The voice came from the backseat of the car.
“When I grow up I’d like to be a spy for CSIS.”
I burst out laughing, struggling to keep the car under control. A spy for CSIS! Right.
Now, before anyone accuses me of being a bad parent–you’ll find better evidence for that elsewhere–I wasn’t laughing at my son’s aspirations at being a spy. Spies are awesome. And, who knows? He may yet become a spy. True, he can’t figure out how to unroll socks after he takes them off. And he can never, ever, ever find his backpack when it’s time to go to school. But kids grow, don’t they?
No, I wasn’t laughing at Nicolas’ aspirations of spydom. It’s better than him wanting to become an evil genius or a maniacal dictator or a university professor.
No, it was the idea of my son being a spy for CSIS, Canada’s so-called “spy agency.” From what I can tell, these guys gather in a wooded park in Ottawa and watch pirated copies of the 1995 cult classic, Hackers on Dell laptops. It could be they are also in charge of maintaining coffee-doughnut proportionality in the fragile Canadian economy. I don’t know for sure. If I did, they would have to kill me, or at least give me a very serious talking to.
Despite the sheer ridiculousness of the thought of CSIS spies, I was a little proud of the comment. One of my guilty pleasures is reading the Jack Ryan series by Tom Clancy. I say “guilty” because I’ve been chided before for reading Clancy. “You should read something better,” a writer friend admonished me.
He’s probably right. Clancy is the King of self-indulgence and the Prime Minister of “telling” instead of “showing.” Stock characters spread over 950 pages of thin, misogynistic, Americo-centric political intrigue does keep Clancy off the literati RSVP lists. But, I’m ashamed to say, I do love it, and I usually stay up late to devour the last two hundred pages.
I have three pretty good reasons for loving Clancy’s Jack Ryan universe. When I was starving for books in rural Japan in the pre-eBook era, I found Rainbow Six in a clearance bin at the mall—in English! Reluctantly, I took it home, and found that I quite liked it.
I also loved the Jack Ryan movies. Really, Jack Ryan is Harrison Ford in my mind. I can easily forget Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October because the film was so very good, though I’ll never forgive Tom Clancy for allowing Ben Affleck to do whatever it was he did there in The Sum of All Fears. Makes me shudder. We’ll see how Chris Pine does in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. I’m hesitant, though I know I can always go back to Patriot Games or Clear and Present Danger—two of the very few movies I saw in the theatre as a teen.
Not only was Jack Ryan a book friend in a lonely time and a great on-screen presence (2 out of 4 ain’t bad), but I had a question that bugged me that I thought Tom Clancy could (unintentionally) answer.
I was a young teen when the Berlin wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed. Growing up, I felt the Cold War in my bones, and although we had terrorism—Tehran, Libya, the hijackings, the IRA—the end of the Cold War meant a shift of something significant in international politics. We moved on from an international stalemate, a global-killing game of chicken where it was bloodiest in Mideastern proxy wars (Iraq-Iran and Afghanistan, in particular). But with the democratization of Eastern Europe and Russia we moved from the era of national war to the era of political terrorism. And though Huntington missed a lot in his “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, something had really shifted. I wanted to find out what, and I suspected that Clancy had captured it, and watching Sneakers repeatedly only got me so far.
After reading Rainbow Six in Japan, I was back in Canada for a few years before I turned to the Jack Ryan series on the question. The Dr. Jack Ryan character, for those who don’t know, is a political consultant who rockets through the CIA to top positions because of his keen analysis combined with peculiar timing. His CV in the first five books is impressive—a stuffy professor who is dragged into the field, saved only by quick thinking, core integrity, and a tremendous amount of luck. In the slow movement through the series—the books are huge, and I only read one every year or two—I came to The Sum of All Fears.
Pushing Ben Affleck out of your brain, The Sum of All Fears is still a bit of a slog in the first 500 pages or so. The technical detail on how to build an H-bomb is painful at times, and it is difficult to understand the motives of the terrorists. But it is an important book because it is the first post-Cold War book. While Jack Ryan struggles with the intra-cultural terrorism of the IRA in Patriot Games, this is the first peak we have of global terrorism after the Berlin wall falls.
I don’t know if Clancy read Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” paper (I suspect so), but he certainly read the lead article before Fukuyama dropped his The End of History and the Last Man. The Sum of all Fears is the narrative version of what Fukuyama and Huntington were debating: what international conflict will look like after “liberal democratic capitalism has won.”
Looking back, thinking of the rise of China, various genocides, and Mideast destabilization, we may wonder if the victory dance was a bit premature. But something did change when the USSR shook hands with the West.
