Tom Clancy’s premature death is rich in unfortunate symbolism, because the U.S. armed forces, whose renaissance he celebrated in the 1980s and beyond, may be heading back to the “hollow,” pre-Clancy days of the 1970s. Although he kept writing up until the end, and continued to sell scads of books and video games, Clancy is mostly associated with the Reagan years, and for good reason. He was part of a pop culture outpouring, which also included the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun and Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge, that marked an inflection point in American attitudes towards the military.
Largely gone were the antiwar depictions common in MASH (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) and in books such as Born on the Fourth of July (1976) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). One of the last gasps of this mindset was Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon, which depicts soldiers shooting Vietnamese civilians and even each other.
There was a kernel of reality in these harsh depictions. The armed forces in the 1970s were a mess. Drug use, racial tensions, alcoholism, and other problems were rife. After the end of the draft in 1973, the military had a hard time making the transition to an all-volunteer force. The problems were symbolized by the disastrous mission to rescue the hostages in Iran, which ended with a fiery aircraft accident at an improvised landing strip codenamed “Desert One.” In 1980 the army chief of staff, General Edward “Shy” Meyer, warned: “Basically what we have is a hollow army.”
Ronald Reagan and his first defense secretary, Caspar Weinberger, building on work begun under Jimmy Carter’s underrated defense secretary Harold Brown, revitalized the American armed forces and made them stronger than ever. New weapons systems were introduced—F-15, F-16, and F-18 fighters, F-117 and B-2 stealth aircraft, AWACS and JSTARS surveillance aircraft, Abrams tanks and Bradley armored personnel carriers, Blackhawk and Apache helicopters. So too were new personnel. Drug use declined because of widespread drug testing, while the quality of recruits increased. By 1990, 97 percent of incoming soldiers were high school graduates.
This new competence—displayed on a small scale in the invasions of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989 and on a much bigger scale in the 1991-92 Gulf war—made the American people proud of their military again. Vietnam-era depictions of druggies and psychos in uniform gave way to a new archetype of professional, dedicated, patriotic warriors.
Tom Clancy was smart enough to sense this new attitude and to lead it further in a positive direction, beginning with his well-researched 1984 thriller The Hunt for Red October, the first novel ever published by the Naval Institute Press. Its verisimilitude was widely praised even though its author, then still an insurance agent in Maryland, had never served in any branch of the armed forces.
This was followed by Red Storm Rising (1986), Patriot Games (1987), The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988), Clear and Present Danger (1989), and a slew of hot sellers to come. There were an astonishing 17 No. 1 New York Times bestsellers in all, the most recent of which, Threat Vector, came out less than a year ago. Several of his novels were turned into popular movies that made Clancy’s hero, swashbuckling CIA operative Jack Ryan, almost as familiar as James Bond, though much, much squarer—no skirt-chasing, no drinking, no gambling.
Critics sniffed; readers loved it.
A New York Times review of Red Storm Rising, by a self-identified socialist professor named Robert Lekachman, expressed the (understandable) horror of highbrows at Clancy’s writing: “His characterizations are on a Victorian boys’ book level. All the Americans are paragons of courage, endurance and devotion to service and country. Their officers are uniformly competent and occasionally inspired. Men of all ranks are faithful husbands and devoted fathers.” Moreover: “There is particularly good news here for Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. With exceedingly minor exceptions, American technology works—spy satellites, Stealth aircraft, advanced tanks and sonar, the lot.” But even Lekachman, author of Visions and Nightmares: America After Reagan, had to concede the book was a “rattling good yarn,” nearly the same words that Ronald Reagan used to praise The Hunt for Red October.
One suspects that his glowing depiction of the U.S. armed forces—combined, of course, with a thriller writer’s ability to keep the pages turning—was the essence of Tom Clancy’s appeal. He produced the fictional version of the real-life Reagan defense buildup.
Naturally, reality and make-believe blurred, so that before long Clancy was producing nonfiction accounts of various corners of the military, such as Airborne (about the 82nd Airborne Division and an obscure colonel named David Petraeus), Armored Cav, Carrier, Submarine, and so forth. Some of his nonfiction books were written in cooperation with retired generals Fred Franks, Chuck Horner, Carl Stiner, and Anthony Zinni, who were happy to share a byline with someone who had become much more famous than they were and whose very name could guarantee mega-sales. Military personnel loved Clancy’s work; indeed, many testified that he helped to get them interested in military service in the first place.
Unfortunately, the military buildup that Clancy championed started to be undone after the end of the Cold War and the Gulf war, when force levels were cut by a third. Now even more draconian cuts are under way, totaling a trillion dollars over the next decade. Sequestration and the budget showdown are forcing ships not to sail, aircraft not to fly, and troops not to train. If this trend continues unabated—and odds are it will—we risk a return to a hollow military. Tom Clancy will be spared watching the military he loved at risk of being dismantled, but the rest of us will have to live with the dire consequences.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.