Touring Ground Zero with Tom Clancy
By Warren Berger
On a sunny Saturday afternoon in early October, Tom Clancy is bound for the place where his most nightmarish fiction became a reality.
Photograph by Jeff Mermelstein
Clancy, visiting New York from his home in Maryland, has accepted our invitation to tour Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Center attack. Though Clancy is preparing to witness the disaster site for the first time, he's been here before in his imagination. For years, Clancy's writing has dared to envision, in chilling detail, what terrorists could do to America. In his 1994 novel, Debt of Honor, for example, a fuel-laden plane is hijacked by a terrorist and intentionally flown into the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
But what transpired on September 11 turned out to be even more terrifying than anything cooked up in The Sum of All Fears, Executive Orders or Patriot Games. And Clancy acknowledges this during his slow march down to Ground Zero, shaking his head at one point along the way, saying, "Four planes? That many people willing to die for the same cause at the same time? If any writer had turned in a story like this, the publisher would have just handed it back and said, ?No way. Not believable.' " For thriller writers, Clancy included, the stakes have suddenly been raised. "You can't keep up with reality right now," he says. "Nobody has a big enough imagination."
Still, Clancy has come awfully close, which is why he emerged as an object of media fascination in the weeks after the disaster. He'd drawn attention in the past: A middle-aged insurance executive who parlayed his fascination with the military into a hit first novel, The Hunt for Red October, and then established himself as one of the world's most popular novelists (with more than 30 million books in print), Clancy, fifty-four, cultivated a colorful, tough-talking John Wayne-meets-George Patton persona along the way. (Clancy's acute myopia disqualified him from serving in the military himself.) All of this made him something of a curiosity, as well as the 800-pound gorilla of book publishing. But since September 11, he's become something morethe media's new Nostradamus, showing up with his tinted aviator specs on the network morning shows and cable screaming matches, castigating the softies who weakened the CIA and predicting swift and terrible retribution. (In one recent interview, Clancy suggested he was not averse to nuking the enemy: "If they ask for it, we know how to make some really big parking lots in this world.")
The very attitude that has made Clancy seem like a right-wing crank with a tank fetish has suddenly put him in tune with an American public ready to close ranks and fight back. When it comes to flag-waving, Clancy has credibility. "Everyone knows he's a true patriot, the real thing," says retired four-star Gen. Carl Stiner, one of Clancy's many admirers in the military world and co-author of his new book, Shadow Warriors: Inside the Special Forces.
Clancy has something else going for him, too: inside access to the military and intelligence operation that is responding to the current crisis. As much as any fiction writer, Clancy has shed light on the inner workings of the armed forces and the CIA; in both quarters he's regarded as an insider and granted an amazing level of access because, as Stiner says, "We trust him. We know he gets it right." Why wouldn't he? Clancy regularly immerses himself in this world, is fascinated by its machinery and cares deeply about its men and women.
Further proof of this can be found in Shadow Warriors, which provides an inside view into the military's clandestine Special Forceswho were among the first soldiers sent into Afghanistan. Talk about timing: Just as Americans have begun wondering who'd be capable of tracking down Osama bin Laden, Clancy is releasing a book that answers that very question. The author has no doubt that the elite warriors he has studied closely will prevail in Afghanistan and beyond. In fact, this certainty seems to be his primary source of comfort as his Saturday expedition brings him closer to the remnants of the towers, those last twisted shards of metal that still stand. "You kick a tiger in the balls, you've got to remember the other side has got teeth," Clancy growls. "And now the people who did this to us are about to meet the teeth."
The teeth, as Clancy will tell you, are not bullets and bombs, but exquisitely trained soldiers. The sharpest of them are the Special Forces. Clancy knows plenty about them, but the bottom line, he says, is this: "They are unbelievably well-prepared. They are ready for this."
Clancy's knowledge of the Special Forces comes from the best source there is: Stiner, the longtime commander in charge of top-secret "Special Ops" missions until his retirement in 1993. It was Stiner who determined how these elite soldierswhose ranks include Army rangers, Navy Seals and Green Beretswould be used to respond to various crises, from terrorism episodes like the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro to foreign wars.
Initially, Clancy's fascination was more with Stiner himself. Over the past decade, Clancy has co-authored a series of books profiling modern military generals (including Gens. Fred Franks Jr., Chuck Horner and Stiner). In these books, which Clancy considers "a nice change of pace" from his novels, he has sought to reveal the complex personalities and strategic savvy of top military leaders. "People don't realize it, but generals study their profession the same way doctors study medicine," Clancy says. "You ask a general why he did something a certain way and you'll get a lecture that encompasses strategic decisions all the way back to the days of Alexander the Great." Clancy found Stiner to be just such a thinker, but he was also struck by his deceptively low-key style. "He's not blustery," says Clancy. "He's a real old-fashioned Southern gentlemanwho kills people."
