It really arrived in November with the witches who shriek across the Great Lakes, scoring the gunmetal surface with their nails, and with the percussive thwack, pause, pumpf that accompanies the heavier hitting of late autumn days—the savage melody of conference play in college football.
It arrived as stars and stripes. The flag, our flag, which causes grown men to cry, at first glance seemed nearly distressed—in the design/fashion/aesthetic sense. The flag seemed less national emblem than something closer to its camo cousins, those screamingly alive too, inherently obvious to the eye—an existence either ironic or stupid or perhaps both (but one that ends up being neither, really, once one understands its intent). Screamingly obvious even when not rendered in school colors—dandelion and chocolate, anyone?
The Jackson Pollocking or digital pixilating ran up and down flanks, wrapped thighs, filled in logos, comprised whole fucking jerseys. It struck one as camouflage suffering an existential crisis, camouflage meant to be seen.
The camo seemed a most paradoxical, obviously unhealthy manifestation of an obsession with military strength…and perhaps the most absurd expression of a desire for Mars to cast his glance and smile upon the rest of us, those of us not directly engaged in his terrible trade yet still so enamored and supportive and thankful for others willing to fling themselves into the God of War’s machinations.
The rest of us salute, perhaps, those others who avail themselves alone to the fanged and cunning realm of the most robust military-industrial complex civilization has ever known, a salute exemplified in camo jerseys, in sport-as-war metaphors like football, in Nike ProCombat…and made manifest in Tom Clancy, our martial Shakespeare, our para-literary God of War, our poet laureate of Pistol Patriotism, may he rest in peace.
Imagine, if you will, a celebrant or participant or simply existing being in a public space exercising his or her 2nd Amendment rights in that most obvious of ways—the open carry. No matter how congenial the person, how unthreatening or familiar, perched upon that joe’s iliac crest rides a brown recluse, a Browning recluse, whose bite devours flesh.
Pistol Patriotism, our deep love for country and its muscle, seems benign yet surely signifies how, with minimal effort, proceedings could escalate. Implements of war…currently shrouded in pomp & circumstance, in teary-eyed, hard-on’d, flag-waving, slightly-distasteful-in-its-sloppyness-yet-inherently-chaste-and-honestly-honorific-and-thankful patriotic love…can quickly tack towards Mars, standards unfurled before cavalry instead of cheerleaders.
If it seems we have been teetering close to this callous edge, with regard to the proper reverence for the people and trapping of war, it is because we have, ever since 9/11 coated our hearts in blood and tears and anger and ash.
But now, 12 years after? We find pushback. Public sentiment seemed sour when Northwestern and Under Armor appeared to wave the bloody shirt in that recent football game when the team appeared in American-flag-themed jerseys.
Noted uniform journalist and ESPN columnist Paul Lukas decried the commercialization…the appropriation of conflict…and gave it the portmanteau title of “G.I. Joevember.” The Associated Press went to veterans themselves; many found the supposed “honor” in children playing soldier (and others profiting from it) to be, at best, well-meaning but hollow…at worst, disgraceful, pompous, blindly arrogant.
Right before all this happened, Tom Clancy died.
Command Authority, a posthumous Clancy release written in conjunction with Mark Greaney, opens with four pages of dramatis personae (the ever-populist Clancy prefaces them “principal characters”). It’s a pretty handy reflection of the excess inherent with war. With subtitle breakdowns—“United States Government,” “The British,” “The Russians/ The Ukrainians,” “Other Characters”—we also sense the ability of any conflict (or, indeed, any thing) to now almost instantaneously register at any place on the globe.
If those seem to be pretty heavy allegories for a list of characters to heft, understand that Command Authority, and Clancy’s whole oeuvre—really, his whole media empire—stands apart as our most erudite articulation of Pistol Patriotism. Clancy built a kingdom upon the timeless, if sophomoric, ideal: Good Guys win. Bad Guys lose.
What separated Clancy from the throngs of similar black/white authors? He availed himself to the legion shades of gray between the poles. He did not utilize these with the grace of, say, Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, or of Donald Westlake or Raymond Chandler or even Edgar Allen Poe. Instead, Clancy gave grays in the haze of battleship flanks and the wailing wings of MiGs, armament bejeweled with lights and diodes and besotted with technological advancement, shrouded in clandestine climes. Red tape turned invisible in the miasma, and Clancy characters, those dramatis personae of his chess set, moved about in the gray. Meanwhile, his most famous white king, CIA analyst-cum-POTUS Jack Ryan, ruled them.
