers coming back.

If Clancy was a hack, as he surely was, he was a hack who possessed a remarkable talent for delivering what his fans craved. Nor did the Tom Clancy brand confine itself to the written word. His oeuvre has provided ideal fodder for Hollywood too. Movie adaptations chronicling the exploits of Jack Ryan, Clancy’s principal protagonist, and starring the likes of Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, and Ben Affleck, became blockbuster hits. Then there are the testosterone-laced videogames, carrying titles like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2.

Washington Rules

Clancy-approved videogames captured the Pentagon’s fancy. In 2007, Red Storm Entertainment, the gaming arm of Clancy’s empire, released America’s Army: True Soldiers, advertised as an “Official U.S. Army Game.” (“Created by Soldiers. Developed by Gamers. Tested by Heroes.”) The accompanying copy assures prospective purchasers/recruits that “combat action doesn’t get any more authentic than this”:

Become one of America’s bravest in this game developed in conjunction with the U.S. Army. See what it’s like to live life as an infantryman. Take on the role of a Rifleman, Grenadier, Automatic Rifleman, or Sniper. Develop skills including Valor, Marksmanship, Stealth, and more.

Here profit and propaganda blend into a seamless package.

Did I mention Clancy-themed board games, music CDs, toys, and apparel? There is even a Clancy line of pseudo-military collectibles. Among the items available for purchase is the Ghost Recon “Future Soldier” — your choice: statuette or stuffed toy.

Don’t expect Clancy’s departure to stem this tsunami of stuff. Although the founder himself may have left the scene, Clancy Inc. gives every indication of carrying on. A new Clancy novel called Command Authority arrived in December. And a new Jack Ryan movie, this one not based on previously published material, is in the works.

Yet to argue that Clancy’s books and ancillary byproducts offer little in terms of lasting value is not to say that they have lacked influence. Indeed, just the reverse is true. As a shaper of the zeitgeist, Tom Clancy may well rate as one of the most influential creative entrepreneurs of the last several decades.

In whatever medium, Clancy’s abiding theme is the never-ending struggle between good guys and bad guys. His bad guys tend to be irredeemably bad. His good guys are invariably very, very good — Americans devoted to the cause of keeping their countrymen safe and the world free. As good guys, they subscribe to old-fashioned virtues while making skillful use of the latest technology. Whether garbed in battledress or trenchcoats, they are cool, professional, dedicated, resourceful, and exceedingly competent. These are, of course, the very qualities that Americans today ascribe to those who actually serve in uniform or who inhabit the “black world,” whether as CIA agents or members of highly specialized units such as Delta Force or SEAL Team Six.

What’s worth recalling is that the prevailing view of America’s warriors was not always so favorable. In the wake of Vietnam, shortly before Clancy burst onto the scene, the books that sold and the scripts attracting Hollywood’s attention told a different story. Those inhabiting positions of responsibility in the United States military were either venal careerists or bunglers out of their depth. Those on the front lines were victims or saps. When it came to military-themed accessories, the preferred logo was FTA.

Breach Of Trust

Clancy was among the first to intuit that the antimilitary mood spawned by Vietnam represented an opportunity. The legions who did not find Catch-22 particularly amusing, who were more annoyed than entertained by M*A*S*H, and who classified Jane Fonda as a traitor were hungry to find someone to validate their views — someone who still believed in the red, white, and blue and who still admired those fighting to defend it. Clancy offered himself as that someone.

To be more accurate, Ronald Reagan had already offered himself as that someone. What Clancy did was seize the role of Reagan’s literary doppelgänger — what the Gipper might have become had he chosen writing instead of politics after ending his acting career.

Clancy’s own career took off when President Reagan plugged Red October as “my kind of yarn.” As well he might: Clancy shared Reagan’s worldview. His stories translated that worldview into something that seemed “real” and might actually become real if you believed hard enough. Reagan was famous for transforming the imagined into the actual; despite never having left Hollywood during World War II, he knew, for example, that he had personally witnessed the liberation of Nazi death camps. Similarly, Clancy, who never served in the military, imagined a world of selfless patriots performing feats of derring-do to overcome evil — a world that large numbers of Americans were certain had once existed. More to the point, it was a world they desperately wanted to restore. Clancy, like Reagan, made that restoration seem eminently possible.

