A Hunt for Patriots

Revisiting 'The Hunt for Red October' and 'Patriot Games' by Tom Clancy

September 9, 2017

For all of Tom Clancy's obvious labor to ground his Jack Ryan novels in fact, there is something perfectly ideal about them. The Hunt for Red October (1984) and Patriot Games (1987) are products of "Morning in America." So, for a first-time reader born on the cusp of 1995 and who became politically aware on September 11, 2001, these novels are pictures of a society that seems to have looked at America with complete confidence—works of such patriotism that intellectuals today would greet them as farce (as intellectuals did when they were first published). They are also terrific thrillers.

The Hunt for Red October, Clancy's debut novel, exhibits faith in systems. As a character puts it, thinking about a naval operation: "It assumed that everything would work, a happy state of affairs found only in fiction." Good thing for all involved it is fiction. Characters are full of pat observations like that one; Clancy seems aware of his inelegance as a writer and too embarrassed to commit to his authorial voice, especially in this first book. He inserts his thoughts and flourishes into the improbably rich inner lives of even the most hastily sketched peripheral characters. In the novel's opening paragraphs Marko Ramius, the titular Soviet missile sub's skipper played by Sean Connery in the 1990 movie, compares an oil-stained fjord to the "bath of a slovenly giant" and then goes on in the next sentence to judge his observation "an altogether apt simile."

Clancy's other inescapable tick, one I was made aware of at some point long before reading The Hunt for Red October, is an indulgent exultation in his research. The man did his homework and is proud of it, and will hang it up on the fridge himself thank you very much. His descriptions of military equipment and procedures, Soviet or American or British, are impressive and exhaustive in turns. He has checked on all of it; apparently Soviet girly mags were lame. Everything is always spelled out: "There was a small bathroom—head, he corrected himself—adjoining the cabin."

What points Clancy loses for clumsy writing he earns back with bonuses for plot construction. The Hunt for Red October really is thrilling, its tension sustained by twists and turns that never threaten to untie suspended disbelief. Perhaps betraying some of the paranoia of the War on Terror era, I found the idea a president would not be convinced by the brass to simply make an enemy submarine crew "disappear" the most difficult plot point to buy. That does, however, typify the trust in the political order Clancy puts on proud display. Red October in particular is a story of the system working, of playing by the rules or breaking them in predictable and essentially licit ways. Ramius and his officers wish to defect to the United States for personal and ideological reasons never-explained because of course they desire a freedom only found in America. Dr. Jack Ryan, sometime history professor at the Naval Academy and sometime CIA analyst, is going to make that possible. But he's not alone—the entire U.S. federal executive branch, from the president to military nurses, is here to help.

The Hunt for Red October is not just a celebration of systems working, but really of The System. The phrase Military Industrial Complex is never used here, but if it were it wouldn't be pejorative. Clancy loves the military. The whole range of Naval equipment and weaponry on display throughout Red October is undeniably cool. But more than cool, it feels right, the way things are supposed to work: reliably. Today, naval accidents kill more sailors than combat. Clancy makes a concession for that kind of tragedy—a plane goes down in a storm—but mostly in his world either the tech works or the sailors can make do. Even when things go wrong, things get fixed basically by the book.

This confidence in the cogs of the state's ever-turning gears is what makes Red October so interesting as a thriller. While mystery novels, as W.H. Auden observed in a Harper's essay on the subject, are built on a "dialectic of innocence and guilt" found in restoring order to disordered community through justice for a victim, and so they are fundamentally social stories, thrillers are usually a celebration of the heroic individual resisting shadowy conspiracy. The Bourne Identity and Robert Ludlum's other books are quintessential examples of this, the singular hero foiling inhuman bureaucratic designs. The courage and virtues of the protagonist give his actions significance despite the power and malevolence of the structures controlling his world.

Jack Ryan is no Jason Bourne, and in these books Clancy is not worried about the machinations of secret cabals, in or out of the United States federal government. Clancy believes in the system and Ryan is just a part of it. Ryan is competent, but not extraordinarily so. He went through Quantico, earned his Ph.D., made his money on good investments, all things other people do and have done. He has impressive but normal credentials—is a relatable member of the meritocratic elite. In fact, Clancy puts a lot of effort into convincing us Ryan is a regular guy: He smokes even though his wife, whom he's always red-bloodedly amorous toward, will give him hell for it; he's deathly afraid of flying; he doesn't think he's all that handsome; he is casually Catholic and Irish, but above both American; he cooks a mean steak.

