June 24, 2020

Tom Clancy

It was the summer of 2000. I was about to start 2nd grade, and I was already fascinated by the military. I'd already exhausted the military books available in children's section of the Rock Hill Public Library, so I ventured into the adult section. There, I found one of the most important books I would ever read.

I wanted to fly F-16s for the Air Force (who among us wasn't an idiot at some point in our youth?) and discovered a copy of Tom Clancy's Fighter Wing. Here was a book with a long chapter on the F-16, as well as all sorts of stuff on other aircraft and air warfare in general. Both my mom and the librarian were somewhat skeptical that I'd be able to read it, but they let me check it out, and I devoured it. Here was a book written by someone who knew the subject really well, knew how to write, and perhaps most importantly, knew how to talk about the subject to an outside audience. Who else would start a book on the subject by talking about the fundamental forces of flight and how jet turbine blades were built, and then spend the majority of his time on Desert Storm discussing the planning process, not hazardous missions over Baghdad?

I soon discovered that there were five other books in the series, Submarine, Armored Cav, Marine, Airborne, and Carrier. (A seventh, Special Forces, was published the next year, and I read it very quickly.) I read each of them in turn, and bought them at a time when I owned very few books. I can't even say how many times I read through each one during my school years. I recently have reread a few, and they still hold up very well, despite their age. The fundamentals of warfare haven't changed that much, and Clancy was able to focus on them instead of being distracted by the latest bits of shiny kit. I don't think anyone has yet written a better introduction to modern warfare than this series.

Personally, the influence of these books is eclipsed only by the Bible. They gave me enough depth to stay fascinated with this stuff through high school and into college, where I discovered Norman Friedman (a subject for another day). And ultimately, it lead me to another connection with Tom Clancy. On the jacket of most of his books, he wears a USS Iowa hat. This was the result of a scheduled visit to the ship in April 1989. Clancy had to pull out at the last minute, missing the tragedy that occurred on the 19th. But he felt a connection with the ship, and served as the honorary chairman of the campaign to preserve her. Sadly, he died in 2013, before he was able to see her in San Pedro. So in two very important ways, Tom Clancy made this blog possible. I owe him a lot, wherever he is.


  1. June 24, 2020quanticle said...

    My interest in the military history and defense technology was also sparked by Tom Clancy, albeit by a different route.

    One day, long ago, the library was holding a book sale. I found this big red book, with a silhouette of a submarine on it. At the time, I vaguely knew who Tom Clancy was. I had seen The Hunt for the Red October, starring Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin, but I hadn't really been hooked by it.

    Red Storm Rising, though, completely hooked me. I think it was the first book I read where the "bad guys" weren't completely stupid, and were fighting in at least somewhat logical ways for somewhat logical reasons. I loved the wealth of technical detail, and I was blown away by the sheer scope of the book. Clancy was imagining a true world war, and was effortlessly switching between the perspective of a submarine captain, frigate captain, tank commander, etc.

    While Red Storm Rising isn't the most rigorous book of its genre (I would argue that distinction belongs to Hackett's The Third World War), I do think Clancy has the best balance between rigor and plot of any of the authors of the genre. I still go back and re-read Red Storm Rising from time to time, and it hasn't gotten old or boring yet.

  2. June 24, 2020Directrix Gazer said...

    That's funny, Quanticle, RSR was my first Clancy as well. The cover caught my eye amidst a heap of books left out to help laundromat patrons pass the time. I read it while my mom took care of the laundry and was so enthralled that I asked the laundromat owner if I could take it home. He happily assented. I believe I was roughly 12 or 13 at the time.

    I had been a military hardware nut since a very early age, but now that I think about it RSR probably did nudge my interests in certain directions. It certainly helped spark an enduring interest in the development and doctrine of the Soviet armed forces, for instance.

