Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Clancy Chronologically: Debt of Honor

You've been on pins and needles for somebody to review the books your dad was reading when you were in middle school; we're here to help.  Last year, we read all of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan books in order of Ryanverse chronology rather than order of publication (we include the John Clark and Jack Ryan Jr. books in this process).  This year, we're doing it again and posting about each of the books as we complete them/manage to be sufficiently unlazy to actually post a blog.  Your comments are more than welcome. NOTE: POSSIBLE DECADES-OLD SPOILERS!!!

The Megabook

Debt of Honor and its successor, Executive Orders, are essentially one giant story.  Debt is halfway through the Jack Ryan series in book order (chronologically and in publication) and provides the framework for the latter half of series.  The non-dead characters mostly carry on from the first to the second, just the villains who were more in the background come to the fore.  Debt and Orders clock in at 990 and 1,355 paperback pages respectively. In the same publication time frame (1994-1996) he also wrote three non-fiction books (Armored Cav, Fighter Wing, and Marine), co-authored or produced 4 Tom Clancy Op-Center novels, and founded a video game company; Mr. Clancy was remarkably prolific in that era.


We'll try to be succinct in this section, but there's a ton to get to:

Raizo Yamata is a rich and powerful industrialist in Japan, The Captain of the captains of industry who control the government from behind the curtain.  Outraged by tragedy from his childhood during World War II and by the lack of respect for his country that should once again be an empire, he hatches a plot to bring America to her knees.

A hot blonde white girl goes missing in Tokyo.  Being that she's the daughter of an FBI medium-shot, it gets the attention of the government.

John Clark and Ding Chavez are awaiting General Mohammed Abdullah Corp, the drug-dealing military leader of (fill-in-the-blank African failed state), who was responsible for the death of 20 American soldiers.  Actually arresting him (and delivering him to certain execution) is of little consequence as the main purpose of these passages is to introduce the supermegawatt light beam weapons to be used later.  Clark and Chavez are later summoned to Japan to sniff out the hot blonde situation; they subsequently kick some ass.

Assisting in the ass-kicking in Japan is Chet Nomuri, a Japanese-American undercover as a businessman who hangs out in the bathhouse with the underlings of the scheming Japanese CEOs. He finds the hot blonde, supports Clark and Chavez, and guides the commandos who come to remove strategic threats against America.

Working with the Japanese quasi-fascist leadership are the Prime Minister of India and the office-yet-to-be-determined of China, Zhang Han San, who are looking to carve out some territory and resources for their own nations.  China is interested in the "Northern Resource Area" and India is fascinated by the fact that it's called the Indian Ocean.  Sucks to be Sri Lanka, etc.

Toyota creates a universally beloved family sedan called the Cresta, named after a ski course in Switzerland a drunken executive injured himself on.  Foreshadowing Toyota's quality control issues a decade or so later, the Japanese refuse to use the less expensive and better made American gas tanks; the faulty gas tanks (weather damaged in transport across the Pacific) are involved in major traffic fatalities.  Congressman Al Trent seizes the opportunity to introduce a bill which allows the U.S. to mirror the trade laws of its partner nations; the law crushes the Tokyo stock market and portends a trade war.

Master Chief Manuel "Portagee" Oreza, retired from the Coast Guard, former boating buddy of the former John Kelly and partial savior of Domingo Chavez, is enjoying the peaceful life in Saipan with his wife, making extra money fishing on John's old boat (the Springer from Without Remorse).  He and his associate Pete notice some strange actions on the island by incoming Japanese personnel, which he reports to (after his call is passed around) Robby Jackson.

U.S. President Roger Durling and Soviet Russian President Grushavoy are celebrating the elimination of the last of their ICBMs, reducing the threat of nuclear war between the countries to essentially zero.  Those naive peaceniks reducing the size of their navies and eliminating long-range missiles make themselves vulnerable to sneak attacks from countries they think are their allies who have secretly been developing the nukes that have fallen out of vogue.

Ed Kealty is the lecherous Vice President, a boozy Kennedy type who has been accused of rape.  The FBI's investigation of him is halted as the president deals with economic sabotage and surprise military attacks in the Western Pacific and it leaks to Kealty's team.  Kealty resigns, then pulls some shenanigans. 

Cathy Ryan is dominating the field of laser eye surgery and wins the Lasker Prize, the highest award in American medicine.  When not golfing with Robby Jackson, Jack Ryan is back to slinging cash in the investment world.  He thought he'd be glad to be out of government service, yet he self-flagellates for not doing something more important than making fat cash and taking care of his family.  Durling summons him to be his new national security adviser, literally plucking him off the golf course, and Jack sets the country aright in all matters foreign and domestic.  Then he gets a new job, and then another.

