How Tom Clancy's Techno-Thrillers Helped Us Understand Modern Warfare

In the days after 9/11, as the media tried to assume some kind of normalcy, I remember watching talk shows attempt to dissect the week's unbelievable events. And I remember one guest who kept popping up night after night: Novelist Tom Clancy, who died Tuesday at 66.

Clancy was a darling of CNN and Charlie Rose because the author had an uncanny ability to predict real-life events in his books. The attacks on 9/11 bore an eerie similarity to a plotline in his 1994 book Debt of Honor, for example, when a Japanese character flies a 747 into the Capitol during a Presidential address. In fact, Clancy said he had conversations prior to 9/11 with military officials about how they had not planned sufficiently to handle a hijacked plane flown as part of a suicide mission.

How exactly a former insurance agent fascinated with military tech became one of the most successful writers of our time is a compelling story that could well have been written by Clancy himself. His books spawned four blockbuster films and influenced the genre so thoroughly you can see hints of Clancy in thrillers from the Bourne Identity to Homeland. Clancy also founded a gaming company to bring some of his titles to life, creating the ultimate universe for his characters to live on in forever. His books and the films they inspired acted as a kind of social studies primer—at a time when we were trying to make sense of the quickly changing world around us.

Clancy's first book, The Hunt for Red October, was published in 1984 to popular and critical acclaim—it remains one of the most successful debuts in literary history. The mutiny plotline was loosely based on actual historic events, but what was even more fascinating than his gripping Cold War narrative was his deep understanding and seeming familiarity with military tech. Most notable was his description of a "gradiometer" being used on board the Red October, which helped the Soviet submarine navigate using the measurement of gravitational fields instead of sonar. The same technology is used today by oil and mining ships to generate images of the sea floor, but, at the time, was still an experiment on a handful of the Navy's Ohio-class Trident submarines, part of a black project by Bell Aerospace. According to a CIA publication, this technology was declassified a few months after the film came out in 1990.

Rumors flew after his books were published that the CIA thought he was a mole—there were even reports that the White House had debriefed him. When he later met John F. Lehman, the former secretary of the Navy, Lehman greeted him with one question about the book: "Who the hell cleared it?"

Through his extensive research process, Clancy also gained an innate knowledge of foreign military operations, which, in a sense, drew a cognitive map of the world for his readers. According to the critic and Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson in his book The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System, thrillers—like Clancy's, or like classic '70s paranoia, such as The Parallax View—offer a way to understand world events through narrative, using cinema as a lens. Though Jameson suggests the analytic power of those story lines has dissipated in the face of overwhelming geopolitical complexity, we can nonetheless still see how semi-documentary techno-thrillers—Black Hawk Down, Zero Dark Thirty, or even, why not, the works of Tom Clancy—help us to parse global events we would otherwise be unable to describe. Clancy wove these complicated themes into a neat, comprehensible narrative.

Clancy also introduced a much more realistic portrayal of contemporary warfare. Although you might not agree with his politics—he was buddies with Ronald Reagan, a lifetime Republican and a longtime member of the NRA who was praised by fellow conservatives for positively portraying their ideals in his books—he did introduce us to a post-James Bond era of diplomacy. Instead of the "conniving foreigner" built from cartoonish stereotypes and racist colloquialisms, he introduced nuanced characters from other countries; instead of envisioning war as a bombastic clash of cultures, he detailed the very nuanced accumulation of data and intelligence, a vision that's much more true to how these battles play out today.

But how was his writing on both military tech and current events so prescient? Clancy thanks the First Amendment. During an interview with Larry King in 2000, he said pretty much everything he wrote about was already out there—it just required finding it. "You're allowed to publish just about anything you want, as long as it's not real secret information," he said. "Of course, nobody really does that except for, you know, you guys in the media. And if you really know where to look, there's a lot in the open. There really are no important secrets." Then he gave an even more ominous statement: "There are things I know [that] I don't write about, which I could not responsibly put into my books. Interestingly enough, though, the scariest one of those things is not classified at all. But nevertheless, I don't write about it, because it would make the world a somewhat more dangerous place." WHAT THE HELL, TOM?

Clancy often said that the real reason the Soviet Union lost the Cold War was because they didn't allow freedom of information, something that he continued to push the U.S. government on: "The average guy is fairly smart, if you give him the ability to make decisions for himself. That's the whole premise of America, and that's why America has prospered, and it prospers because if the average guy can get information, he can make his own decisions. Therefore, anything that gets information to the people is good."

That "average guy" sounds a lot like his protagonists, John Clark and Jack Ryan, a type of everyman-turned-hero—much like insurance agent-turned-novelist Clancy. In a sense his works predicted cyberterrorism long before the deed: All Clark and Ryan needed was access to the right information to beat the bad guys, or vice versa.

We'll get one final chance to see how Clancy envisioned the world to transform before our eyes. Here's the description of his forthcoming book, Command Authority: "There's a new strong man in Russia but his rise to power is based on a dark secret hidden decades in the past. The clue to the mystery lies with a most unexpected source, President Jack Ryan."