  3. June 24, 2020Alsadius said...

    Yup, Clancy was a big early influence for me too. I got either Red October or Red Storm Rising off the shelves on my grade 9 English teacher, and quickly devoured his entire fiction corpus to that date (this would have been about 1997).

    I got almost all of them from the library, not the bookstore, so I didn't read much of his nonfiction - I was fascinated by the idea of Armoured Cav, but it wasn't in my small-town bookstores or library, and this was before e-commerce was something I really thought of, so I didn't get a copy until I saw it at a used book sale in like 2016. (It's very good, though).

    It's something of a shame how his work went downhill in later years. He's one of those authors, like David Weber, who suffered badly from getting too popular and being able to tell the editors to bugger off. He needed editors more than he knew, by the time his 21st century books rolled around. So these days, I stop around Rainbow Six, and even that one is iffy. But his early fiction holds up very well indeed, and he was a massive influence on me as well.

  4. June 24, 2020quanticle said...

    Even among his earlier works, there are some really iffy ones. I was not really a fan of either Without Remorse or Patriot Games. Clancy does best discussing military tactics and operations, and he always seems to be out of his element when discussing broader political or social issues.

  5. June 24, 2020bean said...

    I first read HFRO and RSR about 5 years after I found the nonfiction. I think this was because my parents had only read the latter stuff, some of which had bits that may not have been entirely suitable for a 2nd grader. (I wouldn't hesitate to pass 2000-me either of those two, though.) They're both amazing books, but they didn't really do that much to me because they were too late.

    Everything after those two was worse, almost steadily. I think some of that was overriding editors and some was just moving away from his strengths.

    Actually, that reminds me. Apparently, the original manuscript for HFRO was significantly longer, and USNI forced Clancy to cut a bunch of technical details. That's the version I really want.

  6. June 24, 2020redRover said...


    I think Without Remorse is probably Clancy's most traditionally literary book (or perhaps Cardinal of the Kremlin), to the extent that it actually gives his characters some depth. Otherwise, his characters are fairly shallow props that he uses to play out the strategic/tactical what-ifs. Which is fine, and like most of Naval Gazing's readership I enjoyed his early oeuvre, but I do think WR gets an undeservedly bad rap.

  7. June 24, 2020John Schilling said...

    I was actually a member of the United States Naval Institute when HFRO came out (or possibly I was still riding on my father's membership; don't recall for sure). When I saw that they were publishing fiction, that was a must-have even with my limited budget, and the first-edition hardcover is still on my shelves.

    Nothing else quite matched it, but I give "Patriot Games" an honorary mention as best Tom Clancy movie script disguised as a novel. Then Hollywood had to give it to a director who had no interest in filming the story Clancy wrote; so much for that potential.

    Eventually I got tired of His Holiness President Doctor Sir Jack Ryan, God-Emperor of Man, but there was a lot of good work before that rot set in. By the time the non-fiction works that hooked bean had come out, I had already picked up much of that content from other sources, but as short courses in modern warfare I agree that they still hold up quite well.

  8. June 24, 2020Doctorpat said...

    Another fan of Clancy.

    Though do note that many of his later year books weren't strictly written by him. He was employing a ghost writer and you can tell.

    The Rainbow 6 stuff was in this group, and I didn't bother with them after a few attempts.

  9. June 25, 2020quanticle said...

    Apparently, the original manuscript for HFRO was significantly longer, and USNI forced Clancy to cut a bunch of technical details. That’s the version I really want.

    Didn't he also get in a bit of hot water over Red Storm Rising? I heard that he received a visit from the FBI, to ensure that he hadn't used any classified sources in making his story. Apparently someone in the government didn't think you could write a book that realistic without having access to secret materials.

  10. June 25, 2020Neal said...

    "Didn’t he also get in a bit of hot water over Red Storm Rising? I heard that he received a visit from the FBI, to ensure that he hadn’t used any classified sources in making his story. Apparently someone in the government didn’t think you could write a book that realistic without having access to secret materials."


