The passing of Tom Clancy at age 66 is an opportunity not only to mark his legacy as a prolific and successful writer, but also to recall how the views he propagated on American history and military doctrine fostered myths that ultimately undermined the security of the country he loved.
Entire generations of Americans, this diarist included, grew up reading Tom Clancy. It is difficult to underestimate the impact his work had on the American popular imagination. Add to that the line of mostly successful movies spawned by his books and he is truly worthy of remembrance. His passing, at age 66, was shockingly soon and to his family and friends we should offer our condolences.
Clancy was well-known for his outspoken views as a political conservative. I am sure he parted company with some of his readers on that score. But it is not necessarily a bar to being a successfully received writer. Many writers personal views are at odds with their readers, but they remain valued as cultural artists nonetheless. Clancy's success as a writer speaks for itself.
However, that does not mean we can - or should - ignore problematic aspects of his legacy. Two in particular must suggest themselves to any progressive.
First was of course Clancy's promotion of the idea that US spending on the military industrial complex, particularly under Ronald Reagan, was the reason the USA "won" the Cold War (leaving aside whether anyone actually "won" that decades-long impasse). This idea wasn't originally Clancy's of course - the notion that the "Reagan Buildup" spent the Soviets under is central to the American Conservative mythos. It is also untrue.
The massive US military industrial complex wasn't created in a day. In fact, if one was to note a birthday, it probably was during the 19th Century American Civil War, where Abraham Lincoln was our first President to truly unleash and harness American industrial potential and marry it to conscription to create one of the world's largest and most deadly armies. The US used that machine to submerge the Confederacy but then it was largely demobilized. The US military machine, however, and particularly its naval component, remained in framework and theory, at the least. It was fully mobilized again, briefly in 1898-1900, then fully in WW1 and WW2, under Democratic Presidents. Each time it was drawn down, like a rising tide, it left another layer of industrial sectors that had known plenty under its demands and which hungered for more. The Cold War was its apotheosis, as the US endured - and was changed forever by - one of the longest peacetime mass mobilizations in our history. By the end of the 1950's, things had reached a point where America's greatest living military hero, Dwight Eisenhower, felt compelled in his farewell speech as President to warn against the warping impact of this military industrial complex on American democracy.
When Reagan took office in 1980, he inherited this machine built over these decades. Its tendrils were vast, reaching into every congressional district, and its champions were bipartisan. The "Reagan Buildup" in actuality was incremental at best - the equivalent of a man tweaking a race car to get a few more MPH. And it came at cost to important domestic needs. Reagan stood as the anti-Eisenhower in this regard. And Clancy was his prophet.
But was the feast Reagan laid on for defense contractors the hammer blow that buried the Soviet Union? This is a crucial issue, for it underpins American Conservative myths on American security, as crucial in its way as the "Yalta Surrender" and "Who Lost China?" myths.
By the time Reagan took office, the Soviet Union was mired in Afghanistan, which it had invaded during Jimmy Carter's Presidency (in fact, initial US military assistance to the "mujahideen" resistance was signed off on not by Reagan, but by Carter, but we will leave aside the baleful blowback from that for another discussion). The Soviet imperial system itself was under stress due to its inefficiencies, bureaucratic torpor, centralization and corruption. The moment met its man when Mikhail Gorbachev assumed post as General Secretary. He set in motion what he thought would be measured and controllable reforms that would preserve the Soviet system. But it was too late and, ironically, as Lenin might say, the internal contradictions were too great.
Matching US military might was doubtless a strain on the Soviets. But it was a strain that in many ways kept the old system going longer than it might have. Just as in the USA, Soviet hardliners used their defense budget to amass power and defeat attempts to diversify the economy. But most historians now agree Soviet military spending was not the cause of the breakup. It was the conjunction of a reform effort that spun out of control with a recognition that the system itself did not function.
Tom Clancy, by popularizing the myth of the "Reagan Buildup that Won the Cold War," served the purposes of the US defense industrial base and its Congressional enablers. It not only left in place and empowered the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned against, it painted it as a hero. Clancy did this not only through his statements but also by the way he wove military and intelligence high tech into his novels.
Which brings us to the second point, which is how Clancy skewed American imaginations as to the impact technology can have in asserting power.
There is no doubt that not only do the big battalions win wars, but the best-armed and trained ones as well. American military tradition is heavily influenced by the fact of America's relative wealth and industrial prowess. Just as Germany's early 20th century lightning war strategic doctrines were an outcome of their geographic fear of a two-front war, American military doctrine was an outgrowth of our historical experiences. For us, the American Civil War was the first time we fully married industry and army. Deployment of massive firepower was the direct consequence of our ability to supply the needed weapons and ammunition from our factories and mines. In WW2, German Generals bemoaned how helpless they were to fight against the USA's "rich man's war" where American guns fired ten shells to their one.
