Patriot Games was notable for subverting the moral ambiguity of the antagonists

Saturday, March 7th, 2020

I somehow managed to go this whole time without reading a single Tom Clancy novel — or watching a single movie adaptation, except for The Hunt for Red October — and only just now listened to the audiobook version of Patriot Games, which was originally published in 1987.

I didn’t remember the character of Jack Ryan, from The Hunt for Red October, so I was a bit surprised to find that he was not a Bond- or Bourne-like super-spy, but a history professor with a wife and daughter — and I was a bit concerned for his family’s safety, in those first few pages, since their deaths could explain and justify a book full of righteous vengeance, but they merely witness the inciting incident of the novel, where our former-Marine hero tackles one Irish terrorist, takes his pistol, and kills another. That seemed…out of character for a professor — even a young one who was briefly a Marine lieutenant — and there really isn’t any further explanation.

The book is a product of its time, and it features the first foreign terrorist attack on American soil. These foreign terrorists are vengeful Irish extremists, and they side with local Marxist revolutionaries belonging to The Movement, a Black Panther-like group. The novel is conspicuously progressive on issues of race and sex. Our hero’s best buddy is a top-notch black fighter pilot — pardon, naval aviator — and the evil Irish terrorists disrespect their more-competent black partners, before turning on them.

The technology is mid-1980s, too, with the “newer” spy satellites using CCDs, which give real-time intel, rather than film, which has to be used up and then dropped back down and recovered for processing. Our hero is oddly rattled by seeing low-res video of a special operations assault on a terrorist training camp.

The coolest gun in the world in the 1980s is the Uzi, which makes an appearance. The pistols offered to our hero include a Colt .45 automatic, a Browning Hi-Power, and a .22 target pistol. The Beretta M9, which was adopted in 1985, doesn’t appear. The grizzled Marine Sergeant Major, Breckenridge, teaches our hero to shoot one-handed, purely for accuracy, before introducing him to the two-handed Weaver stance and “rapid fire” shooting, one shot per second. This is all rather quaint to a modern practical shooter.

When I looked the book up on Wikipedia, it raised a point about it that never occurred to me:

Patriot Games was notable for subverting the moral ambiguity of the antagonists in espionage novels by John le Carré, Len Deighton, and Robert Ludlum. According to Marc Cerasini’s essay on the novel, “Clancy’s sensible revulsion toward the terrorists is so strident and intense…that it verges on the physical.” He added that “the author’s understandable disgust toward his villains is ‘bourgeois’, for there is not a shred of sympathy for these Irish ‘patriots’.”

Yes, terribly bourgeois.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    Ryan has a back story. He was a Marine lieutenant who suffered a broken back when the helicopter he was riding crashed. He might not be James Bond, but he wasn’t Winnie the Pooh either.

  2. Tim Gilley says:

    I enjoyed a few Clancy novels in the 80s so I was intrigued enough to check out the new series. Ambiguity is putting it lightly. When it was revealed Ryan’s boss had become a Muslim I quit watching. What little I watched made a tremendous effort to erase the Islamic ideology of Mohammad from the terrorists motivations.

  3. Steve Johnson says:

    Of the Clancy novels I read I thought Red Storm Rising was the best.

    I have no idea how it would hold up now.

  4. Kirk says:

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about going back to re-read works you enjoyed in your youth, it’s a single-word admonition: Don’t.

    I can’t think of too many books that I remember enjoying from “back in the day” which held up under later re-reading. Tom Clancy’s works are definitely in that category, as are James Mitchener. Both of whom, I would point out, became literary fronts, with ghost-writers a-plenty churning out works under their names.

    Dune was worth a re-read; nothing else of Herbert appealed. I’d get ten pages in, and go “Yeah, now I remember…”, and put them down.

    Some books have a place and a time; outside of that moment, they just aren’t the same. Bulwer-Lytton was once a colussus bestriding the literary world; today, he’s the punchline in a bad joke, and the guy they named a contest for bad writing after.