    Did he ever say how he sourced his first two books? I heard that with the subsequent works he had a lot of input simply from officials/officers/etc. who liked to feed him with info. How much and to what level of accuracy I could not even guess.

  11. June 25, 2020Johan Larson said...

    Jack Ryan always was a bit OP. When we first meet him, he's an ex-Marine officer, a former professor at a top university, and has already made a small fortune on Wall Street. And things go up from there.

  12. June 25, 2020Johan Larson said...


    Apparently a lot of the plot of Red Storm Rising was tested using the Harpoon table-top naval war-game. And that game turned out to have really surprisingly accurate data about Cold War era navies, plus a well-designed set of rules.

  13. June 25, 2020quanticle said...

    Another Tom Clancy book I enjoyed was Every Man A Tiger. It's part of his "Study in Command" series, written with Air Force Gen. Chuck Horner. Although the subtitle is The Gulf War Air Campaign, a large part of the book focuses on what the Air Force did to rebuild itself after Vietnam. It talks about the return of basic fighter maneuver training, the process of getting the F-15 and F-16 through Congress, the organizational reforms that weeded out Vietnam-era dead wood and replaced them with more competent officers, and culminates with a retelling of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

    I picked this up because I was wandering through the library and I happened to see a book with Tom Clancy on the spine in the nonfiction section. Surprised, I picked it up, and I ended up enjoying the read.

  14. June 25, 2020bean said...

    SecNav Lehman famously asked who cleared HFRO for publication, but AIUI Clancy put everything together with what we would now call OSINT. It's more widely accepted today than it was back then.

    As for Ryan, being a bit OP is fine for a fictional character, unless you're being really literary. It's when the author gets carried away that it becomes a problem. Shamus Young described the later books as Jack Ryan fanfiction, and I can't really disagree with him.

    Re Harpoon, it wasn't that it was used to dictate events so much as do plausibility checking and make sure that they got the time and space right. There's an article liked from the wiki article on RSR.

    I tried the various Tom Clancy and X nonfiction books a couple times, but never managed to get into them. But it's also been well over a decade. Maybe I should take another look at them.

  15. June 25, 2020quanticle said...

    On a lark, I went on eBay to see if I could pick up a copy of Harpoon, and it turns out that you can get the core rule set for about $35. I'm strongly tempted.

  16. June 25, 2020bean said...

    Or, if you want the spiritual successor to Computer Harpoon, there's always Command: Modern Operations. Costs a bit more, but it does most of the work for you.

  17. June 26, 2020doctorpat said...

    There is apparently a bit of a history of fiction authors working out stuff that was supposed to be military secrets.

    If you start with a basic idea of the publicly known state of art, extrapolate it within known rules of physics/strategy/tactics/engineering, especially if you aren't too concerned about if it is actually true, it just needs to be possible, and you make a lot of guesses... well you're bound to be right sometimes.

    After all, that's how the actual people working on the actual technology get their ideas.

    eg. The secret of chaff radar blocker was invented by both the Germans and the English in WW2, and both sides didn't use it for a couple of years because they didn't want the other side to get the idea. Then some english cartoonist came up with the concept and published it as a children's comic. He got hauled up by MI5 or someone, but fortunately the German's didn't read comics.

  18. June 26, 2020Wiggles said...


    Apparently Kubrick also caused a bit of stir because he depicted the B-52's flight deck so well in Dr Strangelove. In reality, the production team had gone off the design of a B-29's cockpit, one unclassified photo of the flight deck, and estimated interior measurements from exterior photos of B-52s.

  19. June 26, 2020AlphaGamma said...

    @Wiggles: Of course, the set designer for Dr Strangelove was Ken Adam, who was one of three German-born RAF pilots during the Second World War (he flew Typhoons). One of the other two was his brother.

    Adam also worked on a great many James Bond films, from Dr. No to Moonraker, including the spectacular lairs of the villains in You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me.

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