Clancy’s Ryan shows himself, time and time again, to be the archetypical Man of Action, with a somewhat unique—at the time of his invention—caveat: he proved equally adept, if not more so…yes, definitely more so…with his mind as with his body.
Ryan’s Marine Corps career ended splayed across the jagged rocks of Crete like torn ribbon, his spine shattered. He rebounded, landing at Merrill Lynch and amassing quite the personal fortune. He acquired his doctorate, spent some time strolling the halls and minds of Annapolis, finally returned to serve his country as a CIA analyst…perhaps the most field-acquainted analyst in the agency’s history.
That Ryan brings to bear his keen mind to proceedings often, and with import, plays to Clancy’s strengths—the meticulous research, the piecing-together of considerable swaths of the defense industry, the literary analysis, really—and to the most enduring and narcotic aspects of the genre he practically founded, the “military techno-thriller,” as NPR critic Alan Cheuse dubbed it.
The stories most always alighted out there, on the very bleeding edge, pushing the envelopes of technology and current politics, and always seeming vaguely, stupidly possible for it, quite the feat for an author so prolific and whose work is deemed fertile ground for video games.
The video game empire Clancy spawned can only be viewed as amazing, utterly unique for an author outside the realms of fantasy and science fiction. Jack Ryan and his compatriots, his foils, his son, all in his world, read as nothing if not video game characters. The rich-yet-condensed soup-broth backstories could be surgically excised and strung about as video scenes just fine. No Billy Pilgrims live here; every soldier and spy arrives dangerously capable, and they don’t have an optometry practice or fat wives or daughters with legs like an Edwardian piano’s. No lives go on beyond their chess board.
All this suits the military techno-thriller just fine, thank you; Command Authority alone hops from the White House to London to Kiev to Cold War-era, bifurcated Berlin to Switzerland to Siberian gulag to Antigua to the Crimea. The hyperactive plotting conflates—wonderfully, mind you—financial analytics, of the surprisingly exciting “The Hunt for Steve Cohen”-esque kind, with intelligence and action, assaying lightly on the techno aspects, leaning harder on the thriller. The whole thing would most likely collapse upon itself with some real heavy character development…but we don’t have to worry about that.
Command Authority opens this way:
“The flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics flew high above the Kremlin in a rain shower, a red-and-gold banner waving under a gray sky.”
For those who tack towards the literary, this will sound terribly clunky, but to those who remember the opening to The Hunt For Red October (“Captain First Rank Marko Ramius of the Soviet Navy was dressed for the Arctic conditions normal to the Northern Fleet submarine base at Polyarnyy.”), the lead serves as a glorious hewing to form.
Beneath that shorthand banner, two principal actors set in motion a decades-in-the-unwinding plot. This involves the prescient siphoning of KGB funds ahead of the Iron Curtain’s fall in the late ‘80s. From here the narrative splits into two separate segments, intertwining like a Caduceus.
Leaping ahead to the present day:
In the east, a bellicose Russian president with ties to the USSR’s intelligence agencies begins rousing his bear, setting off tensions in Kiev between Russian loyalists and Ukrainian nationalists. (Does this seem vaguely topical right about now?) The Russian leader goes so far as to invade Estonia (as our Russia did Georgia in 2008) as part of an effort to destabilize NATO and enhance an Eastern alternative.
The white hats beat back this Estonian advance, of course, but Clancy merely wishes to whet appetites before the real action starts in Ukraine. In these arenas, action reigns supreme. Regular armies and CIA operatives and off-the-books US assets and Russian gangsters all battle it out, with radio-controlled RC-car GPS tracker-delivery systems, state-of-the-art tanks, and a myriad of laser-loosing, Hellfire-firing, saber-spinning helicopters.
In Washington, D.C., an old friend formerly at the KGB speaks out against the current regime. He visits President Ryan, but then is assassinated in a moderately novel way. (This is the staff of the Caduceus.)
