Chasing Osama

Tom Clancy rode the wave for nearly two decades with stunning success because he mastered the balancing act between the believable and the outlandish. Of course, he was the right man at the right time because pretty unbelievable things were happening all through. He simply augmented reality. Quitting his insurance business, he wrote his first book in 1984, a Cold War thriller called “Hunt for Red October”. That became a bestseller after Ronald Reagan called it “the perfect yarn”.

As the Soviet Union fell, Clancy seamlessly moved into the new order, spinning a series of novels where the heroes were American gunmen and the villains ranged from Islamic terrorists and Chinese to bizarre anti North-South unification Koreans and Colombian drug lords.

He was always ahead of the curve, but only just. Six years before 9/11, in “Debt of Honor”, he depicted a 747 being flown into Capitol Hill by a crazy Japanese, killing the president, the cabinet, most of the Congress and nine Supreme Court justices.

But finally, history is one-up on Clancy. His latest book “Dead or Alive” – written with Grant Blackwood, an ex-Navy veteran and co-author with Clive Cussler – is a thinly veiled description of the global manhunt for Osama bin Laden led by US gunslingers. The book had barely started getting traction when news exploded across the world of the real Osama being shot dead by US Navy SEALS in Abbottabad in Pakistan.

In “Dead or Alive”, the arch villain called ‘Emir’ is a sadistic killer setting up a series of deadly attacks in the US, including a hair-raising attempt to blow apart the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage site. He heads the Umayyad Revolutionary Council, Clancy’s version of al-Qaida. Clancy’s naming is impeccable for its connotations. Emir resonates with Sheikh, as bin Laden was known among his followers. And, Umayyad refers to both the 7th century Caliphate as also to the mosque in Damascus where Saladin, the iconic hero who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century lies buried.

The action careens from the barren fastnesses of the Hindu Kush, where Rangers are searching the caves for Emir, to Paris, Moscow, Tripoli and various parts of the homeland. The tension is unbearable because we know that Clancy is capable of cooking up anything – in previous novels he has had the city of Denver nuked, biological weapons are used against the US, World War III is played out, wars between China and Russia, Russia and NATO, China and the US, and so on.

For the chase, and perhaps to give heft to flagging sales, Clancy gathers together all his successful heroes from previous books. Ex-President Jack Ryan is there, as is his son Jack Ryan Jr. Others include CIA operative John Clark and his sidekick Ding, Dominic Caruso of FBI and his twin brother and Brian Caruso, a Marine, and Mary Pat Foley from Langley. They are part of a secret organization called The Campus, tasked with smoking out bad guys. It is not a government agency (remember Blackwater?) but it has a drawerful of pre-signed presidential pardons, in case something goes wrong.

Clancy presents an alternative universe in which America is able to set things right. At a time when the euphoria of the Soviet Union’s demise was at its peak, Clancy brought to fiction what George W Bush was to bring to reality – a muscular triumphalism based on war, the free market and, yes, Christianity. The technical details (“he hopped off the CH-47 Chinook helicopter, a Delta variant”) and cold-blooded Special Forces jargon (“the bullet transited his head”) create an illusion of power and supremacy that is intoxicating, for some.

“Dead or Alive”, despite its plodding length and the need to integrate all the characters through nostalgic conversations, continues in this vein, meticulously creating terrifying scenarios and then resolving them through bravery, planning and technology. Meanwhile reality – as exemplified in bin Laden’s killing – is playing out on a different path. Take your pick.

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— Besttopic

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