Red Storm Rising as a retro-future war novel

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This is a tongue-in-cheek piece I started writing in the summer and did not complete.

There are good arguments against reading an early Tom Clancy novel today. Literary merit aside, the military science is outdated, and the cold war order that informed his imagination in the 80s has given way to the war on terror. But old things, old ideas, old political frameworks have a way of coming back.

The headlines this year portrayed a slow but disturbing escalation in the US-Iran oil conflict. In April 2019, the US designates the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, an unprecedented move against a state body of a foreign government, while increasing pressure on China and India to buy less oil from Iran. In May, Secretary of State Pompeo blames Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. In June, National Security Advisor Bolton blames Iran for attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. Also in June, Iranian forces shoot down a US drone. In July, US forces jam and crash an Iranian drone. In August, Iran unveils a new surface to air missile system.

Meanwhile, President Trump and several Democratic candidates for the 2020 election are seriously taken by many to be Manchurian candidates. Progressive darlings take a break from social justice and anti-racism to post tweets with phrases like “our enemies abroad” and “hostile foreign power.”

So why did I read a Tom Clancy novel? Because it seems the world is turning into one.

Published in 1986, Red Storm Rising imagines a conflict between the US-NATO alliance and the Warsaw Pact. One constraint: no nukes. When terrorists blow up an oil complex in Azerbaijan, Moscow decides it’s time to smash NATO as a preliminary move before invading the Gulf states to avoid economic collapse. A false flag bombing of the Kremlin, a push into West Germany, and World War III kicks off. 

To some extent, Clancy worked with a procedure, using a maritime combat simulator game designed by Larry Bond called Harpoon. The campaign in the Norwegian Sea, complete with air, surface, and submarine units, lent tactical authenticity to the battle sequences, most notably a chapter in which three aircraft carriers, two American and one French, are rained upon by Russian cruise missiles. 

The verisimilitude was effective. Ronald Reagan devoured the book in 1986, personally recommended it to Margaret Thatcher, and apparently kept the story in mind while negotiating with Gorbachev at the Reykjavik Summit that same year. In another one of history’s pranks, a neoconservative thriller may have had a hand in shaping the NATO framework and American national security policy — the rest is cold war lore.

Red Storm Rising presents a mixture of stock characters and scenarios from older, pulpier westerns and war stories (including an indefensible rape and revenge sequence). We meet a guilt-ridden frigate captain; a twerpy Navy clerk turned guerilla fighter who gets the girl at the end; a handful of Party apparatchiks; a plucky Air Force Major named Amy “Buns” Nakamura who thinks to herself, “The Russians let women fly combat in World War II! A couple even made ace!”

It’s a long book, but it’s lean. The scenes are short and move at a fast clip, so that this rapidly unfolding combinatory of officers and personnel, meeting rooms and command posts, is somehow irresistible. Pages of technical reporting placed in this or that character’s mouth, with cups of cheap coffee and fruit juice in hand (or cans of Coke), maps and newspapers and overstuffed ashtrays spread across the wardroom table. 

The prose isn’t always so dusty. We get tactile details, like the slight, steady vibrations of a periscope in a Commanding Officer’s hands, and the sublime image of a frigate in a storm, where violent action influences every phrase:

The spray stung his face, and Morris loved it. The convoy of ballasted ships was steaming into the teeth of a forty-knot gale. The sea was an ugly, foam-whipped shade of green, droplets of seawater tearing off the whitecaps to fly horizontally through the air. His frigate climbed up the steep face of endless twenty-foot swells, then crashed down again in a succession that had lasted six hours.

Clancy truly comes alive when he deals not with the people, but the machines, artillery, and delivery systems that they manufacture, operate and maintain. Grammatical agency comes to the foreground: a torpedo “would have been surprised that it struck nothing,” and German 155mm guns are “waiting for their radio-intercept experts to pin down the divisional headquarters.”

I read Red Storm Rising as science fiction, specifically the future war subgenre, though reading it today makes it more of a retrofuture war. And as science fiction, there’s a utopian dimension to its depiction of armed conflict. It has an abstract purity to it, even when planes and tanks explode “like plastic toys” and hit submarines simultaneously crush and burn the men inside to death. The North Atlantic is a vast gray sheet, a tabletop game with miniatures set over it (the novel’s plotlines center around the choke point between Iceland and Norway, protecting convoys and harassing the enemy’s).  “What modern combat lacks in humanity,” a reporter remarks, “it more than makes up for in intensity.” Intensive action, yes, but also capital intensive. The war is fought with radars and radar jammers, sonars and noisemakers, Tomcats and MiGs, SAMs and satellites. Men are here to mark warheads with a grease pencil and punch data into a computerized targeting system. A high-end engagement with clearly defined theaters and fronts, with the contest decided in a few short months. No protracted insurgency, no pesky national liberation movement to divert American firepower away from the true rival.

This is what Vietnam should have been.

Dramatic irony pervades the narrative, which is both amusing and frustrating. That is, the reader knows why the war started, but the American armed forces largely don’t, and are in the dark up to the very end. That does not prevent the good guys from winning: behind superior capability is our homegrown liberal pragmatism. When the big picture is obscure, we focus on what’s in front of us and make it work. Our boys know when the time is right to throw out the book and do their own thing. On the other hand, the Soviet army places politics in command, even if it means getting buffaloed into a war of attrition. Moscow seeks NATO’s political defeat, and military maneuvers are simply the execution of political policy. In this philosophy, war is still about winning, but winning and losing are ultimately part of a vaster social process. Except in Red Storm Rising the conflict rests on one word: oil. There are no further revelations; once the Western powers learn the truth, it’s a wrap. A coup plotted by the KGB and a Soviet Commander in Chief neutralizes the Politburo in the Kremlin, a bookend to the tactical shootout in Azerbaijan 650 pages ago. A cease-fire and return to the status quo ante bellum is drawn up, and it feels simple to act as if this whole affair had never happened, had just been an exercise.

In the real world, wars do not start over resources and false flags — not even the invasion of Iraq. That’s a vulgar materialist thought, as naive as writing a story about warring nations who “just hate each other.” The reality involves innumerable objective and subjective forces, and the struggle of great powers to arrange the balance of these forces in each region to their liking, to impose their will upon the world stage. And that striving feeds back into itself with the question of credibility, of the perceived ability to exert power, as historian Gabriel Kolko formulates it. Great powers export their capital and compete to divide up the world’s territories, to be sure, but at the end of the day war is a symptom of different human social visions and interests that cannot be reconciled. Ending war requires ending class society.

The retro aspect of Red Storm Rising’s retrofuture war is quaint, but the future aspect is striking. The fantastic crisis of Clancy’s novel bears a tendency that has become resonant for our current juncture. The Department of Defense’s 2018 National Defense Strategy document signals a shift in their grand strategy away from international campaigns against terrorism or “rogue regimes,” and back toward direct inter-imperialist rivalry. The high-end, high-tech battles for a new international order are increasingly conceivable, only instead of a declining Soviet Union, the Pentagon is interested in revisionist China.

Warmongering is a last resort of capitalist societies desperate to stave off crisis. And that means more racism and chauvinism, more upsurges in the neo-fascist movement, more anticommunist hysteria, more hardship for poor people and minorities who will bear the brunt of the economic and social costs, more refugees, more environmental destruction in the name of security and secure profits.

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