Tom Clancy's American Dream

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Tom Clancy's death means that Command Authority, released on December 3, will be the last book for the man who largely invented the military techno-thriller. Clancy generated a seemingly endless stream of material about heroic spies and soldiers making the world safe for democracy with futuristic weaponry and old-fashioned American ingenuity. Around the country, aging conservative men read stories about the adventures of Jack Ryan while their sons curse out other teenagers on Xbox 360 playing Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell.

His impact on American culture was multigenerational. To older Americans, Clancy is best known as the author of the Jack Ryan series of books. The inspiration for this character had to have come from Clancy himself. Raised a bookish Roman Catholic, Tom Clancy volunteered to be an Army officer, but was rejected for service because of poor eyesight. Instead, he became an insurance salesman. Well into middle age, he wrote The Hunt for Red October, introducing the world to his alter ego.

Ryan was a super version of Clancy himself, with all his actual traits magnified. Jack Ryan is a faithful Catholic, a Marine officer, a financial expert who makes millions on Wall Street, and eventually an analyst from the CIA who leaves his desk to kick Communist ass in the field.

As Clancy may have seen himself in Ryan, so did Americans see what they wanted to see in the heroic CIA analyst. No less an authority than Ronald Reagan praised The Hunt for Red October. In future adventures, Ryan would rise to become National Security Adviser, Vice President, and eventually President of the United States. In these books, he would represent a kind of pro-military Reaganite conservatism, where patriots get the job done against America's enemies, with liberals occasionally getting in their way.

Still, even though Jack Ryan fights against a President's illegal war in Clear and Present Danger, there was a militaristic aggression in Ryan's books that appeals to a certain kind of conservative. In Without RemorseJohn Clark murders criminals in American streets and even executes a Senate aide and antiwar activist who betrayed American POWs. President Ryan starts “The Campus,” an off-the-books intelligence agency that has 100 blank signed Presidential Pardons so they can execute the people who need to be executed. When the “United Islamic Republic” hits America with a terrorist attack, President Ryan shuts down transportation in the entire country, even though he has no authority to do so. When he blows up the opposing head of state with a missile, he makes sure it is aired to the entire world as part of his Presidential address.

Reporters are whiny eggheads who don't understand what needs to be done to protect the country; foreigners are always plotting against American interests. Even Ryan's political opponent, the nefarious and immoral “Ed Kealty” seems to bear more than a passing resemblance to the late Ted Kennedy. Interestingly, in Clancy's fictional universe, Russia is a key ally of the United States (it even joins NATO), while China is a dangerous foe. Ryan recognizes the independence of Taiwan. The enemies are Communists, Arab terrorists, and even radical environmentalists. President Ryan even gives us a flat tax.

However, just like Glenn Beck or other “movement” conservatives, Ryan holds to a kind of raceless civil religion of Americanism where the overwhelming majority of Americans of all races are patriots loyal to Freedom, Flag, and Founding Fathers. 

There are still, however, White racists lurking in the shadows. . . . In Executive Orders, racist militia members plot against President Ryan, but are stopped before launching their attack. Ryan's best friend in many of the books (and later his vice-President) is Robby Jackson, a Black Vice-Admiral, who later becomes President in his own right (the first Black President in Clancy’s alternative reality) . . . before being assassinated by a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Incidentally, this is what allows the evil liberal Ed Kealty to become President. Ryan then fantasizes about killing the assassin. This may also be inspired by Clancy's personal life, as his second wife (who remained with him until his death), was Alexandra Marie Llewellyn, daughter of J. Bruce Llewellyn, one of the first Black owners of a Coca-Cola bottling plant.

The problem of course is that even the raceless “Jack Ryan conservatism” is dependent on White privilege and racist cultural assumptions. Why, after all, should the non-White America identify with the history, heroes, heritage, and institutions of a country created by WASP slaveholders? Why not instead transfer loyalty to a global sense of anti-racism or liberal values?

In one of the films based on the Jack Ryan stories, one of his antagonists mocks him, saying, “You are such a Boy Scout!” Today, of course, the Boy Scouts are not a paragon of morality and straight-laced living, but a borderline hate group. More poignantly, when Ryan finally brings Captain Marko Ramius to America, Ramius quotes the words of Christopher Columbus, “The sea will grant each man new hope, the sleep brings dreams of home.” Ryan smiles and says, “Welcome to the New World, sir.” Certainly, one could never positively identify The Admiral of the Ocean Sea with America now, in the age of Indigenous People's Day and mandated mourning that Europeans made it to America.

Rather than a symbol of the old America, Clancy's legacy lives on in two ways. First, there is a new generation of techno-thrillers written by authors like Brad Thor. These continue to perpetuate an image of America serving as a “Global Force for Good” in a dangerous world.

Secondly, and more importantly, Clancy lives on in the wave of video games and cultural appropriation of military lingo in pop culture, especially through his Splinter Cell series. Even as the military becomes ever more remote from the lives of most Americans, millions (of all political persuasions) sit on the couch to blast away and play soldier from the comfort of their own home. As Call of Duty: Black Ops puts it, there's a soldier in all of us.

As America's legions bomb all around the globe and her soldiers and Marines continue to die in the field for seemingly unknown purposes, American culture has grown more militaristic (just look at our police). However, this militarism is divorced from a sense of national identity, culture, or even pride. It is militarism for militarism’s sake. You can even fantasize about being an “operative” in your new “Brad Thor Alpha Jacket.” In both the new techno-thrillers and the fantasies of Generation Kill, American power is strangely disconnected from anything resembling an actually existing American nation. Instead, we're just a big collection of Diversity living in the same place, united by terrifying weapons.

In The Hunt for Red October, a Soviet officer speaks hopefully about the possibilities of living in Montana, where he can raise rabbits, get an American wife to cook them for him, and drive around the country with “no papers” in a “pickup truck.” He also hopes he can live in Arizona in winter.

It's probably better Captain 2nd Rank Vasily Borodin is killed before he makes it to America. The Department of Agriculture's armed response team would raid his farm and demand paperwork for the rabbits; his American wife would divorce him after attending a Gender Studies class; he'd be inspected by the TSA driving around the country; and if he rediscovered Orthodoxy in Montana, the SPLC (or the Army) would do a report on him as a homophobic religious extremist. If he fled to Arizona, he'd be murdered on his ranch by illegals—unless he defended himself, in which case the Southern Poverty Law Center would confiscate his farm.

Tom Clancy's books hearken back to the Indian summer of the historic American nation in the 1980s, when patriots imagined they battled godless Communists in a fight for the free world. But they also point the new to the grim reality—that the American government is warring against the American nation, that our technologically advanced military is defending an empty shell, and in the end, maybe we lost the Cold War after all.