Red Storm Rising | Critical Review by Walter Isaacson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Red Storm Rising.
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Critical Review by Walter Isaacson

SOURCE: "Red Storm Rising," in Time, August 11, 1986, p. 64.

In the following review, Isaacson offers a generally favorable assessment of Red Storm Rising.

"What modern combat lacks in humanity, it more than makes up for in intensity," observes a reporter aboard an American frigate that has just repelled a Soviet missile attack. The same could be said of Tom Clancy's new military thriller, Red Storm Rising. In this version of blocs in conflict, the most compelling actors are the high-tech weapons that Clancy portrays with deadly accuracy.

The author, a Maryland insurance broker with a passion for military hardware, blipped onto the national radar screen with his 1984 novel, The Hunt for Red October, a tale of a defecting Soviet nuclear submarine and its conflicted crew. Published by the Naval Institute Press, known primarily for academic and technical journals, the book was praised by Ronald Reagan as "the perfect yarn," became the sleeper of the year and stayed on the best-seller lists for seven months. With his new novel, Clancy has climbed out of the water. This time his subject is nothing less than World War III.

When Muslim fundamentalists disable a crucial Soviet oil refinery, Moscow works out a cold-blooded scheme to prevent the country's economy from collapsing: KGB agents blow up a group of Soviet schoolchildren visiting the Kremlin; the U.S.S.R. then blames the attack on West German terrorists, launches an invasion of Central Europe, captures Iceland and rushes the navy into action in an attempt to control the North Atlantic sea-lanes—all as a ruse for grabbing Persian Gulf oil facilities. The pretext serves Clancy better than it does the Soviets: it provides a fine backdrop for his account of strategies and shoot-outs.

Laymen tend to envision a future world war as instant Armageddon. Clancy knows better. Instead of staging yet another atomic holocaust, he imagines a scenario that accounts for much U.S. defense spending: a protracted showdown arising from a conventional Soviet attack on NATO. Although each side briefly contemplates "going nuclear," neither is willing to reach for the button; instead, the fighting involves a land war on the plains of Germany and games of hide-and-seek on the high seas.

For true military aficionados, the book offers an abundance of informed tidbits: an appearance by the secret radar-evading F-19 Stealth fighter plane, which the Pentagon has refused to admit exists even after one apparently crashed in California last month; descriptions of advances in antisubmarine weapons, among them passive sonars towed by computer-packed surveillance ships; and a stark examination of the critical role that Iceland plays in the naval strategy of the Western alliance.

Most of the material in the book was gathered from a number of unclassified sources and journals. The Navy provided unofficial support, allowing Clancy to visit nuclear submarines and spend a week aboard a frigate. To help simulate the look, sound and feel of combat, he worked with Larry Bond, an ex-naval officer who developed a war game called Harpoon. In it, players simulate naval engagements, using the newest and most sophisticated arms.

Throughout the war, missile and torpedo firings are described in harrowing (and sometimes reassuring) detail, and conversations among radar technicians are loaded with the requisite Pentagon jargon. Clancy convincingly shows the importance of electronic intelligence—gathered by satellites, ships, planes and submarines—to modern warfare. Yet it is an old-fashioned human component that proves to be a critical factor. One of the multitude of subplots involves four Americans wandering the barren terrain of occupied Iceland, reporting Soviet movements on a primitive two-way radio. At first, allied analysts are skeptical about the information, but it turns out to be crucial. Here Clancy goes off automatic pilot; there are even a few romantic interludes, as if to remind the reader that the most brilliantly designed war games must depend, sooner or later, on that unpredictable computer called the human brain.

For Homo sapiens fans, the Iceland episodes will be far too short—they are a mere fraction of the 43-chapter epic. The book has a variety of heroes and villains in its complex weave of plot strands, but the diffuse locales and the lack of an appealing main character make for a somewhat choppy narrative. Intrigues within the Politburo are interspersed with tense moments in the control rooms of submarines deep in the Atlantic, arguments among analysts in Scotland, daring assaults by fighter pilots on satellites, feats by covert commandos and battlefield maneuvers by intrepid tank commanders. The tightly focused Hunt for Red October allowed Clancy to develop the psychological and even religious motivations of the main characters. For too much of Red Storm Rising, the humans are obscured by the afterburn of their weapons systems.

Oddly enough, it is this very flaw that enhances the credibility of Red Storm Rising. World War III, by most postulates, is not likely to involve a grand Tolstoyan sweep of personal valor. Arsenals and tactics might indeed be set in motion by the frailties of flesh-and-blood players, but once launched the lethal machines would take on a life of their own—almost like characters in a novel. That possibility, vividly rendered, is what gives Clancy's book such a chilling ring of truth.

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This section contains 858 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Walter Isaacson