I’ve never raised the subject with Tom Clancy, but I wager that he shares my amusement that “literary novelists” scoff at him as a hack whose characters are composed of cardboard and whose dialogue is “inane,” to borrow a word from a reviewer across town who did not like his latest book, The Teeth of the Tiger (Putnam, $27.95, 431 pages).
Perhaps the syntax of Mr. Clancy’s characters is foreign to some prissy ears, and I believe that he might be hard-pressed to reproduce the dialogue of Washington’s chattering classes. But having spent time with some of the harder noses in America’s special operations community, I attest that what Mr. Clancy has coming from their mouths is authentic.
So why all the negative fuss about Mr. Clancy, who for the 13th straight outing has marched onto the best-seller lists? Decades ago, many of the same gripes were heard about writers who “sold out” by peddling their wares to the old Saturday Evening Post. Just before that proud journal was driven into oblivion by a generation of fools, longtime editor Ben Hibbs told me, “The only writers who didn’t sell stuff to the Post were those who were rich enough that they didn’t need us, or who weren’t good enough to meet our standards.”
Forget the stylistic quibblers. Mr. Clancy is an important read for persons interested in national security for the same reason that the British writer John Buchan was a must-read in London in the early 1900s. Buchan’s novels sounded the first warnings about war between Britain and Germany, and his fiction proved prescient. His literary reincarnation, Mr. Clancy, deals with the dangers, hypothetical and otherwise, that we currently face, and the contingency plans to counter them. The novelist puts into fictional form many of the thoughts and concerns bandied about at the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency and elsewhere. In this instance, his thesis is that the United States must adopt a proactive strategy of countering terrorism — seeking out and killing leaders of hostile groups before they act against our country. And, in a sense, “The Teeth of the Tiger” describes what the Bush Administration has been doing de facto since 9/11, with the President saying, in so many words, “Bring them in, dead or alive.”
Mr. Clancy’s vehicle for such actions draws upon a thought I’ve heard floated by more than one CIA Old Boy — that the Clandestine Services (aka the Directorate of Operations) is so hamstrung by Congressional and other oversight that the entire apparatus should be dismantled and created anew, say in a strip shopping mall out near Denver, with no snoops around. That old Watergate rogue E. Howard Hunt, himself a Clandestine Services veteran, has argued that every President needs the capability for covert action, and that he is going to find one even if he must do so under cover of the American Red Cross.
But are Americans capable of carrying out murder missions, even if justified under the broad rubric of “national security?” At the center of “Tiger” is an off-the-books operation created to deal with terrorists, but with White House deniability. Mr. Clancy is a product of the Catholic educational system, and one hears his own moral turmoil through the voices of the two men recruited for the first kill missions. They are brothers — Brian Caruso, a Marine captain with heavy combat experience, and FBI agent Dominic Caruso, who shot down a child killer. Neither is squeamish about hostile action deaths, yet both hesitate at their new assignment. As Brian puts it, he would be wearing civilian clothes, not a Marine uniform, and these circumstances made him a spy, not an officer. He protests that “murdering people in cold blood isn’t exactly what I’ve been trained to do, y’know?”
His case officer responds that any target “would be someone who has, directly or indirectly, caused the death of American citizens, or is indirectly involved in plans to do so in the future.” He adds, “We’re not after people who sing too loud in church or who have books overdue at the library.” When the Carusos maintain that the CIA and the FBI should handle such matters under existing law, the handler counters, “But when they can’t get the job done, for one reason or another, then what? Do you let the bad guys move ahead with their plans and handle them afterwards?”
The Caruso brothers remain dubious until a routine training mission runs headlong into a terrorist attack in the Fashion Square Mall, on Route 29 just north of Charlottesville. Just how the terrorists arrived there is told in the exquisite attention to tradecraft detail that makes Mr. Clancy…well, terrifyingly good reading, for his scenarios are not far removed from reality. His shootout scene is one of his best ever, and if you have read any of his 12 previous novels, you’ll recognize the compliment. Suffice to say that I’ll never drive past Fashion Square again without inhaling a sniff of cordite and hearing automatic weapons go boom in the distance.
Mr. Clancy resorts to an amusing literary device to retain a link to Jack Ryan, his earlier central character. Over the course of several books, Ryan morphed from Annapolis professor to CIA analyst and thence the Presidency. What, pray tell, could be next, without getting into questions of divinity? In last year’s book, the author simply wafted Ryan back in time a decade or so. His new solution is to give Ryan’s son a role in the cover organization that handles the Caruso brothers (of whom he is a cousin). And eventually he becomes a major player.
The title? “If you want to kick a tiger in his [behind], you’d better have a plan for dealing with his teeth.” Suffice to say that the tiger recoils from some good kicks ere Mr. Clancy finishes.
John Weisman argues for the same proactive clandestine activities in SOAR: A Black Operations Novel (Morrow, $24.95, 304 pages), as readable as Clancy at his best. (The acronym is for Special Operations Air Regiment.) Mr. Weisman acknowledges an intellectual debt to Peter Rodman, now assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, and his 2000 monograph for the Nixon Center entitled “Uneasy Giant.”
In the paper, Mr. Rodman conceded that the U. S. “must conduct itself as a good internationalist” but “there are some important security issues on which we will not be able to sacrifice our freedom of action even if it means being accused of ‘internationalism.’”
Such is what is at stake when, on the eve of a U. S.-China weapons summit, the CIA sends a covert monitoring team into western China to survey illegal low-level underground nuclear tests. The team is captured by Uzbekistan terrorists who also ambush a Chinese convoy and steal nuclear weapons.