In London, Jack Ryan, Jr. takes his covert ops-honed analytical skills to the private sector, untangling the numerous shell companies, numbered accounts, offshore banking havens, and other rabbit holes that constitute the blacker sides of the global financial market. He lands on a case involving the seizure of a Scots oil magnate’s company by a Russian firm with ties to the government…and, of course, the aforementioned bear-prodding president.
Ryan Jr. follows the trail of blood money. It links the assassinations, invasions, and numerous other plot details not listed here, and all the action and intrigue seamlessly converge when Ryan, Jr. and a Gulag-galvanized, extensively inked, improbably secret British wet-work agent battle vory controlled goons in a manner worthy of Jason Bourne. Everything seems to synch with one goon’s neck run across a broken window pane—an exquisite moment, in its Beautiful Violence, easily the most jarring part of the book.
If all that seems rather convoluted and confusing, more like a wriggling ball of baby snakes than a Caduceus, that’s because it would be…were Clancy not writing it.
The real genius to these books, what made them vessels of Pistol Patriotism rather than vassals of jingoism, came in Clancy’s ability to streamline multifaceted hydra-beast plots to keep them from snarling stupidity. Command Authority reads like a screenplay, sometimes almost literally. Jack Ryan’s first mention in each chapter seems to always involve a title, CIA analyst Jack Ryan, President Jack Ryan—a not-passing similarity to the cap-locked names above dialogue. Then we have that Soviet flag flapping against the gunmetal sky…the description begins to sound an awful lot like a slug line. Then you get the odd, exceedingly clunky patch of dialogue, etc.
None of it really matters. Clancy did not write novels beholden to such quaint ideas as rich, textured settings…unless the textures come from bullet holes or lie on furrowed brows.
If this sounds like a criticism, think again. Cinematic writing may generally connote a certain sense of shallowness with regard to dramatis personae, but it also serves as a most high complement for action set pieces. These appear here almost always first prophesied with a neat little map, the better to orient the mind’s eye with one of those 69-ing pistol-hand viewfinders.
Cinematic decisions in these action scenes—a man impaled, Transylvania-style, on a shard of glass, rather than a cliched defenestration—make all the difference in the world. So does the cinematic detail in the raiding of a penthouse suite at a hotel that positively swarms with prodigiously inked Russian gangsters. The scene vibrates with the kind of easy-to-follow, clear verve you might get by jolting one hand on the male contacts of a not-fully-post-coital power plug.
Clancy readers live for the moments the hand drops to the gun, the eye draws a bead on the bad guy, and the shooter calmly, smoothly, even surgically, places two in the heart and one between the eyes. That, my friend, comes as close to orgasm as your average Pistol Patriot will ever get in the pages of a book.
Let it not be said that Command Authority does not also appeal to our higher aspects. Once again, Jack Ryan proves a man of sharp aim but also keen mind. After all the raids, the recce, the non-Billy Pilgrim time travel, all of it, in the end, hinges on a phone call, one nation’s leader to another’s. Clancy lofted, in his final tome, once and for all, diplomacy above combat. In those last few minutes, Clancy proved he could write a plain thriller too, no modifiers like “techno” or “military” needed.
In the NPR epitaph, Cheuse dubs Clancy “Faulkner in a flak jacket.” It’s catchy, but it can and should be read as the kind of hyperbole that nearly always appears as the beatific patina coating the obituaries of cultural titans.
Faulkner? A bit much. A more fair comparison seems some kind of amalgamation of Arthur Conan Doyle, Poe and Ian Fleming…with the caveat that Clancy’s reach into the very things he most writes like—movies, video games—sets him on a genre-hopping popular plane perhaps only previously manned by Fleming and Michael Crichton.
None of it matters, anyway. Clancy’s CIA analyst will live forever, with or without his creator, just as Sherlock Holmes and James Bond did…and just as surely as yellow ribbons stick to tailgates, a national anthem draws tears and football coaches in spartan locker rooms before games address their young “warriors.”
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, critic, essayist, and political commentator based in Chicago. His work has been seen in The Atlantic, Salon, Sports on Earth, VICE, The Classical, and numerous other publications. He is also a book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News. You can follow him on Twitter, @BdavidZarley or at bdavidzarley.com.