Tom Clancy Dead or Alive Review

by Tom Clancy with Grant Blackwood
$28.95; 950 pages

Tom Clancy had reportedly given up novel writing with The Teeth of the Tiger, but clearly he has decided to return to the field with Dead or Alive. This novel picks up where The Teeth of the Tiger left off, with Jack Ryan Jr. taking the field to pursue an Osama bin Laden analog named the Emir.

Clancy made his name writing technologically descriptive espionage novels, and this work continues that body of work. What has changed is the emphasis has gradually shifted from technological geekery to politics. This process started at least with Executive Orders in 1996, when Clancy attempted to answer the question, "what do we need in a President?"

The change has happened quite naturally. As the Cold War drew to a close, the political questions that had been frozen by the Seventy Years War with the Soviet Union began to need answers. Since Clancy's books originally specialized in the end of the Cold War, that transition weighed heavily on the minds of his characters, and thus by proxy his own.

Dead or Alive feels like an attempt to answer the questions posed by 9-11 and the subsequent War on Terror: What measures are necessary to protect the American people? How should we structure the organizations at the pointy end of the spear? What constraints must they operate under? The novels since at least Rainbow Six have been Clancy's answer.

John Reilly said of Executive Orders:

The fact is that Executive Orders really is not a techno-shot-’em-up at all. It is a novel of ideas. Some of them are naive ideas. Some of them are bad ideas. Many of them are commonplaces. Nevertheless, Executive Orders does ask questions that ought to be part of the political landscape in the United States but are not. Someone as variously well-informed as Tom Clancy would no doubt be offended if he were told that his writings were examples of the popular mind at work. However, it might be just to say that this book is a fair sample of the educated but non-elite mind of America. It is neither ignorant nor unperceptive, and it is reaching conclusions quite different from those enunciated by people who claim to speak for it.

This really holds true for Dead or Alive as well. I can easily imagine hearing John Clark's voice from my friends and acquaintances who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, or from their fathers who served in Vietnam. These men [and yes, they are pretty much all men] regard waterboarding as torture, but wouldn't shed too many tears over its use on a sufficiently bad man. This part of the electorate correctly perceives that we have enemies, and is puzzled by a studied indifference to smite them as efficiently as possible.

If there is a great flaw in this book, it lies in giving our enemies too much credit. Maybe this is a holdover from the Soviets. The USSR really was a mortal enemy of the United States, and they were a worthy opponent. Al Qaeda and their ilk aspire that status, but they don't really seem capable of doing the kinds of things they do in Dead or Alive. At the very least they haven't yet.

From a dramatic point of view, the terrorists need to be competent to serve as a foil for Clark and Ryan Jr. This allows the technological superiority of the Americans to be brought to bear. In practice, our enemies are not so effective, yet we cannot make the world safe for democracy despite our military might. The reasons are too prosaic to make for good novels however. No one really wants to read a story about how the Northwest Provinces of Pakistan are doomed to be a tribal society riven by conflict until the end of time.

The pivotal character of John Clark makes for a fascinating comparison with John Christian Falkenberg. I have been reading a great deal of military fiction and non-fiction of late, and the question "what makes a good soldier" has been on my mind. Both characters are intended to serve as exemplars, but they reveal clearly different ideals. John Clark comes off rather poorly, but the contest is weighted towards Falkenberg. Clark is a grunt, while Falkenberg is a leader of men and an astute political operator. Yet I can't help but see them as challengers for the hearts of men.

Ultimately, Clark lacks the military virtues. This seems a strange thing to say, but it matters very much when we consider the question of just war. Clark is very good at what he does, and also very good at keeping secrets that are not newsworthy, and these are seen as the preeminent military virtues today. Yet Clark leaves me cold in a way that Falkenberg does not. In the past I was suitably impressed, but I am no longer. John Christian Falkenberg is the kind of man who leads other men to achieve the impossible, and when given great power, hands it back with alacrity. John Clark shoots straight and kills 10 bad men before dinner, and then goes home and has a beer.

Efficiency is not really the mark of a good soldier. It is vitally important, but there is something more that distinguishes a hero from a killer. Maybe Clark is just too far down the chain of command to effectively engage the why rather than the what, but he seems an unworthy holder of power. Clark would indubitably reply that such things are above his pay grade, and he is right. Maybe he just seems unsupervised. Falkenberg would find a good use for a man such as Clark, but he would damn well know what he was up to. Clark has a nominal obedience, but he observes more of the letter of his orders than the spirit. A real soldier is meek. Clark seems rather proud.

Another key comparison of note is the role of military romanticism. Clark has no time for such things, since he operates in the shadows. Falkenberg uses the uniform and the flag in order to control his men. Yet I think that for all that, that scrap of cloth helps to distinguish a soldier from an assassin. The skirl of pipes and cadence of a march make of soldiering something special, and help to humanize the hard men who are good at it. Clark is missing all that, and it shows.

Tom Clancy has accurately noted that at least a portion of America idolizes John Clark, but where is the John Christian Falkenberg to lead him?

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