Executive Orders
by Tom Clancy
Putnam. 874 pp. $27.95

Early in his famous novel, Flaubert writes that Emma Bovary “turned away from the calm life for excitement. She loved the sea only for its storms. . . .” An interesting question posed by Tom Clancy’s thrillers is whether their bookstore and box-office appeal suggests merely a Bovary-like search for excitement, or whether his readers actually share his view of the world.

Consider the popular yarns that have made Clancy wealthy and famous. The Hunt for Red October, published in 1984, is a classic cold-war tale about a Soviet submarine and its defection to the West. Red Storm Rising (1986) describes a global confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR. In Patriot Games (1987), Clancy’s hero, Jack Ryan, saves a member of Britain’s royal family from assassination and then pays for his good deed when frustrated international terrorists attack his own family. The Cardinal of the Kremlin (1988) pictures the Soviets’ determined efforts to build a Star Wars missile defense as a shield behind which to wield their aggressive sword. Duplicity and South American drug traffic are the subjects of Clear and Present Danger (1989). And the list of timely topics goes on to include Middle Eastern instability, the use of computers as instruments of warfare, and the perils posed by an ineffective Central Intelligence Agency.

The penultimate Clancy thriller, Debt of Honor (1994), ends with a Japanese terrorist flying a Boeing 747 into the U.S. Capitol as both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the cabinet have gathered for a presidential State of the Union address. What happens in the aftermath is told in Clancy’s ninth and most recent book, Executive Orders, which has spent five months on the best-seller lists.

Jack Ryan, now President, must reassemble the leadership of the U.S. government. His task is complicated not only by a disgraced Vice President who publicly questions the new President’s legal right to govern but by an evil Iranian mullah, Mahmoud Haji Daryaei, who makes the Ayatollah Khomeini look like a kindly grandfather. At the cleric’s direction, Saddam Hussein is killed and his possible successors are neutralized; Iran thereupon absorbs Iraq and moves decisively to seize Saudi Arabia. As the mullah uses military force to achieve Middle Eastern hegemony, Iranian agents bottle a rare airborne strain of the deadly Ebola virus to wage biological warfare against the U.S. Meanwhile, homegrown militia types are striving to achieve some of the same violent ends from inside American borders.



In all his novels Clancy shows skill at juggling several themes at once. But his most obvious talent lies in offering intelligible descriptions of contemporary machinery: a nuclear weapon, the electronic innards of securities trading, the basics of biological warfare. The reader of Executive Orders, in particular, is treated to a graphic description of the effects of the Ebola virus on the human body, from the initial flu-like symptoms to the vomiting, delirium, gross distention of organs, disintegration of vascular-system tissue, and eventual massive internal bleeding that ends in death. An equally explicit recipe follows for collecting the virus from a decedent’s infected tissue and preserving it alive for travel and dissemination.

In Executive Orders, Clancy also conjures up an armed confrontation between the (fictional) United Islamic Republic and the U.S., and along the way depicts the complex intelligence-and-communications support on which contemporary American forces depend for effective combat operations. He is especially good at offering a glimpse into the steel web that was woven by the U.S. in Desert Storm, a war featuring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s), airborne command-and-control stations, spy satellites, Stealth aircraft, and global-positioning satellites.

As always, Clancy uses this book, too, as a forum for stating his beliefs. Principal among them is that the United States—a decent nation confronted from time to time by states with very bad men at the helm—requires a vigorous defense, but may soon lack enough military power for the job. Unfortunately, Executive Orders, like its predecessors, does not afford much insight into the people who are or will be called upon to do the fighting, or into the moral issues raised by military action and diplomacy alike.



Is it fair to hold Tom Clancy to a literary standard? That depends on the standard. Stephen Coonts, whose action-packed novels about life in the Navy have been praised by Clancy, is a writer whose protagonists are more than stick figures. In Final Flight (1988), for example, Coonts tells a story of Middle Eastern intrigue with a Qaddafi-like villain who is foiled by American intrepidity. Along the way he introduces us to some compelling characters. A senior officer must decide whether to do what he wants to do (go on flying) or what he should do (accept the verdict of a junior medical officer on the condition of his aging body); other aviators suffer from lost nerve, still others from misplaced bravado or genuine self-doubt.

Nor is Coonts the only action writer absorbed by questions of character. James Webb, a decorated Vietnam-era Marine who served as Secretary of the Navy in the Reagan administration, has published novels positively obsessed with the character of the men who fight, the relationships among them, and the relation between them and the civilians who are politically accountable for the conduct of war. Webb’s books (A Sense of Honor, Fields of Fire, A Country Such as This) are studies in courage, responsibility, honor—and their opposites.

Clancy, however, has sold more books. True, his stories demand less of the reader than Webb’s or Coonts’s, and there can be no denying the excitement they generate. But one also cannot help wondering whether there might not be something else at work to account for his wild success. Do Clancy’s readers agree with him that simple good and evil exist in the world, and that the U.S. possesses the lion’s share of the former? Given the cultural climate in the country today, and what else is on offer in the bookstores, such a contrarian belief may, in fact, be as titillating as any tale of international derring-do—and, morally, as thrilling as any of Madame Bovary’s ocean storms.


+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link