And Ryan, while always in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time to keep things exciting, doesn't work alone. He is a reluctant spook, "just an analyst" and just sometimes, and always part of a team. The only government conspiracy in these novels is national security officials' efforts to convince Ryan to go full-time without ever resorting to giving him an offer he actually can't refuse.

In Patriot Games Clancy introduces readers and Ryan to the Troubles and Irish terrorism, and of the two books this is the more explicitly political. Liberal society, modern civilization itself, is under attack by criminal thugs whom Clancy depicts with little psychological depth. In fact, Ryan meditates for paragraphs on his own conscience, illustrated in both books by vomitous and nightmare reactions to violence and killing, in contrast to the conscienceless criminal elements he is up against. He, and the people he works with, are the upholders of order.

Clancy's presentation of the Central Intelligence Agency is another glaring contrast of a black and white then with a now that too often feels oppressively gray. CIA agents, analysts, and leadership are presented as apolitical moderates, technocratic guardians of the Constitution and a perfectly satisfactory status quo. Ryan, whose vaguely suggested politics are an American mainstream with nods to large families and the Second Amendment, is described as thinking of his bland political posture as more immoderate than those of his CIA colleagues. Half resisting the call to assimilation from the agency and applying the fresh perspective of an historian, he is as maverick as they come, with all the unbranded-yearling independence of Sen. McCain, comfortably kicking well within the established norms. When the French, with whom the U.S. and Brits are cooperating, execute Action Directe guerillas after a secret trial, Clancy reminds us of his commitment to proceduralism as Ryan reflects, "at least the formality of law had been observed, and that was one of the things 'civilization' meant."

Even while celebrating technocratic managerialism, Clancy seemingly can't help acknowledging the weak link in the chain binding everything together. He describes Ryan wondering what it would take for Americans to actually hear the terrorists' message: "America was a society of things, he thought. What if those things stopped working?" In 1987, Clancy and the country had already survived and left behind the violence and cultural upheaval of the '60s and '70s, and in his optimism there is no indication or idea or expectation of a world like ours today, a post-9/11, post-Great Recession, post-Snowden America mired in race and class divide, epistemic muck, and war on terror—an America that would elect Donald Trump. It is difficult to imagine how the Clancy of Patriot Games would process America's opioid crisis, or what the author of Red October would make of the psychic and economic cost of technology as it envelops more and more of all our lives.

The self-assurance of Jack Ryan's meditations on the proceduralist and materialist bureaucratic order of which he is part is a revelation for a reader to whom American leadership and stability have never seemed guaranteed. Today the American idea and the American ideal are not just contested, but dismissed out of hand by voices on the left and the right. In Clancy's America, it's not a conversation we need to have; America is what it is, and what it is is better and more beautiful and more worth believing in than anything else. The Hunt for Red October contains Bolshevik true believers, but it hinges on Soviet cynicism and elite disillusionment with Marxism-Leninism.

And so, although Jack Ryan, Ph.D. and reluctant spy, is Clancy's hero for a moment alien to our own, he exhibits the virtues needed today, when Marxists, fascists, and political Islam, faced with the "prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history," are eager to start it up again, and when America seems to have lost its way. Francis Fukuyama lamented the passing of world-historical man's heroism—his "daring, courage, imagination, and idealism." Somehow in a post-ideological Jack Ryan, Tom Clancy makes that heroism manifest. Ryan stumbles from crisis to crisis, doing his best, protecting his family and those around him, being competent. In a time when trust in the system, the institutions and agencies and programs that make up the American security apparatus, seems naive, even laughable, the idea of a Jack Ryan as a cog in that immense machine is deeply comforting. Here in Ryan is all anyone can do: Take responsibility for yourself, for your neighbor, and whatever power you have been given.

Can Jack Ryan and Jack Ryan's America exist outside the pages of Tom Clancy's novels? Is it possible or advisable now to again have such confidence in the country and its establishment? Whether the optimism of the '80s produced Clancy's or whether people like Clancy produced the optimism of the '80s I leave to historians, but it seems clear in a present hunting for security that no shared ideal for America will be rediscovered without such persons—hopeful patriots who believe we are better than we know—drawing what may be both map and portrait.

Published under: Book reviews