By Tom Clancy (with Mark Greaney)
Putnam, $29.95, 739 pages
By Joseph C. Goulden
A feeling of sad finality gripped me as I read the last of the 739 pages of Tom Clancy’s 18th and final thriller. Once again, the acrid scent of cordite wafted through my imagination during the climactic gunbattle as Clancy’s characters from the world of intelligence achieved yet another victory over the forces of evil.
Clancy, who died on Oct. 1 at 66, had boosters as disparate as President Ronald Reagan, who pronounced “The Hunt for Red October,” his first of 18 books, “the perfect yarn” and “non-put-downable.” National Public Radio’s Alan Cheuse called him “Faulkner in a flak suit.”
Let’s be blunt about it. Clancy was an acquired taste — beloved by patriots who support a strong military and an effective intelligence community; mocked by leftist woo-woos who argue that a turned-cheek is the best defense against an adversary.
Clancy was an unabashed hard-liner. In his first novels, his heroes fought the USSR and its KGB. When the Iron Curtain tumbled, burying world communism under a heap of rubble, he made a seamless segue into a war against terrorism. I was one of the millions of fans who put him on the best-seller list for 17 straight books.
In “Command Authority,” Clancy has at it again with his original foes, correctly equating the current regime in Moscow as merely a relabeled version of what Reagan once termed “the evil empire.” The Russian president, one Valeri Volodin (somewhat rhymes with “Putin,” eh?) is threatening the military annexation of Estonia, Ukraine and other former states of the USSR. Volodin’s plan includes enhanced powers for the FSB, successor to the KGB, as a vehicle to subvert his targets from within. He accuses the United States and other Western powers of instigating anti-Russian provocations in Estonia.
(Sound a tad familiar? Substitute “Ukraine” for “Estonia,” and you will find a parallel story on the foreign-news pages of this newspaper on a regular basis. Clancy’s plots, far out though they might be on the surface, have an unnerving tendency to become reality. Long before Sept. 11, 2001, he wrote about a band of terrorists crashing an airliner into the U.S. Capitol.)
Hints of Volodin’s plot grab the attention of an off-the-books American intelligence group known as The Campus, which brings together signature characters from earlier Clancy works. (The Campus was formed because of legal restrictions that prevented the CIA and other agencies from doing their jobs defending America.) Central in the story, of course, is Jack Ryan Sr., now the president, first encountered in earlier books as an obscure professor at the U.S. Naval Academy. Surveying the widespread corruption in the Russian intelligence community and military, Ryan concludes, “The KGB is back. Call it whatever the hell you want to call it, dress it up in designer suits and give it a Madison Avenue PR department, but it’s the same old gang we all know and hate.”
Ryan’s national security adviser, Mary Pat Foley, chimes the FSB has a power-making authority never possessed by the KGB. She cuts to the heart of a current truth about President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. In the old days, the KGB’s job was to advise the Communist Party. As Foley observes, “They didn’t call the shots. But now … now the intelligence officers both spy and run the show. It’s worse now.”
One tactic employed by the FSB — in reality in today’s Ukraine, as well as in Clancy’s fiction — is “passportization.” Moscow issues Russian passports to civilians of Russian heritage living in target states. Then it claims that these ersatz “citizens” need the protection of the Red Army, the justification for a military intervention.
Mr. Putin well could have mouthed Volodin’s “justification” for trying to seize Ukraine: “It is home of the Black Sea fleet. There are oil and gas pipelines to Europe, Russia’s vital market, and military highways to the West that are important to our security interests. Ukraine belongs in our sphere of influence. As I see it, there are two threats to our nation. Only two. These are terrorism and the lawless criminality of the West on our borders.”
Meanwhile, the president’s son, Jack Ryan Jr., has taken leave from The Campus to work as a risk analyst for a financial house in London. He finds that billions of dollars in gold has been stolen from a client, a Scottish oil baron, by a tawdry partnership of crooked politicians answerable to Volodin, corrupt FSB officials and a powerful crime syndicate known as “the Seven Strong Men.” These goons prove to be Volodin’s financial supporters.
What has long provided the authenticity that gives credibility to Clancy’s work is his hands-on knowledge of modern weapons and the men and women who use them. Thus, he researched and wrote a half-dozen nonfiction works (in addition to his novels) that were essentially guidebooks to air, land and sea combat units.
Mark Greaney, his co-author on “Command Authority,” continued Clancy’s self-education in battle realities. He is said to have traveled to numerous countries, where he “trained alongside military and law enforcement in the use of firearms, battlefield medicine and close-range combat tactics.”
An author such as Clancy must choose his co-authors with care. Several books ago, I complained on these pages that his fabled “literary factory was showing signs of Rust Belt obsolescence.” When he telephoned me a few days later, I expected a blistering. He simply laughed and said, “That thing has sold about 700,00 copies. I must be doing something right.”
Farewell, Tom Clancy, and many thanks for years of good reading.
Veteran Washington writer Joseph Goulden is the author of 18 nonfiction books.