It Sucks to be the President

The President after President "This Totally Isn't Reagan *Wink Wink*" has his shadiness rewarded with an electoral behind-the-woodshed-ing.  Bob Fowler is riding high after forging peace in the Middle East using Jack's idea, but then resigns in disgrace after his total failure in the aftermath of the Denver terrorist attack.  Roger Durling is a good man who straightens out his flagging presidency by bringing in Jack and sticking with Ryan's ideas, then the Japanese airline pilot rams his plane into the Capitol Building.  Frequently characters, including Jack and Durling, consider how terrible the job of President is and how insane somebody must be to pursue it.  We wonder if the creative team of 24 read the Ryan series's composting of presidents and thought, "Let's double down on this."  

Random Character Gets Pages of Backstory, Then Dies Suddenly

This is a common Clancy trope: we spend a few pages getting the history and background of an arbitrary character who is then slain by an aneurysm, bullet to the face, nuclear detonation, etc.  In this book, it's Officer Pierce Denton, a cop who's driving with his young family at the time of the pileup/carsplosion.  The vignettes are accompanied by some random technical details like functions of the human anatomy, particle behavior, weapons mechanisms, etc.  Each case is a seed planted to perpetuate later action, often catastrophe: the national security adviser dies to be replaced by the hysterical Liz Elliott, the car crash to bring about the trade act which foments war with Japan, and so forth.  These random character deaths feel arbitrary at the time, but serve a purpose.


Oreza's character is a reason it's more fun to read the books in fictional chronological order rather than publication order.  He's a third-tier character in Clear and Present Danger (1989), appears two books later in Without Remorse (1993) in a prominent role and comes back in Debt of Honor (1994).  In the chronological reading, the reader has a keener sense of how much time has passed since Clark has seen Oreza, adding impact to Oreza's freakout at seeing his supposedly dead friend. The crossing of Clark, Chavez, and Oreza is very Lost-ian.


Tom Clancy's personal politics are always obvious in his novels and this one is no exception: Debt of Honor is a Clinton-era warning tale of the perils of downsizing the military; cashing in on the "peace dividend" leaves us less able to fight every country in the world at the same time if something goes wrong.  The idea of elite businessmen, politicians, and select military leaders in an otherwise friendly country collaborating to sabotage Wall Street and disable critical naval assets requires the reader to buy into a monstrously large and intricate conspiracy, a conspiracy which would offend Americans, Russians, and the Japanese people themselves.  In fact, Clancy makes fun of such conspiracies in the next book, suggesting the type of people involved would be too proud of themselves to keep it a secret for long.  It's a very Clancy move to have a silly macro plot yet lay out enough detail to make it not so ridiculous.  

The book is too much fun to get too bogged down in all that, though.  The pace is mostly quick, even at almost 1,000 pages, and all of the stories intersect to bring about our climax, then the superclimax.  As usual, the action is engaging and realistic.  Clancy novels are never tightly written and it is a chore to keep track of the hundreds of characters in their disparate locations (ships, bases, cities, and so on); the benefit of being a veteran Clancy reader is having been exposed to the characters, who often return, and sensing when plot isn't moving along in detail-heavy passages, allowing for some skimming.

Clancy does an excellent job in creating an "eye of the hurricane" effect.  After the matters with Japan are all but settled and the bad guys, foreign and domestic, are rounded up, we see Jack actually enjoying life and being satisfied with work.  It's a rare moment when he's not in turmoil, either feeling like he can't be effective in his job because of bureaucracy  and politics or feeling like his job itself doesn't have societal value to his satisfaction.  Jack is finally happy; then his whole world unravels.  It's really good drama and Clancy pays his dues throughout the book to earn the superclimax.

It's really hard to read this book and not think of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01.  In the hype blurbs at the beginning of the book there's a quote from Entertainment Weekly "...a shocker climax so plausible you'll wonder why it hasn't yet happened."  In 1994, we were worried about threats like a baseball strike, Tonya Harding, and O.J. Simpson.  Israel signed a peace agreement with Palestine, the Serbs were attacking Bosnia, Carlos the Jackal was captured, and Russia invaded Chechnya. Americans were not concerned about somebody coming after us.  What was then a shocking fiction is now part of our history.

The Sure-to-be-Amazing WYNE Media Production

There is far too much content in Debt of Honor to make a movie without totally gutting it; this one has to be a TV season/mini-series.  The opening where Yamata reflects on what he imagines what must have happened to his family during World War II as he purchases the land where he was orphaned would be a cool and powerful introduction.  We'd let his character mourn a little more, express doubts, be more proud.  The subplot with India would likely only be mentioned and not shown.  Unlike the book, there'd be no need to pre-explain the sabotage on the stock market, especially not in excruciating detail; that becomes a 30 second montage.  Just imagine the tension that could be mined as the airliner is careening toward the Capitol -  it would be some of the best visuals on TV.


One of the best parts of this book is the humor, largely in the form of buddies needling each other: Clark/Chavez, Ryan/Murray, etc.

In the Ryanverse, CIA became really close with the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union, two agencies which were obsessive sworn enemies.  Characters comment on the strangeness of the alliance, but there should have been more actual conflict about these arrangements.

Two facts exist: Tom Clancy had a big imagination and deeply respected technically gifted people. However he could not imagine that tech people could be good looking or have actual social skills.