Techno-Highs : Tom Clancy’s damn-the-literary-torpedoes style dances at the edge of international developments : DEBT OF HONOR, <i> By Tom Clancy (Putnam: $25.95; 766 pp.)</i>
Tom Clancy is America’s most wish-fulfilling policy-maker, and in his eighth spectacular and scary novel, “Debt of Honor,” he plunges America into a foreign policy that is at once unthinkable and very thrilling--a campaign that the present State and Defense departments can only wish they had the talent to fight.
Real war with Japan. Real Japanese sneak attack against America’s Pacific fleet, real paralyzing nuclear gamesmanship with rebuilt Soviet missiles, real state terrorism, real American territory taken by foreign troops, real dead Americans in the thousands, and all this in the immediate future.
The moment when the President learns of the war is the chilling instant of the book.
“You look like hell,” President Durling remarks to the Clancy’s franchise player, super hero Jack Ryan.
They’re in Air Force One, heading home from new ally Russia, alert to several spontaneous Third World crises that might be linked.
“What’s the problem?” the President asks.
Ryan, now national security adviser, searches for the right emphasis on the mind-boggling news flashes: stock market crashing, two carriers out of action, two nuclear subs missing, terrorism in the Indian Ocean, chauvinist elections in Japan.
“Mr. President, based on information received over the last few hours, I believe that the United States of America is at war with Japan.”
In one tight scene Tom Clancy has done the work of all the king’s horses and men--he has put before you, as if you were the President, the possibility of a battle that is implicit in every economic headline this summer about the U.S. trade gap with Japan, the yen versus the dollar, and the fragility of the U.S. government bond market and the Nikkei stock market. War with Japan! Of course! So that’s what’s going on.
Clancy has spun this exact spider’s web brilliantly before--brought together “what-if” scenarios with media agitprop with the dazzling hardware and tireless muscle of America’s armed forces. In seven previous novels, Clancy has defended America from the massive air-land-sea attacks of the Soviets (“Red Storm Rising”), the demonic sabotage of the Mideast fundamentalists (“Patriot Games,” “The Sum of All Fears”), the twisted minds of Vietnamese tyrants (“Without Remorse”), the hate-filled drug lords (“Clear and Present Danger”) and even the chicanery of allies and traitors (“Cardinal of the Kremlin,” “Hunt for Red October”).
For more than a decade Clancy has projected American power and ideals around the globe. If our foes want to know what we would do if attacked or tricked, they only need to look at Clancy to learn that they don’t want to fool with Uncle Sam. (Clancy’s two nonfiction works, “Submarine” and “Armored Cav,” for cavalry, are one boot stride into the twilight zone of what the Pentagon charmingly calls “warfighting.”)
In his greatest achievement to date, “Red Storm Rising,” Clancy, with tech support from the skillful Larry Bond, played out the Soviet sneak attack on NATO and showed not only why the Soviet empire was evil but also that it was doomed to lose any scenario of conflict with the American military machine. The death of the Soviet Union followed Clancy’s story like an afterthought, and in the history of Cold War fiction Clancy will always be remembered as the man who delivered the coup de grace.
“Debt of Honor” raises the stakes for Clancy. Here he has us at war not with the infamous evil empire of the Cold War, not with the agreed-upon enemies of terrorists and druggies, but with the folk who own two Hollywood studios and Rockefeller Center: the Japanese.
In sum, war with the wrong foe. For the United States of America is not at present in a position either to defend itself from nor to counter-attack a Japanese military strike.
“Jesus, the cupboard’s that bare?” a stunned naval officer comments at the frail American order of battle in the Pacific at the war’s opening.
Clancy responds to this question with his militant point: “The mighty United States Pacific Fleet, as recently as five years ago the most powerful naval force in the history of civilization, was now a frigate navy.”
To convince the reader that war with the people who brought you the Nissan Pathfinder is credible, Clancy works diligently to build a 350-page case answering the why, who, where and how of a Japanese war.
This grinding detail is Clancy’s gift. He atomizes the chain of events that leads from a mistaken manufacture of a Japanese automobile gas tank to the American political outrage and turmoil to the mercantilist counterblow in the Congress to the textbook subterfuge of Japanese industrialists who are most threatened by a pending American embargo of all Japanese cars. It’s all as logical as Kissinger’s mind, domino by domino, and we watch the world move toward cataclysm with precision. When the Japanese take out the supercarriers Enterprise and John Stennis with a trick Mark-50 torpedo fusillade at their screw-propellers, it’s clear that America is on the brink of Pearl Harbor II. And this time we won’t have a chance to rearm because we’ve given the weapons locker away.
Fortunately the Irish ruthlessness of Jack Ryan is available to save his President and country once more from disaster. Harrison Ford has twice played Ryan perfectly--in the movie versions of “Patriot Games” and the new “Clear and Present Danger"--and it’s impossible not to see Ford hunched over the desk in the Oval Office and biting off data-packed information for the President.
“There are ten birds here,” Ryan says of the hidden Japanese nuclear missiles. “They’re dug in deep, and the site seems to have been selected for relative immunity from attack. The next question is making sure we can hit them all.”
At the same time, the sensationally savage CIA field officer, John Clark (hero of “Without Remorse”), has a critical role in countering the Japanese. Indeed Clancy brings all of his huge continuing cast of characters into play--the CIA families, the Secret Service and FBI agents, the sailors and aviators--and reading Clancy now is like attending a reunion. Everyone has a critical job, everyone performs admirably.
At the heart of the tale are the submarines, of course, for Clancy’s love remains with his first success, “The Hunt for Red October.” The action language is always grand, but for me the dialogue in an attack submarine is pure science fiction pleasure:
“Bearing is constant. Not a wiggle. They heading straight for us or close to it. They pounding hard.”
The last 200 pages of “Debt of Honor” are breathtaking. Only the elect who can read real-time satellite photos can get more excited than a Clancy reader at the climax of a war story. The White House situation room, Langley’s communications links, COMCINCPAC operations, the flight deck of a B-2, the conn of a 688, the Ranger unit behind enemy lines--all this specificity jumping around from paragraph to paragraph without mercy for the uneducated. Clancy’s passion is overwhelming. His sense of cliffhanging is state of the art. The close of this book is a five-run homer.
The lit crowd has long smirked at Clancy, and it will trip over its metaphors bad-mouthing this yarn as racism and paranoia and (zounds!) melodrama. Worth considering, however, is that Clancy is now embarked on a patriotic journey into the post Cold War future, where nightmares such as Haiti and Bosnia and North Korea await like wounded lions. What’s going to happen will look much closer to Clancy’s gunsight vision than to the Stone-Morrison-Smiley-Eco set of infinite feelings or meanings. Next time someone takes a cheap shot at your dogeared Clancy set, just bark back, “Bombs away!”