But the US over-reliance on massive firepower and technology could also be a trap when it began to substitute itself for wise policy. Early indications were during the Philippine war of 1898-1900, where we mired ourselves in a needless and brutal guerrilla war against Filipino nationalism. By Korea, 1950-1953, the signs were there - the US, fighting with allies under a UN flag, could manage no better than a stalemate against DPRK and PRC forces that were vastly our inferior in terms of weapons systems. We drew near, but blessedly did not cross, the nuclear line in our frustration. There was a limit to what the military industrial complex could achieve where, as in Korea, it came up against a mismatch of what the US was willing to suffer and spend to achieve even limited goals. This is not to say Korea was not a war that should not have been fought. But it should have been a warning that America's leaders were not being forthright with the American people as to what the real costs would be from such conflicts, especially when it came to upholding rickety and unpopular regimes.
Vietnam should have been the ultimate lesson. Misled by Domino theories and spurning early opportunities to negotiate with Vietnamese nationalism under Ho Chi Minh (as we had spurned opportunities to work with Mao Tse Tung) the US spent blood and treasure for over a decade in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to maintain a corrupt South Vietnamese Government. The Vietnam War was the apotheosis of high tech war as McNamara's smart lads labored over computer graphs and charts, deploying fleets of aircraft and powerful munitions against a capable but outgunned foe. High tech could not fill in the blanks left by our misunderstandings, however, and a few years after we left Saigon fell.
The myth died hard however. Vietnam spawned the American Conservative fable of the "liberal stab in the back" where we "doomed the South Vietnamese by cutting off their aid." This fable was daughter to the "Who Lost China?" myth where we supposedly could have saved Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Chinese. Central to this notion is the idea that delivery of military hardware and technology can overcome weak local political will and incompetence. Of course, this myth is beloved by defense contractors, since it plays into their strengths of making more guns and bombs and shipping them overseas.
Enter Tom Clancy and his writings. In book after book, the military hardware plays a starring role. Described in minute detail to the point where it would spawn parodies of his writing, Clancy was a fan of the notion that if we just put the right gizmos in the hands of the right strong-jawed warrior, America could cut through all these complexities of policy by just "taking out the bad guys." The gizmos always seemed to work and to work when you needed them most.
I recall having misgivings early on as I read his books. A cousin had served in the Navy during the first Gulf War and came back with stories about how a number of key ship systems were always broken or under repair. Over the years, as I studied more of the history, you realize that military technology is like any other - subject to the over promises of its creators/sellers and no substitute for wise policy.
Donald Rumsfeld took things to their nth degree with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This US army, unlike the conscripted Vietnam era horde, was to be a lean volunteer force equipped with technology that would enable fewer to do more. In a strict military sense, this wasn't even true, as US military dissenters at the time such as General Shinseki made evident. But faith in superior technology and training - a faith at the heart of the Tom Clancy story-telling - was sold to the American people as a way to overcome misgivings as to the wisdom and purpose of fighting the war in the first place. We know the rest. It didn't quite work out that way.
Tom Clancy was an entertaining story-teller. Unfortunately, his books lionized a military industrial complex whose creation and deployment has helped enmesh the USA in a string of unnecessary conflicts and arguably warped the very essence of American democracy.
Not all these conflicts were avoidable nor were all unjust in all particulars. But Clancy's Gee-Whiz attitude towards military gadgets served mainly the purposes of his defense contractor fans, not the American people. His notion of "Reagan spending the Commies under" reinforced one of the most baleful legacies of the Cold War, which is the notion that massive spending on high tech weapons must continue into the foreseeable future. It is a notion whose internal logic warps and replaces sound policy.
Ultimately, it makes the American people less secure. We end up with the most advanced military forces on the planet but collapsing bridges and potholed roads back home. We implant the equivalent of American shopping malls into the Afghan and Iraqi plains, but can't seem to find the wherewithal to fund programs back home for infant formula or early childhood education.
We also shortchange what many regard as what makes America truly distinctive. Not our weapons, but our long commitment to human and civil rights for all. Imperfect as we have been in achieving this, it remains our aspiration and there have always been Americans engaged in that struggle.
Martin Luther King, Jr. deserves to be championed more than old Dutch.
It's a shame Clancy didn't use his considerable talents to write that book.