  5. Albion says:

    Books are written in a time for a time, which makes me think a lot of passes (in the critics’ eyes at least) as notable modern fiction will not earn any sort of love and admiration in years to come.

    Stories are always of contemporary matters, whatever they pretend and few, if any, of our contemporary issues will be little more than joke material for future generations. They will see us like silent black and white movie actors, hamming it up with jerky and exaggerated gestures.

    I agree by the way with the absurd glorification of the muslim master in the TV show about Ryan. A reason I simply turned off, too.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    To re-read a book you enjoyed as a child is to learn something about yourself.

    Sometimes I’ll have another look at a book I hated as child. Usually I still hate it, but the second time around I can better articulate why.

    Old books are time capsules. They are a basis of comparison. Read them to learn what is constant and what is merely an accident of our time and place. It’s like visiting a foreign country but without the trouble and expense of travel.

  7. Richard says:

    The terrorists wore the Queen’s uniform.

    The War Nerd did a great take down of Clancy.

  8. Graham says:

    I read Patriot Games more or less when it was out and now that I see it mentioned, Clancy’s “revulsion” at the terrorists struck even my gung-ho, over-the-top teenage cold-warrior mindset of the day as a little too much. It must have been quite overpowering if that was the case.

    I also remember he had Ryan be a little unnecessarily fawning in a meeting with Prince Charles [whose family were the victims in the initial attack as opposed to a fictional more distant royal in the movie].

    I recall thinking that the movie was better than the book, which I find fairly unusual. Even making it a sequel rather than a prequel with a more mature Ryan rather than a younger one, necessitated by casting Harrison Ford, proved smart.

    For Clancy books of the first 15 years or so, I also enjoyed Red Storm Rising. It was a successful effort at a cast of thousands novel that still managed to make characters interesting. It was like Hackett’s Third World War books taken more steps into the realm of the purely novelistic.

    For books in the Jack Ryan Universe, The Cardinal of the Kremlin struck me as excellent then, The Sum of All Fears [much better than the bowdlerized Affleck movie with vaguely neo-Nazi European villains, Step One into Wokeness for the Ryanverse] was not bad, although again here Clancy’s very democratic take on terrorism struck me as over-the-top naive.

    Rainbow Six was not bad, though it had to have a multinational unit. I remember liking that his villains were ecoterrorists and he had a lovely fate for them at the end. I am actually torn now on how good it was, but it was a well-paced thriller at least.

    Probably the only book other than Cardinal and RSR that I remember as really good was Without Remorse, the backstory of supporting character John Clark. That was something quite different from the main Ryan stories.

    The Ryan movies deteriorated rapidly after Red October and Patriot Games. I wasn’t even that fond of either the book or movie of Clear and Present Danger. The Affleck movie of Sum of All Fears had its moments [eternal supporting actor Michael Byrne as a sly KGB agent; the lovely denouement montage set to the tune of Nessun Dorma, which I still watch on Youtube by itself...; a decent scene of a nuclear blast on Baltimore] but generally sucked pretty hard. And its recasting of the villains was pretty pre-Woke for the early 2000s.

    The 2014 reboot was kind of a standalone thing, but I liked it well enough. Very prescient in being all about a Russian conspiracy, in some ways a more plausible one. Almost like it was in the can ready to set the stage for the next few years of propaganda, really. I still liked it. Chris Pine gave us a more 21st century Ryan, but still a mix of the intellectual out of his depth in field work but with a military background to fall back on [with active service this time]. Branagh hammed it as always, but I liked his villain. The Russian archetyping of supporting characters, settings, and clandestine meetings in the forest were all well done. The movie went for hard and fast action a bit, but it went far less down that route than many 21st century revamps of old material.

    The new series I assumed would be hyperwoke without even watching one episode. Based on what I read and trailers I see, literally nothing has been made in the last couple of years that isn’t all woke all the time. If it has a Marvel or even DC brand, it’s even worse, of course, but everything is.

Leave a Reply