Soon after Clancy’s death, the Washington Post published an appreciation entitled “How Tom Clancy Made the Military Cool Again,” written by a couple of self-described Gen-Xer policy wonks. “Clancy’s legacy lives on in the generations he introduced to the military,” they gushed, crediting Clancy with having “created a literary bridge across the civil-military divide.” His “stories helped the rest of society understand and imagine” the world of spooks and soldiers. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who served or aspired to serve found those stories to be especially gratifying. Clancy depicted American soldiers and would-be soldiers precisely as they wished to see themselves.

But any understanding gained by either soldiers or society,whether engaged in Patriot Games or fending off The Sum of All Fears, was illusory, rooted in fantasies that sanitized war and conveyed a false sense of what military service really entails. Instead of bridging the civil-military divide, Clancy papered it over, thereby perpetuating it. By extension, he contributed in no small way to the conditions breeding the misguided and costly military adventurism that has become the signature of U.S. policy.

Clancy did prove to be a figure of consequence. Alas, almost all of those consequences have proven to be pernicious. And there’s no Jack Ryan anywhere in sight to come to our rescue.


About the author

Andrew J. Bacevich is professor of history and international relations at Boston University (retiring in August).

Bacevich graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1969 and served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War, serving in Vietnam from the summer of 1970 to the summer of 1971. Later he held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s. He holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998.

His books:

  1. The Short American Century: A Postmortem — he edited it
  2. The Pentomic Era: The U.S. Army Between Korea and Vietnam (1986)
  3. American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of US Diplomacy (2004)
  4. The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War (2005)
  5. The Long War: A New History of U.S. National Security Policy Since World War II (2007)
  6. The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (2008)
  7. Washington Rules: The American Path to Permanent War (2010)
  8. Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country (2013)

For a links to some of his works see:

Other articles by Bacevich:

Other posts by Andrew Bacevich:

  1. Stop & reflect on this key moment in US history, October 2009
  2. Expanding War, Contracting Meaning, 12 November 2009
  3. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010
  4. Scoring the Global War on Terror – From Liberation to Assassination in Three Quick Rounds, 22 February 2012
  5. Our wars: using the military to do Social Work with Guns, 24 August 2013

About The Baffler (from their About page)

The Baffler, est. 1988, is a printed and digital magazine of art and criticism appearing three times annually — spring, summer, and fall. They’re headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts; distributed by MIT Press.

They’re owned by the tax-deductible Baffler Foundation Inc., which is as charitable as a church, and a whole lot more fun. This foundation means they rely on your donations and subscriptions rather than chasing advertising.

You are invited to click on over to their daily blog.

For More Information

Gary Brecher’s (the War Nerd) review of Tom Clancy’s work, one of the greatest reviews ever: “Tom Clancy Is Not One of Us“, The Exile, 16 May 2002.

All books about geopolitics.

All book and film reviews.

14 thoughts on “Tom Clancy, manufacturer of myths that kept us happy & ignorant”

    1. You are welcome! I really like this post, it is an unfortunate naivety I once fell into and therefor have a great understanding of the difference between how the media paints the military and the reality of it once you get a closer look.

    2. “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”
      Charles Darwin, 1809

      This quote is well recognized in biological evolution circles but, seen from another angle it could be applied to the many aspects of human evolution to include social/government.

      Around 1850 the combustion engine appeared on the scene; 160 years later we hairless monkeys are still blasting our selves around the (and occasionally off) planet with a technology that has perhaps passed it’s prime. Why? Perhaps fear, our mythologies paint an image of reality we feel safe in. We may be able to “blame” many of our current issues on a lack of progressive change. This lack of progressive change is perpetuated by a people who being comfortable with the current image of reality, see no reason to change it. It is unfortunate that myths which once inspired us to an elevation equal to that of the “gods” have been replaced by those seeking to keep us on our knees; eyes cast down.

