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The Tao of Tom Clancy: Meditations from a Military Mastermind

Rick Pyrrh By Rick Pyrrh Published on March 2, 2017
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Fig. 1: Renowned strategist,
Tom Clancy

There is a fine literary tradition in looking to great military leaders for the wisdom we need to successfully navigate everyday life. For many, the go-to source remains Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which is as relevant today as when it was first written in the fifth century BC. For those of a more philosophical bent, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are as applicable to the struggles of modern life as they were while Aurelius was commanding Rome through the Marcomannic Wars.

Obviously, there are few modern humans who belong in such distinguished company, but if there is one such man it is Tom Clancy. Like Sun Tzu and Marcus Aurelius, renowned military tactician Tom Clancy’s wisdom is as potent and useful today as it was in the mid-1980s. Sadly, Tom Clancy passed before he had a chance to collect his wisdom in handy pocketbook form, so we've had to do our best to scout his work for pearls of wisdom. Consider it a little... ghost recon.

The world has not moved on from the quiet ruminations of Marcus Aurelius, nor the strategic insight of Sun Tzu… nor indeed the virtues of a submarine that is really, really quiet.

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The three pillars of wisdom.
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The Hunt for Red October

“... one must know something of the truth in order to lie convincingly.”

The Hunt for Red October is a book so packed with real-life strategy that it was the subject of some controversy when its movie adaptation was released. It emerged that the system the Red October used to detect other submarines (using disturbances in local gravity) was the subject of then-classified US Navy experiments.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn from The Hunt for Red October is that, under the right conditions, even the most stealthy of submarines can still make waves…


Rainbow Six

“Counterterrorism is a Darwinian world. The dumb ones are already dead, and the people out there we have to worry about are those who've learned a lot of lessons.”

Like Sun Tzu, many of the lessons that Tom Clancy teaches seem to apply to one very specific discipline, but if you think about it, aren’t these lessons applicable to almost any career? Running a bookshop is a Darwinian world. The dumb bookshops are already bankrupt, and the people out there you have to worry about are the ones that have learned a lot of lessons.

Further analysis is made more difficult by the fact that the line is delivered as part of a speech so meandering that it could serve as the basis for many months’ meditation.


Caution: Rainbow Six is not to be confused with the game series of the same name, the life lessons you might learn from which are far more direct: work as a team; always breach a door with a flashbang; when in doubt, shoot the hostages.



Clear and Present Danger

“The only real difference between a wise man and a fool […] was that the wise man tended to make more serious mistakes - and only because no one trusted a fool with really crucial decisions; only the wise had the opportunity to lose battles, or nations.”

This idea is made all the more intriguing by the fact that it is delivered immediately after Clancy compares mistakes made while running an intelligence agency with a quarterback throwing an interception. Is the understanding we should draw from this that we should never aim too high for fear that our actions cause a death, or that we should never aim too low for fear that our opponents may catch our dreams?

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Patriot Games

“... you can act like a policeman or a soldier, but not both.”

Here, Clancy’s time-worn wisdom echoes the thoughts of spacefaring military admiral, William Adama, who famously said, “There's a reason you separate military and the police. One fights the enemies of the state, the other serves and protects the people. When the military becomes both, then the enemies of the state tend to become the people.”

While Patriot Games was written in the late 1980s, its wry observations about the police and the military have never been more relevant.


The Sum of All Fears

“He knew what lay at the end of every life, and had many times helped to deliver it to others.”

This line is delivered in description of a soldier who has been diagnosed with an unspecified but potentially terminal illness. Of course, the real message here is clear. We have all known death in our lives, and we all understand that death may come to us sooner than we expect it. If you are ever to fully understand death, you must first get to know it first hand; take someone down before you go out.


Without Remorse

“The nice thing about enemies is you know where they stand. This is not always true of friends.”

Sometimes, the works of great philosophers and tacticians can be impenetrable to those of us without profound thoughts and armies to manage. In this instance, Clancy’s advice is straightforward and to-the-point; always be suspicious of your friends, you never know when they're plotting to steal your (spiritual) nuclear codes or plant a (metaphorical) dirty bomb in your capital.


Executive Orders

“It cost a lot of money, but it was worth it, because time was the ultimate commodity, and you were born with only so much to spend, and there was no passbook to tell you the exact amount.”

As with much of Clancy’s writing, this chimes well with Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and gives us an insight into the everyday philosophy of one of the great military thinkers of our age. It’s important that we make the most of life while we live it, regardless of the material costs. After all, we never know the day when we’ll reach time bankruptcy, nor if we’re already overdrawn.


Debt of Honor

“… like many politicians he placed a great deal of value in show and rather less in substance. Like many weak men, he made a great ceremony of personal strength and power.”

Here we see the sagacious strategist’s opinion on career politicians. This position is only strengthened by the fact that this quote is delivered in a novel in which Jack Ryan (a one-time marine, turned college professor, turned counter-espionage agent, turned Deputy Director of the CIA) accidentally becomes president of the United States.

How tragic, to see our hero live long enough to become the villain.

A former military man, Rick would say that he specializes in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.