Twenty years ago, there was a fairly well-known English monk at the Hinayana Buddhist Centre in London who liked to cap the account he gave visitors of why he had rejected the West by pointing one slim, denunciatory finger at that most improbable of culprits, the Ealing comedies. ‘How can one possibly defend,’ he would ask rhetorically, ‘a civilisation that considers a film like Kind Hearts and Coronets funny? Think about it for a moment: it’s a comedy about eight separate acts of premeditated murder.’ The monk was in no sense either a stupid man or a naive one; he simply could not track the joke. At the time, while I believed I understood something of what he felt, I couldn’t imagine myself reacting so humourlessly to an entertainment. Time bears its little surprises. After reading the hugely successful war novel Red Storm Rising, I think I begin to see what the monk was going on about. This is a book that makes you want to weep.
Red Storm Rising has been on or near the top of the American best-seller lists for well over a year now. Before its run is over, the book will have sold the better part of three million copies in cloth and paperback. It is, in fact, the second huge success for Tom Clancy Jr, a 46-year-old former insurance broker from the Eastern Shore of Maryland whose only published work, prior to these successes, had been, as his publishers rather proudly insist, ‘a letter to the editor and a three-page article on the MX missile’. Six years ago, Clancy wrote a submarine thriller called The Hunt for Red October and submitted it, without, it seems, any great commercial expectations, to an obscure specialist publishing company called the Naval Institute Press. Unexpectedly, the book became an enormous best-seller in the United States. Elaborated in the hypertrophied, omniscient manner of Herman Wouk’s vastly popular ‘novelisations’ (the Hollywood term is, alone, appropriate) of the Second World War, The Winds of War, this is the story of the captain and crew of the eponymous nuclear attack submarine, pride of the Soviet fleet, as it manoeuvres across the North Atlantic, evading half the Russian Navy in an ultimately successful effort to defect from the Evil Empire. The Washington Post called the book ‘an enjoyable novel of derring-do’. More enthusiastically, Ronald Reagan, in a quote prominently featured on the back cover of the paperback, called it ‘the perfect yarn’.
Red Storm Rising is an even more perfect yarn, if such a thing is possible to imagine. Its plot, as the jacket of the American edition quite rightly asserts, is ‘bigger, more daring, even more thrillingly dramatic’ than Clancy’s previous novel. It would be strange if it were not. The Hunt for Red October, despite its cast of thousands and for all its men’s magazine techno-babble about undersea naval sonar grids and secret reconnaissance satellites, was basically a book about an undersea chase of the sort that occurs in the books of C.S. Forester or Nicholas Monsarrat: Red Storm Rising is about the Third World War.
Not that the theme is in itself a novelty in best-seller-land. Indeed, novels about the Third World War began to appear only a few years after the second one had ended. Reread thirty or thirty-five years later, these books can seem like some familiar, kitschy movie score, the background music to the Cold War. More often than not, they reflect changes in popular feeling toward the bomb and toward the Soviet Union. Vox populi, vox belli. To be sure, there was never a single premise for these novels: there were a number of basic plots and an infinity of locales. But insofar as these books considered nuclear battle, there were two basic styles. In some of them, like Neville Shute’s rather tediously high-minded On the Beach, the nuclear apocalypse either has already occurred or else occurs in the course of the book. In a second, more common variant, there is a military confrontation between West and East that carries the world toward a nuclear war which is only narrowly averted in the last few pages of the book. Two examples of this type were the Arctic melodrama Ice Station Zebra, and the submarine chase thriller Run silent, run deep, in several ways the true precursor of The Hunt for Red October. And what seems, in retrospect, most interesting about the genre as a whole is its all but unquestioning assumption that any war between the United States and the Soviet Union would inevitably be fought with nuclear weapons and that such a war would destroy the world utterly.
