Erin Simpson is the chief executive of Caerus Analytics, a strategy and design firm in Arlington. Phillip Carter is a senior fellow and counsel at the Center for a New American Security.
Tom Clancy never served in the military, the intelligence community or any other part of the U.S. government. Instead, he wrote stories of submariners fighting the Cold War, infantrymen fighting the drug war, and spies and analysts looking for enemies in dark alleys and satellite photos. In doing so, the best-selling novelist not only captured the imaginations of many readers, he created a literary bridge across the civil-military divide — inspiring many, including us, to join the units and agencies he wrote about so colorfully.
One of us, Erin, grew up in suburban Kansas, where, despite nearby Fort Leavenworth, home of the Army’s Combined Arms Center, and Lawrence, the setting of the Cold War shock flick “The Day After,” foreign policy and military affairs had little presence. It was hard to compete for attention with Jayhawks basketball, after all. But spy novels did — and “The Hunt for Red October” was the first spy thriller she read in elementary school. Nearly two decades later, she wrote her dissertation on intelligence in irregular warfare, taught operations and counterinsurgency to Marines, and later deployed to Afghanistan as a civilian adviser.
The other, Phil, grew up in West Los Angeles, a part of Southern California where you were more likely to meet out-of-work actors than veterans, despite the massive defense and aerospace industry there. But it was hard to resist the pull of the military after hearing Navy stories from Grandpa and Army stories from Dad — and then reading “Red Storm Rising,” about a World War III scenario in Central Europe, and “Patriot Games,” about global terrorism. Clancy’s characters, such as the immortal Jack Ryan, also set forth a career path that seemed perfect: four years in the Marines (or the Army, in Phil’s case), followed by graduate school and a civilian career in national security.
For Gen-Xers like us, Clancy’s novels provided our first view of the inner workings of national security: the weapons systems, the sensors, the command structures and the acronyms. (Oh, did Clancy love acronyms!) Of course other books and movies covered similar ground, but none with Clancy’s technocratic detail. Unless you subscribed to various Jane’s publications — one of which is on Jack Ryan’s desk in “Red October” — you would never have been exposed to minutiae about sonar buoys near Iceland. You felt like a 12-year-old military expert reading those books.
But the novels weren’t just about the military. Jack Ryan was a Marine turned history professor turned spyturned president, a final twist that probably jumped the shark. Clancy’s characters included diplomats, soldiers, analysts and civil servants of any number of agencies and varying degrees of loyalty. These were the people — along with the admirals and sonarmen — who influenced and executed foreign policy.
Indeed, Clancy’s world, especially in the early books, was one of doers. One of the things that distinguishes his thrillers from those by Robert Ludlum, Vince Flynn or Lee Child is the constant juxtaposition of senior-level policy decisions — at the National Security Council or the CIA — with the highly trained, skillful and more realistic individuals implementing them. As a kid you might have trouble imagining yourself as the national security adviser — seriously, what does that guy do? But you could see how you might enlist in the Navy to drive a submarine or join the CIA to become an intelligence analyst.