  1. Pingback: Cryptoquote Spoiler – 07/22/14 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

  2. FM,

    Excellent timing for this post. I have a dog eared copy of “The Limits of Power”. By chance does one of your references of Andrew’s works discuss his thoughts in regards to the less than stellar behaviors revealed in the climate gate emails?

    Thanks, in advance for a specific link;).

    PS I had an interesting discussion last night with a couple of families who emigrated to the US 15 years ago from Eastern Ukraine. They are very happy to be in the USA and are a bit worried about some relatives who would just like to live their lives in peace. Luckily, their relatives are about 100 miles away from the currently contested areas- where the plane came down.

  3. FM,
    Intellectuals always told me that our post-modern world meant the end of metanarratives as a form of national identity, social cohesion, explaining the world, etc. In one sense this idea is wrong because Fox News rolls forward with propagating the myth above (Reagan convervatism, hack novels by Tom Clancy), meta-narrative is alive and well. After all people buy into it, lots of people – so much so that it is difficult to chip away at it and expose it for what it is. I do not know where I heard it but I once heard Bush’s cabinet described as the Mayberry Machiavellis – that has always summed it up for me. They are good at what they do and it is hard to expose them for who they are.

    In another sense the post-modern view is right. America is polarized politically and social cohesion is strung together by niches and tribes. The erection(n.) of American Reagan conservatism is just another tribe; albeit very large, very well organized, very well funded, and with media outlets galore. This seemingly monolith ‘metanarrative’ is pumped up with propaganda and it knows how to seize and maintain power. The response would then be to build up the brand of another tribe and outdo those in power at their own game – though in the process the new regime gets corrupted with the same trappings of the old. Then we rinse and repeat the cycle, each time treading over the constitution and undermining the foundations of important public institutions.

    I strive to go against the stream, toward what I think is more sane and more just. At times these steps seem comically insignificant. But I still move along.
    “Hindsight, of course, has romanticized the Resistance to the Nazi occupations to a glorious episode. The testimonies I heard from those who survived are contrary; they were engaged in exceedingly hard and hapless and apparently hopeless tasks. Why would human beings take [even those] risks?… I believe, that the act of resistance to the power of death incarnate in Nazism was the only means of retaining sanity and conscience… resistance became the only human way to live.”
    – William Stringfellow ‘The Christian in Resistance to Death’ from the book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land

  4. The Bacevich article appeared a while back, but it’s better to get a link to it on your site late than never.

    Seems to me that Clancy did even more damage than the estimable Col. Bacevich (retired) notes. Clancy’s technojingoism set up a veritable flood of similar rah-rah feel-good technothrillers, particularly among blockbuster movies, that capitalized on the cowardly and infantile obsequisousness with which Clancy fellates American hubris. These movies continually assure us that not only are we the wisest and most just and most powerful nation on the planet, as a people Americans are also rich and thin and good looking and really snappy dressers. And what’s more, we deserve it all, because we’re just…so…splendiferous.

    Out here in the real world, three quarters of military recruits get rejected because they can’t pass the physical. Americans are fat uneducated ignorant arrogant bullies and cowards. But in the blockbuster movies since the late 1980s, Americans become a mixture of Einstein and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Your average American can out-muscle any ten scrawny terorrists (True Lies), single-handed crush giant killer aliens (Predator), our President is so fearsome he can single-handedly beat up heavily armed terrorists and hurl them bodily off the presidential plane (Airforce One). Our soldiers are supermen, with minds like supercomputers (TV series Intelligence) and physical prowess beyond that of mortal men, able to climb the world’s tallest skyscraper without breaking a sweat (Mission: Impossible Four). Even our women soldiers can whip any ten foreign devils effortlessly (Haywire, 2012).

    Out here in the real world, of course, one of every three female American soldier gets raped by a fellow soldier. That’s what U.S. soldier’s are good for in the real world. Our women soldiers have to carry K-bars with them when they go to the latrine.