What makes Red Storm Rising such a departure is that Clancy is having none of this. The Third World War he describes in such lavish detail is solely a conventional war. Fashions are changing, apparently, in mass-market fiction, as they already have in Nato’s military doctrine. Indeed, the two have always been interconnected, and, without defending either the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction or the novels of Neville Shute or Edward L. Beach, they seem like models of humane thinking compared to what dominates both the bookstore display windows and the think tanks and staff colleges today. Clancy is so sure that the notion of a Third World War fought without nuclear weapons is realistic that he barely downshifts long enough to consider that such a ‘firebreak’, as military theorists like to call it, between conventional and nuclear war is inconceivable. Red Storm Rising does contain a brief conversation between two Russian generals on the subject before the war begins, and, like a distant comet, the subject recurs every hundred or so pages (the book, obeying the iron law of the modern blockbuster, is over six hundred and fifty pages long), a dimly observable possibility that may have to be confronted if things really get out of hand. Fortunately for yarn-lovers everywhere, they don’t. The war that Clancy has imagined is fought, from its beginning in a Soviet sneak attack across the Fulda Gap to its end in a settlement negotiated by the Warsaw Pact and Nato commanders in a wood near Potsdam, purely with conventional weapons – all this despite the fact that Germany is in ruins and millions have been killed.
Tom Clancy’s restraint is positively superhuman. Millions die, but, at the end of the climactic battle in which the Soviets are finally stopped, the two sides decide to return to what is basically the status quo ante. To be sure, the evil Soviet leaders who have begun the war have been overthrown, but still it hardly seems enough. It only suffices for the simple reason that, despite its cast of thousands, Red Storm Rising is uninhabited. This is not just a matter of Clancy’s habit of preferring to call his characters by their titles (the chief Nato general is only rarely General Robinson – usually he is SACEUR, the military acronym for Supreme Allied Commander, Europe), or of his far more passionate descriptions of weapons than of people: these defects go with the territory. The book is not about people at all.
The reason for this is that the war that Clancy describes is itself not a war at all, whether nuclear or conventional, but a war game. Clancy is not trying to hide any of this. Rather, he cheerfully says as much himself when, in a prefatory note, he acknowledges that he wrote Red Storm Rising in collaboration with his friend Larry Bond (presumably, although there are two names on the copyright page, Clancy’s publishers decided that two signatures on the title page would confuse readers and hurt sales). Bond is the inventor of a war game Clancy greatly admires called ‘Harpoon’. ‘In 1983,’ he writes, ‘Larry and I started talking about one of his projects: “Convoy-84”, a macro-wargame or campaign game which, using the “Harpoon” system, would fight out a new battle of the North Atlantic. I thought this was fascinating and we began to talk about building a book around the idea, since, we both agreed, no one outside the Defence Department had ever examined in adequate detail what such a campaign would be like with modern weapons.’
Or inside either, one wants to add, but, such bleating aside, these are words to savour. It is clear through the wargamer lingo that Clancy’s own view of his book, which, in the note, he curiously never refers to himself as having ‘written’, but only as having ‘begun’, or ‘building’, or ‘fiddling with’, or ‘completing’, is essentially harmless, ludic. As he puts it, Bond and he ‘had a whole lot of fun’ with Red Storm Rising. And indeed, if viewed with the appropriate degree of detachment or playfulness – the sort more sophisticated consumers employ to enjoy a film like Kind Hearts and Coronets perhaps? – the novel is no better or worse (and certainly no more realistic) than those boardgames his friend invents, constructions in which aficionados can ‘re-fight’, as wargamers like to say, any battle from Carrhae to Stalingrad. In the circumstances, why not a conventional, sanitised World War Three as well? Unfortunately, what Clancy may intend and what he has accomplished are two quite different things. Red Storm Rising is not simply a war game dressed up as a popular novel but also an enormously successful best-seller. The fact of the matter is that Clancy’s novel is only the most successful of a series of films and books which suggest that war with the Russians won’t be so bad. After all, one of last year’s top-grossing films, Top Gun, ends with an upbeat summons to Armageddon, the pilots scrambling cheerfully to confront the Soviet aggressors once again. Red Storm Rising is simply the next chapter, and while it would be pleasant to think that recent developments in Washington may have dampened all this video-parlor martial ardour, the odds are all the other way.
America loves Colonel North and Colonel North must love Red Storm Rising. I would ban it if I could.