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On the techno-thriller.
Red Storm Rising and fiction that matters.
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If you recognize this image, you spent the pop-culture 1980s pretty much as I did.
This weekend I revisited a classic work of fiction: the 1986 Tom Clancy / Larry Bond Red Storm Rising. The last time I dove into it was probably a quarter-century ago, at the least. I was an avid consumer of techno-thrillers for much of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but my mid-to-late 1990s time in the Army cured me of that. The boredom, petty routine, and bureaucratic incompetence of actual military service was irreconcilable with the crisp, cool, competent, and (yes) humane vision of the same in the Clancyverse. A fictional universe of smart people doing smart things didn’t have much to do with S-3 junior-officer duty at Fort Polk, enduring an embittered O-4’s tirades about his ex-wife. Not for nothing did I tell anyone who would listen, come 1998 or so, that the singular must-read tome on the military was Dos Passos’s 1921 Three Soldiers.
Three Soldiers is great, a great American novel from a great American writer. (Dos Passos, by the bye, ended up traveling the full spectrum from Depression-era Communist radical to National Review contributor and ’64 Goldwater voter. A singular life.) With the benefit of several decades and much distance, though, I can see that the fault was not in the literary genre, but in myself. The techno-thriller in its classic form is very much of a particular era, but it had much to say: much more, I think, than is typically credited to its core readership of men and boys who love spycraft and dogfights. I first read it surreptitiously: it was a gift for my father (who had the foresight to purchase the original USNI edition of 1984’s The Hunt for Red October), and I knew where it was hidden. When there were no adults around, I would race through some chapters. The Third World War was nearing its climax with the retaking of Iceland and the battle at Alfeld by the time the book was gifted. Then it went to a living-room bookshelf, where I could access it at will.
The two chapters that stood out for me in the first reading, and in every reading since — including this weekend’s — are “The Frisbees of Dreamland,” detailing a Stealth-fighter first strike on Warsaw Pact forces in East Germany, and “The Dance of the Vampires,” covering a Soviet-bomber mauling of a NATO carrier battle group. Both chapters stand more or less on their own in terms of narrative and subject matter, and could be profitably read in isolation as extended essays. They are also, from a prose standpoint, clear and comprehensible: no common feat in modern fiction. The best American writing on aerial warfare is still probably Beirne Lay, Jr.’s “I Saw Regensburg Destroyed,” from the 6 November 1943 Saturday Evening Post, but “The Frisbees of Dreamland” is easily somewhere in the top ten.
The “frisbees” in the chapter title are the Clancy-Bond conception of what was, in actuality, the F-117 Nighthawk. In 1986, nearly everyone assumed the United States had a Stealth tactical fighter — and nearly everyone making that assumption assumed all the wrong things about it. Among the two most common assumptions were its designation, generally held, as in Red Storm Rising, to be the F-19; and its aesthetics, also generally held to be rounded and curvy, like a frisbee. Contemporaneous with the release of the book, the Testors model corporation issued an “F-19 Stealth Fighter” kit with an aircraft looking almost exactly as described by Clancy-Bond. It was, supposedly, the best-selling model-aircraft kit of all time, and generated press sufficient to cause one Congressman to demand to know why the Testors corporation got to see the new Stealth fighter, but not him. Of course, just two years later the Department of Defense released the first photo of the actual Stealth fighter: an F-117, not an F-19; and angular and boxy, not sleek and rounded. Ironically enough, Testors predicted that too, although by accident. Following the smash success of the 1986 F-19 kit, in 1988 the firm released a Soviet Stealth-fighter kit, dubbed the MiG-37B “Ferret.” (I had it, and built it, a lovely matte black with red accents, and it was simply fantastic.) In the Testors world, the Soviet stealth fighter was marked by angles and flat planes because Mikoyan-Gurevich was technologically inferior to Lockheed: but Testors’s lesser version was Lockheed’s real-world achievement.
