Review: Patriot Games (1987)

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the works of Tom Clancy without talking about The Hunt for Red October. That book is the Bible for Clancy’s entire body of work and best articulated his worldview while keeping the highly technical aspects of warfare and military operations

It’s not surprising then that most of his immediate followups, and later ones as well, circled around characters and concepts that showed up at the margins of his first ultra successful techno-thriller novel. Cardinal of the Kremlin, Clear and Present Danger, Red Rabbit and Patriot Games all took concepts and themes from his first novel and built them into the plots of new, longer thriller stories.

At the same time, Red Storm Rising took his highly technical approach to Cold War war fighting by exploring how a land war between NATO and the USSR might transpire.

That said, I’ve long meant to start delving into the other books in the Jack Ryan series. I’ve adored the first book since High school but I’ve been very intimidated to start the other books in the series. I finally took the dive and finished reading Patriot Games after procrastinating on it for something like seven years.

It’s hard not to look at the novel through such a complex personal perspective. The book was the first sequel book in the Jack Ryan series and did as much as nearly any other book in the franchise to establish the core events that turned its titular character into the working class intellectual spy that he becomes for the duration of the early series.

Patriot Games is the earliest book in the timeline and its set a few years after his infamous Marine helicopter accident that briefly crippled him and ended his military career. As the story starts, Ryan is on vacation in London and doing research for his job teaching history at the United States Naval Academy. When he just so happens to stumble upon an attack by IRA agents against the English prince and his wife, he jumps in and manages to kill several of the terrorists before they’re able to successfully kidnap the royal family.

Jack becomes an international hero overnight and eventually returns home to the United States after healing from a bullet wound and testifying in court against a surviving terrorist. When subsequent IRA attacks begin happening in the United States, Ryan finds himself drawn into the life of a CIA agent to help investigate an Assassination attempt that nearly kills him and his family.

The actual ideas being tossed around in this novel are interesting but a bit less compelling than his Cold War scenarios. The Irish Republican Army and the cavalcade of terrorist attacks by radical Irish nationalists/Marxists took out leading up to the turn of the millennium definitely were massive political events but the group hasn’t been a big deal since the 1990s.

While terrorism is definitely a more present issue in 2020 than it was in 1987, the nature of terrorism has changed so deeply since then that this book can’t help but feel out of date. At the time, the world’s largest terror threat was European political extremist groups like the IRA that shot up pubs in Ireland and assassinated people.

Patriot Games definitely takes the concept to an extreme. The name enemy of the book is an even more radical offshoot of the IRA known as the PIRA (People’s Irish Republican Army). Instead of just being a pro-Ireland terrorist group, the PIRA is a communist group trying to funnel anti-English resentment into a means of subsidizing Revolution.

Their network is so dense that they even have ties to militant Islamist training camps in the Middle East where they train their troops. The group also manages to be so large as to build political connections with black nationalist terror cells in the United States which prove helpful to accomplishing their immediate goals in the story.

This isn’t the most outlandish scenario Clancy ever concocted. As far as I’m aware, the most insane scenario he ever came up with was in Debt of Honor where a clan of ultra-nationalist Japanese militants take over their country launched a war on the United States in the late 1990s. That book infamously depicts a Kamikaze crashing a 747 jet into congress and killing almost everyone in the government, leaving Jack Ryan the accidental defacto president.

Even so, one can’t help but notice how out of date the premise is. As far as I’m aware, it’s pretty uncommon for terrorist cells or criminal organizations to partner up like that in real life. Brad Thor’s Use of Force explored a similar angle of how militant islamists and Italian mobsters could collude but it doesn’t seem that common in real life, as far as I’m aware.

Sometimes these books don’t amount to much but fan fiction scenarios where the “enemies of freedom” team up like the Legion of Doom to fight God fearing, freedom loving Americans.

Even so, the book has its moments. Clancy’s greatest skill as a writer was his ability to parse the ways culture creates prosperity and virtuous citizens. His best reflections in Red October were the comparisons between American and Soviet day to day life. One particular quote in Chapter 18 really captured the essence of Clancy’s political brain in a way I was really thought provoked by:

“America didn’t have any ideologically motivated terrorist groups, at least not in the European sense. There were Armenian groups who’s main objective was nursing Turkish diplomats and the white supremacist groups in the North west, but in both cases the only ideology was hatred – of Turks, blacks, Jews of whatever. These were vicious but not really dangerous in society, since they lacked a shared vision of their political objective. To be really effective, the members of such a group had to believe in something more than the negativity of hate. The most dangerous terrorists were the idealists of course but America was a hard place to see the benefits of Marxism and Nazism. When even welfare families had color televisions, how much attraction could there be to collectivism?”

The are collectivists and racialists in America right now who could stand to reflect why so many Americans are disinterested in them. Some of this is just traditional Republican talking points but articulated in this way it goes a long way to describing why a country like ours doesn’t have issues other countries do have.

Of the Clancy books I’ve read so far, Patriot Games doesn’t rank as one of my favorites. It makes for an interesting time capsule of how pre-9/11 terrorist organizations were fought and it does serve as a solid backstory to setup Jack Ryan’s role in future stories. That said, it’s far too slow an undramatic for the first third of its excessive 500 page length. The techno thriller aspects of his stories are less interesting when the stakes are very small and the groups involved are very intimate and indivisible driven people.

There’s nothing in here as scary as the US-Soviet naval confrontations of Red October or the top notch dramatic storytelling in that book that factors all of the political consequences of it’s characters actions into the narrative. It just can’t quite hit the heights of political commentary or drama that his first book achieved. It also starts the series problem is dragging the plot into an excessive page count that slows the pace the story down to a crawl. Although to be fair, it’s not the longest Clancy novel; which I believe is Executive Order coming in at 874 pages.

That said, this is definitely necessary reading for Clancy fans!

Published by Tyler Hummel

Editor-in-Chief at Cultural Review, Regular Film Critic for Geeks Under Grace, Published at ArcDigital, Rebeller, The DailyWire, Hollywood in Toto, Legal Insurrection and The ED Blog, Host of The AntiSocial Network Podcast

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