In an appreciation of science fiction and its authors, Philip K. Dick once noted of the genre, "It's not just 'What if?' It's 'My God; what if?'" When I learned of the death of novelist Tom Clancy at age 66, those words immediately came to mind. To understand Clancy and his legacy, it's useful to remember a time when we didn't casually toss around terms like "SEAL Team Six" and "radiological bomb," and the only people who worried about the threat of "NBCs" were network-television execs.
The power of Tom Clancy is that he gave us a glimpse into a post-9/11 world from the relative comfort of the 1990s. He described the astonishing might of the world's militaries, and of the power that generals wield only for want of an enemy. He didn't just tell you about a fighter jet; he let you fly it. He didn't just quantify the destructive power of an atomic bomb; he blew up the Super Bowl. Restraint was never his specialty, and if it seemed like he was sharing details on par with number of bolts in an aircraft carrier, it's because you could almost see him having so much fun while he was writing. He was a geek with a restless imagination, and vast swaths of his prose are like an applied version of Jane's Defense Weekly.
There is something melancholy about his older works. One almost longs for the days of Cold War, when there was a single, unpredictable but rational threat. Many Cold War military officers I've spoken with have described some of the insane plans for which they trained to fight the Soviets; in every instance, the officers felt sure—if only on a gut level—that they'd never have to do those jobs in real life. The world just wasn't that crazy.
And so the techo-thrillers of Tom Clancy gave us a globe without restraints. He took the map of the world and our weapons of war and he put them to the test. The joy of his fiction was that, with the turn of the final page, we knew without the dread of having to really know. That would change, of course, with 9/11. The phrase "like a Tom Clancy novel" became a shortcut—a way of describing an unfathomable horror beyond words.
In a way, perhaps Clancy gave us some hope, and prepared us for the early stages of what was to come. Only days after the attacks, CIA case officers like Mike Spann were slipping across the border and into Afghanistan, connecting with warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ustad Atta Mohammad Noor, and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, making friends and building alliances. On October 20, 2001, when Operational Detachment Alpha-595, a U.S. Army Special Forces team, inserted just south of Mazar-e Sharif, Mike Spann, and General Dostum's forces were waiting for them at the landing zone. By November, the Taliban government had fallen. The mission wasn't without losses, but it worked a lot like how Tom Clancy said it would, with CIA and special operations forces doing impossible deeds quickly and competently.
In the years before the impossible happened, Tom Clancy gave readers the impossible. He asked, "My God, what if?" And then suddenly, it was no longer an "if."