Monday, July 15, 2019

Paramilitary Fiction and the Military Techno-thriller: The Question of Social Class

In one of the comparatively few scholarly articles written about the military techno-thriller, "Redeeming Vietnam: Techno-Thriller Novels of the 1980s" (which ran in the Autumn 1991 edition of the journal Cultural Critique, sociologist William James Gibson held that the techno-thriller provided a white-collar, middle-class counterpart to working-class populist paramilitary fiction. As Gibson put it, the naval captains, Air Force officers, intelligence analysts and the like who were the heroes of those works "are educated professionals" who "fight with their minds and with the most advanced technology science can develop," but still show, and assure their middle class audience that, they too "have 'what it takes' to fight the enemy"--not least, in bucking the enervated or sell-out Establishment types when the situation demands it.

Jack Ryan is, of course, an obvious example, consistently acting on his own in such a manner. In Patriot Games (1987) it is his own initiative that leads him to the rescue of British royals, and then in the end, his own actions that save his family from retaliation by the terrorists who assassinated them, with the tendency still more pronounced in later book. After the D.C. players abandoned a special-forces in Colombia in Clear and Present Danger (1989), the normally straight-arrow Jack Ryan personally undertook an unauthorized operation to bring them back, not just flying out on the helicopter tasked with the recovery, but personally manning its minigun, with which he mows down dozens of drug cartel soldiers.

Still, the matter strikes me as more complex than Gibson suggests. Before joining the CIA, Jack Ryan was a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch, and a Professor of History at the U.S. Naval Academy, married to an ophthalmic surgeon whose father was a senior Vice-President at the iconic brokerage; but he was also the son of a cop and a nurse who does not get along with his hyper-privileged in-laws.

Indeed, in his confrontation with that Merrill Lynch VP in Patriot Games after the terrorists have put Ryan's wife and daughter in the hospital, Clancy strikes rather a populist note. Joe Muller "was a product of the Ivy League," quite aware of his "importance in the financial community" acted in a high-handed manner toward others, not least Ryan, whom he never forgave for leaving the business--the overbearing, money-and-power obsessed rich man who doesn't understand his son-in-law's "trying to make the world a better place instead of trying to take it over with leveraged buyouts," and doesn't get that there are people he can't bully. Indeed, Clancy pointedly presents Ryan as averse to the man and what he represents, Ryan telling Joe in the same speech that if he stayed on Wall Street like he wanted, "working with [him] every day, moving money from Column A to Column B and pretending it was important, like all the other Wall Street wimps" he would, "hating it," turn "into another miserable bastard in the financial world." It is not the middle class but another class that Clancy seems to be reassuring when Ryan remarks that, as far as making money there went, "I proved that I could do that as well as you, but I made my pile, and so now I do something I like."

The pattern recurred in such works time and again. Dale Brown's Patrick McLanahan--who, if anything, goes well beyond Ryan in loose cannon behavior (in The Flight of the Old Dog (1987), participating in an unauthorized strike against the Soviet Union)--is imagined along quite similar lines. McLanahan, too, is the son of an Irish-American cop who "knew nothing else but work from age twenty to age sixty," after retirement, in his own cop bar, "The Shamrock." The sons continue both traditions, McLanahan's brother Paul becoming a cop in his turn, while after dad's death selling the bar--"family symbol," "heirloom"--is out of the question in spite of the unprofitability of the establishment that had dad working side jobs like security guard, and Patrick sacrificing much of his earnings as an Air Force officer to keeping it in business. Indeed, in Shadows of Steel (1996) Patrick, who himself "looked as if he might be more at home in a squad car or on motorcycle patrol than in a bar" is the more out of place because of what has become of the bar, the hang-out for "loud, adrenaline-pumped" beer-and-bourbon drinking cops now frequented by upmarket, touristy types who order "Napa Valley chardonnays . . . specialty espresso coffee drinks . . . cafe mochas . . . veggie appetizers," and expect to get them from decidedly un-McLanahan-like "cool, suave Tom Cruise-look-alike bartenders."

Also like Ryan, his in-laws don't think much of him, and let him know it (in considerably cruder terms than Muller uses--an anti-Irish racial epithet is spoken) when his wife winds up in the hospital due to enemy action in Day of the Cheetah (1989). Appearing two years after Patriot Games, the scene can appear derivative, but that it appeared worth imitating is in itself significant--and in any event, this was far from the last time he was to be in such a situation. Returning to the family home again in The Tin Man (1998), McLanahan goes after not the usual foreign adversaries, but a meth-cooking biker gang that hurt his brother in fairly Mack Bolan fashion (albeit, with the help of a little superhero technology that looks more Batman than Executioner).

For his part, Stephen Coonts' Jake Grafton, like McLanahan, began his career in print with an unauthorized air strike against the Communists (Hanoi in 1972 in this case) in Flight of the Intruder (1986), and then after being told not to do so, taking off in a Tomcat to hunt down that novel's terrorist villains, Final Flight (1988), is the son of a farmer--not working-class, admittedly, but hardly a member of the elite. And Ralph Peters, if less given to playing up the humble roots of his War in 2020 (1991) protagonist George Taylor (another launcher of unauthorized military strikes in the midst of international crisis), was even more ardent about playing up the privileged backgrounds of many of those with whom he had to contend, juxtaposing him against the man with whom his girlfriend Daisy Fitzgerald is cheating on him, deputy director of the "United Intelligence Agency," "Clifton Reynard Bouquette." At times reading like a caricature of "the other have" in government service, Bouquette is a man who "knew the names of wines and waiters." By contrast Taylor, on account of the scars left by a disease he contracted during a deployment in Africa, "cannot sit in a restaurant without disturbing those around [him]"--and defiantly refuses the cosmetic surgery that would make him more socially acceptable, seeing his face as "the true badge of his service."

The result is that even if middle-class individuals may have "what it takes," the suspicion of moneyed, professional, "Establishment types" is almost as prominent in the techno-thriller as it is in the more overtly blue-collar paramilitary works.

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