Walking through the aisles of a Barnes and Noble yesterday I glanced at the cover and blurb for the newest novel by Dale Brown. A former member of the U.S. Air Force, Captain Brown’s newest work, Iron Wolf details the fictional machinations of Russia in Eastern Europe, and the dedication of a few brave Americans, and their Eastern European allies, to stop them. In the middle is the current American president, the first woman to hold office, who is unsure of how to handle the burgeoning foreign policy crisis. Oh, and I forgot the part about the use of manned drones by the heroes in the book. The book’s premise brought back memories of my reading habits as a teenager and young adult. As a young man growing up after the Cold War, I read quite a few of these books. Looking back, I begin to think about what those books said about an American society struggling to deal with a post-Cold War world.
. The “techno-thriller” genre, of which Iron Wolf is a part of, is filled with the adventures of America’s military men and women, fighting threats all over the world using the latest in military hardware. Iron Wolf fulfills two parts of the essential elements of the so-called “techno-thriller” genre: ripped from the headlines stories, and a concern with America’s place in an unstable world. Starting with and popularized by Tom Clancy, techno-thrillers have been among the nation’s best-selling books since Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October was released in 1984. Seeing as how techno-thrillers sell so much and offer a unique look at how a sizable portion of Americans view foreign policy, intellectual historians will have think about these books if we’re to get a grasp of recent American intellectual history. Although there are several key authors in this genre (Brown of course, as well as the late Vince Flynn), for the purposes of this post, I’ll briefly discuss the giant of the genre: Tom Clancy.
Tom Clancy looms large in the genre. Writing many of his important works in the 1980s and 1990s, Clancy’s books offered both a dose of thrills and a series of morality plays through the character of Jack Ryan. The protagonist of the vast majority of Clancy novels, Ryan was a Marine turned foreign policy superman who tangled with America’s enemies, foreign and domestic. In other words, Ryan not only went up against the Soviet Union, Muslim extremists, and Japan (I’ll get to that in a second), but also had to fight off feckless American officials who, unlike Ryan, were not sure about America’s moral certitude in a chaotic world. The fact that Clancy’s career as a writer took off when President Ronald Reagan declared The Hunt for Red October “my kind of yarn” is also important: an American president enjoying a work of fiction that spoke to America’s greatness during a trying time is also worth thinking about.
Clancy’s books offer a conservative version of America as a shining city on a hill, fighting enemies all across the valley below. The scenarios in some of Clancy’s novels, at the time they came out, seemed a bit preposterous. Debt of Honor (1994) for example detailed a war between Japan and the United States…in 1994. But one has to remember the deep concerns among American political and social leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s over the rise of an economically powerful Japan. This nation became, in Clancy’s novel, militarily powerful enough to launch a modern equivalent of Pearl Harbor, crippling both America’s Pacific Fleet and the nation’s stock exchange through a cyber-attack on Wall Street. Yet in the novel, it seemed realistic enough.
And then there’s the ending—when a Japanese civilian airline pilot, angered by the war’s end and Japan’s defeat, crashes his plane into the Capitol building just as Jack Ryan is about to be sworn in as the new Vice President of the United States. Such an ending was eye-opening in the late 1990s (I remember getting the book as a teenager partially because I’d heard so much about the ending) but became an eerie prediction of the future in light of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In fact, Clancy may be best remembered for that “prediction,” something that was mentioned in quite a few of the obituaries written after his death in 2013.
Intellectual and cultural historians of the late twentieth century would do well to read some Clancy, and the other techno-thriller authors, to get a sense of America’s fears—and dreams—in a post-Cold War world. In the books, the United States was able to crush the plans of Muslim extremists and a resurgent Iran (Executive Orders) and become allies with Russia while rolling back Chinese ambitions (The Bear and the Dragon). Those are just a couple of examples and do not even touch the movie versions of Clancy stories (The Hunt for Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears). For intellectual historians especially, however, Clancy’s books should not just be seen as exciting fiction. They should also offer a window into how some Americans, especially (but not all) those on the Right, saw America’s mission in the 1990s: defending democracy in a chaotic world thanks to the bravery of a few soldiers, sailors, marines, as well as the technological wizardry of America, and beating the bad guys over and over again while ignoring the foreign policy ineptitude of liberals at home. Clancy’s novels offer a fascinating insight into key ideas of American foreign policy after the Cold War era.