However, Shadow Warriors isn't just the story of Stiner; it's a journey inside the dark world of the Special Forces, tracing its origins and the various failures and triumphs that have followed. In opening up this hidden world, Clancy and Stiner are treading on sensitive ground, and they know it. "It's a hard story to tell," says Stiner. "There's a lot of classified information that you have to hold back. Still, this is the most comprehensive book ever on Special Forces." It aims to, among other things, destroy the "Rambo myth" attached to these soldiers, Stiner says. "The biggest misconception is that they just exist to shoot up people," he notes. "But actually, there's no place for Rambo types in the Special Forces. These soldiers are selected for their intelligence, their ability to solve problems that no one else can solve."
Those skills will be put to the ultimate test in Afghanistan and in the larger war on terrorism, Stiner says. Though he is retired, Stiner has been active in advising the military as it has sent the first waves of Special Forces into this war. ("Those are his kids they're sending out," Clancy observes.) At times, Stiner sounds like a concerned father as he details the problems that confront these soldiers. "We'll encounter hostile governments and populations. The terrain will be rugged. The enemy will have better field intelligence." In short, he says, "This will be the toughest challenge they've ever faced."
Clancy and Stiner, of course, had no idea when they were writing Shadow Warriors that their book would turn out to be so timely (they had to scramble on deadline to add a chapter dealing with the WTC attack). While everyone, everywhere, tries to gauge the extent to which their lives changed on September 11, it's fair to say that both Stiner and Clancy have, in different ways, seen their worlds irrevocably altered. From here on out, Stiner's behind-the-scenes Special Forces will likely be front and center as never before; his career's work of training these units will be severely tested, and we will see the results on CNN. And, oh yes, he will get lots of calls from the media; he's been fielding those, somewhat reluctantly, ever since the attack (the phone started ringing while he was cutting a field of hay at his farm in Tennessee).
As for Clancy, the recent events could, in effect, mark the closing of not just a chapter, but a whole book. He is fully aware that it will be difficult now to shock the world with tales of terrorismand he doesn't seem to want to do it, anyway. Though he is notoriously secretive about books he's writing, when asked if he's moving away from thrillers involving the military and terrorism, Clancy gives a nod in the affirmative. He is expected to produce two more novels featuring the hero Jack Ryan (as part of Clancy's two-book, $45 million deal with G.P. Putnam's Sons), but Clancy has hinted that the new Ryan books will move in surprising directions. Meanwhile, he has also begun research on a nonfiction book about Jack the Ripper; he will only say that he finds that particular subject interesting because "it's a mystery without a solution."
While current events could have provided raw material for a Clancy novel, he seems content to leave the fictionalization of this tragedy to othersand he thinks many will attempt to tell some form of this story, both in novels and movies. "Oliver Stone's supposedly already working on a movie," he scoffs. "We'll see a lot of Rambo-type stories with people like Chuck Norris, about us getting even. There's always people ready to exploit something like this." As for Clancy himself? "I've been there and done that. My first terrorism book was Patriot Games, way back in '87. I have no desire to go back and write something I've already written," he says, as he tentatively forges his way through the crowd surrounding the disaster site.
Shaking hands with a few fans in the crowd (one of whom says "God bless you"), Clancy stops for a quiet talk with a Navy man on duty at the site; soon another military officer, recognizing the writer, joins the conversation. Clancy, a guy who never saved lives or faced fire himself, is nevertheless a hero to the heroes, because he tells their stories. At various points in his progression, however, Clancy the celebrity becomes just another face in the crowd; a large and lumbering man, he seems at times to shrink and get swallowed up by the gawkers and camera-clickers. He is occasionally jostled, elbowed and shoved to the margins of the area; clearly, this gathering is something much bigger than him. At one point, he snaps, "Damn vultures!" after which he quickly acknowledges that on this day, he is pretty much a vulture like everyone else.
He had admitted earlier that he wasn't sure he wanted to see the disaster area, but he also felt he needed to. And when he is finally in full view of the ruins, he stands silent for a while, visibly shaken. "It's different when you come here," Clancy says afterward. "This whole thing just isn't real until you see it, and smell it, for yourself." A short distance down the path, he notices a makeshift memorial for victims and starts reading some of the messages posted there. He pauses briefly to eulogizein his own tough-talking stylethe fallen heroes of New York's Fire Department. ("They knew they were running into the dragon's mouth," he says, adding emphatically, "you gotta have big brass ones to do that, pal.")
For a minute it seems Clancy is getting sentimental, as he concedes that he had misjudged the great heart of New York. "I didn't think New Yorkers had this in them, and I was wrong about that," he says. Then the crank reemerges, quipping, "I'm sure they'll be back to their normal asshole selves in a few weeks."
Finally, after a photographer snaps one too many shots of him, "Let's get out of here," Clancy barks. "It's starting to feel ghoulish, having my picture taken here." With that, he strides quickly away from the devastation, the gawkers and New York heroes still hard at work. But he can't seem to leave his anger behind; blocks removed from the site, it is still mounting, not subsiding. "We've got to get the fuckers who did this," he seethes, just before getting into his car. "We've got to hang them from the barn door."