Fightin’ Words

by Jessie Roberts

Andrew Bacevich argues that Tom Clancy “was among the first to intuit that the antimilitary mood spawned by Vietnam represented an opportunity”:

What Clancy did was seize the role of Reagan’s literary doppelgänger—what the Gipper might have become had he chosen writing instead of politics after ending his acting career. Clancy’s own career took off when President Reagan plugged Red October as “my kind of yarn.” As well he might: Clancy shared Reagan’s worldview. His stories translated that worldview into something that seemed “real” and might actually become real if you believed hard enough. Reagan was famous for transforming the imagined into the actual; despite never having left Hollywood during World War II, he knew, for example, that he had personally witnessed the liberation of Nazi death camps. Similarly, Clancy, who never served in the military, imagined a world of selfless patriots performing feats of derring-do to overcome evil—a world that large numbers of Americans were certain had once existed. More to the point, it was a world they desperately wanted to restore. Clancy, like Reagan, made that restoration seem eminently possible.

Soon after Clancy’s death, the Washington Post published an appreciation entitled “How Tom Clancy Made the Military Cool Again,” written by a couple of self-described Gen-Xer policy wonks. “Clancy’s legacy lives on in the generations he introduced to the military,” they gushed, crediting Clancy with having “created a literary bridge across the civil-military divide.” His “stories helped the rest of society understand and imagine” the world of spooks and soldiers. Perhaps not surprisingly, those who served or aspired to serve found those stories to be especially gratifying. Clancy depicted American soldiers and would-be soldiers precisely as they wished to see themselves.