Clancy and Bond employ the F-19s to sweep in early, bypassing the enemy’s SAM belts and radar, and go for a command-and-control decapitation strike before the enemy realizes the war is already underway. The “frisbees” shoot down the Beriev A-50 “Mainstay” aircraft controlling Warsaw Pact tactical airpower, thereby enabling following waves of NATO aircraft to challenge now-uncoordinated Pact tactical air, dismantle the SAM infrastructure, and hit transportation infrastructure at will. (Later in the book, a reprioritization away from tactical infrastructure to fuel infrastructure is a key element in bringing the Soviets to sue for peace.) This is, of course, exactly how the F-117 was used in multiple conflicts across the following quarter-century, from Panama to Iraq to Serbia to Iraq again. The value of “The Frisbees of Dreamland,” in 1986, was in accurately communicating the yawning qualitative gap between American and Communist forces, and in accurately describing how its elements would be engaged in the real world. Its main points still hold. This is still our way of war, and it still works.
“The Dance of the Vampires” has a different feel to it when read in 2022, especially as naval affairs move to the center of consciousness for any American thinking about the next war. As prose it doesn’t stand up to Clancy’s own best on naval warfare (for my money, still Red October), and it isn’t even in the top tier of war-at-sea writing. But that is a much richer and more robust genre than military-aviation writing, and so we should not penalize it much. The scenario set forth in the chapter is simple: what happens when a well-equipped bomber force, armed with long-range missiles, (de facto here) drones, and the advantage of deception, attacks a carrier battle group at sea? Clancy and Bond posit that the bombers — Tupolev Tu-16 “Badgers” — savage the group, sinking the French carrier Foch and crippling the USS Nimitz. It is a harrowing presentation of modern naval surface power’s incapacity in the face of modern missile technology.
That technology is generations more advanced now, but a carrier battle group looks more or less the same. This is what makes “The Dance of the Vampires” so disquieting. “The Frisbees of Dreamland” has had its real-world run-through several times since 1986. “The Dance of the Vampires” has had none. But we know the enemies of the United States are thinking hard about it — there’s a reason the PLAN has a full-sized mockup of an American carrier deep in the Chinese interior — and we know that sooner or later, in history’s unfolding, we are going to find out whether Clancy and Bond got this one right. In the book, the authors present the Soviet success in gutting NATO naval surface power as a one-off: the lesson is learned, and when they send bombers against the American fleet retaking Iceland, they’re shot down or driven off before they make their mark. But nothing like that lesson has taken root in the real world. Even with the crisis in Ukraine, in the modern day, reaching its crescendo, the most consequential war for the American future in this century will probably be a naval war. It would be reassuring if this chapter felt less prophetic.
Red Storm Rising is, as mentioned, a product of its time, and so quite a lot of it does not feel nearly so relevant or timeless as these two scenarios within it. American-military hyper-competence, marked with candor and professionalism, was an easy sell in the 1980s — especially in reaction to the post-Vietnam reforms that essentially rescued the force from itself — but it is much less so in the era of General Mark Milley (take your pick: “white rage,” suppressing the Iraq War historical report, the ACFT disaster, on and on) and drone strikes wiping out whole families because of process blunders. For those of us of a certain age, there was a historical moment when the Armed Forces of the United States really were this good, and this honest: perhaps a twenty-year window, from Grenada 1983 to Iraq 2003. But in 2022 there is much to prove, and the outcome feels uncertain. The stuff of the American soldier, airman, sailor, Marine, coastguardsman, Guardian, Guardsman, et al., seems as strong as it ever was. Their leadership above a certain level — usually the level at which the United States Senate starts actively involving itself in assignments and promotions — inspires less confidence. That isn’t to say we aren’t what we were. It is to say we have forfeited the benefit of the doubt.
One note on the denouement of Red Storm Rising’s Third World War is worth making. The war ends for a few intersecting reasons: the aforementioned NATO targeting of Warsaw Pact fuel supplies, Kremlin infighting, and Soviet Army leadership’s refusal to countenance the use of nuclear weapons. The last item is simultaneously an admixture of pure fantasy and revelatory insight from the authors. Clancy and Bond are evidently of the mid-1980s school holding that military professionals are qualitatively superior to “the politicians,” whomever they are. This is an exceptionally common theme from that era, from the Rambo series to Iron Eagle and beyond, which testifies to the United States Army’s success in offloading the responsibility for its defeat in Vietnam to a now-absent civilian leadership. Across Red Storm Rising we get comments to that effect: a man in uniform will note with a weary tone that it’s the politicians who make the wars, and he just suffers in it. The climactic meeting between SACEUR and the Soviet commander-in-chief, to arrange a ceasefire, features precisely this sort of exchange. In the end, write Clancy-Bond, the politicians began the world war — but the soldiers of both sides ended it. It is an exceptionally strange thematic element: consonant with the times, to be sure, but less so with enduring American values.