    Out here in the real world, American soldiers can’t win wars against barefoot kids who are armed with bolt-action rifle. But in the movies, aliens with mile-long spaceships crash and burn before our fearsome fighter pilots (Independence Day). In the real world, American generals are far more concerned with the alignment of text on their PowerPoint slides than with the tactics of their battles, and as for grand strategy…there is none. Just requests for more money, please.

    But of course in the fantasy world of Hollywood, every military superweapon that costs trillions works beautifully — and defeats not only human enemies, but superpowered alien invaders as well (The Avengers).

    In the real world, Americans face no threat from anyone. No country has a navy able to threaten us, no nation has any army capable of invading our shores, no nation has made any threats against us except impotent tiny North Korea, a pipsqueak whose cities shut down their electricity at night and whose starving population has been reduced to eating grass. Yet in American movies this tiny impoverished nation invades us with millions of troops and floats ferocious killer paratroopers into our midwestern towns to turn every Bible-belt hamlet into a concentration camp (the remake of Red Dawn, a film so silly its enemy was changed after the film was made because Chinese just weren’t credible as a threat).

    And who do gullible ignorant foolish Americans believe when faced with a choice between headlines in the newspaper and fantasy on movie screens?

    The movie screens, of course.

    Clancy started this vile and detestable propaganda as a crass money-making scam, but now the industry to assuring Americans they’re Masters of the Universe has taken on a hideous life of its own. We now “know” a bunch of things about our military and the world which are true only on movie and TV screens.

    As FM pointed out, America is at war with reality — and we’re losing. Tom Clancy was the commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in that crazy foolish war. He did immeasurable harm to our culture, just like his clay-footed idol, the co-star of Bedtime for Bonzo.

    1. Aaah sigh, as I breath in the fresh air created by the above comment.

      I have on many occasions thought these same things, but never have they crossed my mind with such bitter sweetness.

      I once found myself in a precarious situation with the above mentioned hero’s of America. And in this situation I found myself pinned on my back, by the weight off a “civilian” police officer who was more interested in sweeping certain details of the situation under the rug (at the request of a Lt. Col) then insuring justice was upheld. So there I lay officer in a head lock with my legs as 2nd officer held a gun point blank to my head. Despite being a 5’5″ 125lb woman I some how managed to secure officer 1’s gun which I rapidly aimed at several of America’s hero’s who were at this point seeking cover. In addition to all the wonderful details you have pointed out, I would like to add that several of our brave soldiers could get a gig singing soprano in most any church choir.

      No I didn’t shoot them, A regret I hold to this day!

  5. FWIW, a graphic summarizing polls taken in France, about how the USA, the UK and Russia were respectively ranked, relative to their importance in defeating Germany, over the years :

    The hosting website is an otherwise serious left-of-center “sovereignty” type, in full Putin-worship and Russophilia mode since the Ukrainian crisis broke out (hence the graphic), but the source apparently is the Ipsos, a credible French State agency.
    I just thought that the evolution shown over the years is an amusing yet enlightening anecdoctal tidbit, about the sheer “reality-shaping” ability of the US soft-power.

    As the commenters above alluded to, why bother winning wars in the real world – let’s just say that the US, and Western, record over the last 70 years+ is more cringe-inducing than anything else…-, when you can much more reliably and safely do so, over and over again, in the entertainment realm?

    Works just as well. America may be at war with Reality, and on the losing side, but it reigns supreme on the narratives landscape. Afghans and the like might not care, but they might not be the primary targets.


    [caption id="attachment_70199" align="aligncenter" width="500"]Contribution of US, UK, and USSR in defeating NAZI Germany. Contribution of US, UK, and USSR in defeating NAZI Germany.[/caption]

    1. Ah, and I screwed up, as usual, the graphic numbers source is Ifop, still a credible long-standing private polling agency, equivalent to Gallup, though. That’ll teach me to try and comment.

  6. I can’t really take anyone seriously who subtitles their book “The End of American Exceptionalism” (America has never been exceptional except in the minds of teary-eyed jingoistists and propagandists). Nevermind the title. Sounds like a pop-politico hack trying some simplistic sensationalism to sell some highly generalized “predictions.”

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