The Sum of All Fears—the book, I mean; ignore the movie totally—features an Arab Muslim team that cooperates with a post-Cold War communist, a mad but very precise German scientist, and a Native American terrorist in a conspiracy to detonate a small thermo-nuclear weapon on American soil with the goal of re-triggering the US-USSR showdown. “Back to the good ole days” is the theme, the Cold War being those good ole days.
In the logic of this motley crew of terrorists: 1) the Native American can get back at evil American colonizers who killed his brother; 2) the Germans can get back at the West, whatever that means; 3) and the Muslims can continue to terrorize Israel without being threatened by fellow Arabs who are happy with the fragile peace. Like I said, motivation is not Tom Clancy’s strong suit. But, the intrigue, after a slow build, is pretty good.
Don’t worry. Jack Ryan saves the day. But it is tight, and it isn’t Russia that gets in the way this time. The real issue is leadership, not politics or even the crush of history. A nuclear WWIII is averted only by accommodating for poor American leadership.
This is an intriguing move. Tom Clancy is, after all, the man who gave terrorists the idea for 9/11 in his 1994 Debt of Honor. As an American conservative, he is viewed as someone who shakes hands with Samuel Huntington to predict (or even shape) both the catastrophe of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the governmental response.
It is true that Tom Clancy anticipates a move from international war to global terrorism. Perhaps everyone had that taste in their mouths when writing in 1990, but I suspect he is prophetic in this. Notably, though, the effective leaders in Clancy’s books don’t do what Bush-Rumsfeld did post-9/11. In The Sum of All Fears, an H-bomb really does explode on American soil, killing 100,000+ Americans. In the aftermath, retaliation is possible, but it means killing 100,000+ Muslims who are not connected to the terrorist attack. President Fowler in The Sum of All Fears puts his finger to the trigger, as Bush did in Afghanistan and Iraq. 100,000 is a dramatic understatement of bystander death in the conflicts after 9/11.
In the Jack Ryan version of America, however, the manic President is put in check and the tensions drop. The West chooses not to attack—a poignant thought as Canadians are pulling out of Afghanistan just now, after 13 years, hoping we did the right thing. Because of Ryan’s great risk, WWIII is averted, and America does not respond with indignation by bombing sovereign territories.
Moreover, Clancy does not yet build up a “Muslim terrorist” stereotype that would be awfully tempting in the years of the 1990s, with the first Gulf War in play, the PLO bombings in the media, and the rise of Osama bin Ladin on every Washington watch list. True, his Muslim characters are stock. But all his characters are stock. Jack Ryan is sufficiently complex, but it takes 3000-4000 pages to get us there. Inserting Harrison Ford doesn’t hurt, either.
Really, though, Clancy does for the CIA, and later for Jack Ryan in the Oval Office, what The West Wing does on the other side of the spectrum. Both the Jack Ryan and President Bartlett universes offer us leadership that, in the midst of monumental struggles and petty politics, demonstrates integrity in the face of self-doubt. One of the things I love so much is the ability to be self-critical, something lacking in North American politics. Josiah Bartlett and Jack Ryan are the Presidents we wish we could have, on the left and the centre-right.
Looking back, it seems there is a lot that academics and political consultants could learn from Clancy’s books. I don’t know what era we are in now. An entire jet has disappeared, Russia has annexed Crimea, Syria is in civil war, and sub-Saharan Africa simmers. I can’t name our era yet, the era after the 9/11 decade. Perhaps I should keep reading Tom Clancy.
However, all that analysis is real just cover—deep cover, granted. I am, secretly, a fan of the Jack Ryan books. I don’t know how long I will keep reading them as Dr. Ryan transforms from spy to politician, but I have already started Debt of Honor, even though I know how it ends. I love the CIA—at least in the pre-Edward Snowden days.
Which brings me back to CSIS and my son, the future spy in the backseat of the car. He can never become CIA—I just didn’t think that far ahead, I’m afraid. So I thought I would do a little more digging on CSIS. It turns out it is a real spy organization after all that does what the CIA and NSA do for the United States. Not a very effective organization, it seems, but effective enough that, with the RCMP and a global network of spy agency cooperation, a number of terrorism cells have been broken in Canada. We’ll see. Maybe there’s hope for Nicolas’ spy career after all.
And then I can write 950-page bestsellers about it! The Doughnut Conspiracy. Casually Patriot Games. Double eh 7. The Beaver and the Dragon. Without Recourse. The Battle for the North Pole. The Hunt for an October Without Snow. Not Very Clear but Probably Present Danger, We’ll See. The Teeth of the Beaver.
Tom Clancy here I come.