It is the Soviet military leadership that rebels at the Politburo’s contemplation of nuclear-weapon use, setting in motion a series of events that lead to the war’s end. But in the real world, nuclear- and chemical-weapons use were part of the USSR’s day-one approach to war in Europe. We know — for example from the infamous “Seven Days to the River Rhine” campaign concept revealed in 2005 — that the Soviet war plan in Europe was essentially to saturate West Germany and the Low Countries with nuclear weapons, roll across the radioactive rubble, and establish themselves on the Rhine as NATO reeled. We also know that NATO, and the United States especially, would probably have escalated swiftly toward a strategic-nuclear response in that scenario. We’ll never know for sure — and thank God for it — but the overwhelming probability is that the Third World War in Europe would have become a full strategic nuclear exchange within days. In this light, Red Storm Rising’s assumption that the Soviet Union would launch a general war, but shy from nuclear warfare, to the point that its senior officers would rebel at the prospect, seems fictional indeed.
And yet, and yet: Clancy and Bond might respond that throughout the Cold War, the Soviet armed forces managed to produce a handful of men who singlehandedly showed the moral courage necessary to avert nuclear war. Vasily Arkhipov stood alone in refusing to allow the submarine B-59 to launch nuclear torpedos at American surface vessels in 1962. Stanislav Petrov refused to escalate a false report of a NATO strike in 1983, knowing that the response would likely precipitate a nuclear war. Unknown Russian — not Soviet — advisors dissuaded the Russian President from ordering a retaliatory strike on the United States in 1995, when a Norwegian scientific rocket was misinterpreted as an American SLBM strike. If there are American examples who took the same lonely stands, we do not know their names. This is not to impute superior virtue to the Soviet rank and file who made these momentous choices. It is to note that our only real guide in history is what actually happened. What actually happened renders the Clancy-Bond end-of-war scenario preposterous and plausible at once.
That makes it much better writing than the techno-thriller normally receives credit for.
Red Storm Rising is not the very best Cold-War book on the Third World War. That title belongs, still, to General Sir John Hackett’s 1978 The Third World War, which you ought to get from an out-of-print book vendor and read. (Hackett includes a nuclear exchange in his scenario, involving the destruction of Birmingham, England, and Minsk, Belarus, but he goes no further.) But it is probably the most interesting and exciting. So much of this literature is consigned to yesteryear these days. It is understandable why, in the immediate post-Cold War 1990s, contemplation of a war against the Soviet Union would fall out of style. But we err in thinking this genre, and this book in particular, irrelevant. Great-power competition is back, and though the likely existential adversary now is based in the Zhongnanhai rather than the Kremlin, the big questions remain the same. How does America stay in the fight? What are the tactical, operational, and strategic problems that must be confronted if we are to win? What is the nature of the enemy? What are the courses of action at every stage? What leads us to the catastrophe of strategic nuclear exchange — and what prevents it?
Forty years ago, the American reading public was interested in exactly these questions. A great many of them remembered the last world war, and a great many of them expected to fight the next. Both those conditions are gone now, just as the specter of the next reasserts itself. Tom Clancy, Larry Bond, Harold Coyle, John Hackett, and so many others were in the business of selling books, yes — but they were really in the business of helping us think though how it would happen, and what it would mean. The techno-thriller got tagged as the province of men and boys who love spycraft and dogfights, and much of it was that. But it was something else besides. It was a genuinely consequential exploration of how we survive, and win, in the defining contest of our lives. It brought in the unorthodox and the outsiders in ways that the real military and government rarely do — Clancy was an insurance salesman in Owings, Maryland, while typing out Red October — and so yielded insights that they rarely do. We needed it because the stakes were so high.
That was then. The stakes are high again. And so we need it again.