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Playboy Interview: Tom Clancy
  • October 01, 2013 : 07:10
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Playboy: Don't you think an increasingly technological society undermines the human side of life?

Clancy: Why should it? I have two computers and a couple of VCRs, color TVs and all that neat stuff. I still like to talk with my family over dinner. Maybe they said the same thing when Gutenberg perfected the movable-type press. The real synonym for technology is tool. Any item of technology is simply a tool. If it's used skillfully, it has a positive effect on the way life is lived. If it's used unskillfully, or stupidly, as often happens, it can kill people.

Playboy: Yet a lot of people have begun asking questions about the role of technology--its impact on the environment, on who controls the technology and, most recently, about whether or not complex technology even works the way it's supposed to. Do you have any second thoughts such as those?

Clancy: Absolutely not. Most of the people who say that are living off in never-never land. In past centuries, such people were called Luddites. Technology is part of life. It's not going to go away. As far as its working, well, people are people, and they will continue to make mistakes, to screw up.

Playboy: But doesn't technology sometimes amplify those mistakes? Screwing up with a nail is one thing; with a nuclear power plant, it's quite another.

Clancy: Technology makes things safer. Let's take Three Mile Island, for example. The people screwed up real bad. The technology built into the power plant saved them. There was enough safety built into the system itself to prevent anything really bad from happening. And, in fact, nothing really bad happened. Nobody was hurt. There may be one extra case of cancer 20 years from now; and if there is, it'll probably be a jerk like me who smokes.

Playboy: You wouldn't have any problem living next to a nuclear power plant?

Clancy: I do live next to one--15 miles from a nuclear power plant. The place we just bought on Chesapeake Bay is in a direct line of sight to it. Doesn't concern me.

Playboy: What about the Soviet disaster at Chernobyl? Do you think it was a technological breakdown or just human error?

Clancy: It was probably both. Name one Soviet consumer product, aside from the AK-47 assault rifle, which was, in fact, stolen from the Germans; it was originally the German StG 44--that you can buy in the West. Cars? Television sets? Cameras? Maybe caviar--but the fish make that. Soviet technology is not terribly impressive. I've been inside Soviet military equipment. I'm not overwhelmed.

Playboy: Why do you think it's so inferior?

Clancy: Politics. Their economy is screwed up. In America, either you turn out a quality product or nobody buys it. And if nobody buys it, you go broke. In the Soviet Union, they don't have market forces to regulate anything. If a guy turns out a quality product and he's the only one who makes it, the people have to buy it whether it's good or not. You can make an argument that the best reflection of any society is to be found in its military, because all of its societal tendencies and all of its economic abilities will be crystallized at that level. Every time American gear has met Soviet gear on the battlefield, the Soviets have come off second best.

Playboy: Back to the future. Your next book is Cardinal of the Kremlin, and we understand that it focuses on Star Wars----

Clancy: Don't call it that. Come on.

Playboy: Why not?

Clancy: It's a pejorative name for something that can be of great benefit to the world. The Strategic Defense Initiative, SDI.

Playboy: Why are you such an ardent booster of such a controversial program?

Clancy: It offers us the only logical way out that I see of the nuclear conundrum that we're in now. Nuclear deterrence, the situation that putatively keeps the peace in the world today, is fundamentally flawed. It's like a bunch of crazed neighbors with loaded shotguns marching around their homes, yelling death threats at one another. Just because it happens to be nation-states that agree to keep the peace that way doesn't make it any less crazy.

Playboy: Instead of coming up with new gadgets that may not work, why not try to take the shotguns away--in this case, the nuclear weapons?

Clancy: You're never going to eliminate all nuclear weapons. You're never going to eliminate manned bombers. You're never going to eliminate cruise missiles.

Playboy: Why not?

Clancy: Because there simply is no way to verify their elimination. You want to bring a nuclear bomb into the U.S.? Don't bring it in on a missile. Just disguise it as cocaine and bring it through the Miami airport. [Laughs] However, we might be able to get rid of the scary missiles, the long-range ballistic weapons.

Playboy: So how would Star Wars, or SDI, do that?

Clancy: Even a fairly rudimentary system will make a successful disarming first strike, called counterforce, virtually impossible. Now, in all likelihood, you will never come up with a system that's 100 percent effective. There are just too many warheads coming in. But say we could deploy a 99 percent effective system right now--would you be in favor of it?

Playboy: It's hard to think of anything technological that's 99 percent effective--and haven't you made the point that it hardly matters if only 100 Soviet missiles come down on us instead of 10,000? These are nuclear weapons, right?

Clancy: Yeah, a lot of people would die. But my point is that virtually nothing, not even SDI, can stop a nuclear cruise missile or those fired from close in by a sub. What SDI can do is cut down--way down--on the effectiveness of the strategic counterforce, the threat of the ballistic missiles.

Now, what have you done? If you can make it statistically unlikely that these very expensive, very hard-to-maintain ballistic weapons are any longer militarily effective, then, just maybe, you have a rational basis for negotiating the bastards out of existence. And that's the promise SDI holds.

This is actually an interesting point in military history. We've finally reached a point where the defense actually has a technical advantage over the offense. That happens very, very rarely. We're coming into a whole new category of weapons, directed-energy weapons, which change the rules. SDI gives the Russians a basis for saying, "Yeah, why don't we get rid of the damn things once and for all?"

Playboy: Or for building new ones.

Clancy: No. What the Russians would do if we deployed a defensive system--since countries' military communities do tend to mirror-image each other's technology--would probably be to deploy a defensive SDI system themselves. And that's probably the best thing that could happen. I would rather blow up a missile than blow up a city any day.

Playboy: You seem to be banking a good deal on everybody's best intentions.

Clancy: Everybody on both sides acknowledges that just busting each other's cities is a completely irrational act. Nobody--not even a Joe Stalin--wants to be the guy in history who killed 100,000,000 human beings. Nobody wants to be remembered as another Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun.

What we're trying to eliminate, therefore, is a way for one of those guys to say, "We don't want to use nuclear weapons, but we have to, to prevent damage to our country." If you can eliminate that, you've eliminated the most dangerous, most expensive, most destabilizing kind of weapon. You're not eliminating the threat of nuclear war entirely. They're simply too valuable for national strategy for both sides. What we are doing is reducing the likelihood that those weapons will be employed.

Playboy: Doesn't it all come down to whether or not SDI could ever really work? A lot of experts think it can't, it's too complicated. You think it can. Since you make things easy to understand, tell us--how is this system supposed to work?

Clancy: You take a free-electron laser and base it on the ground.

Playboy: Not in space?

Clancy: Oh, no! You want the laser on the ground, so you can fix it when it breaks. That way, you don't have any trouble getting power to it. This laser shoots up a single beam of light with a power on the order of 10,000,000 watts. That searing beam hits a mirror that is up in orbit. That mirror relays the beam to a second mirror, which then focuses the beam and aims it down at a Soviet rocket just as it is emerging from its ground silo.

Playboy: Sounds like a tough shot to make.

Clancy: Come on! You can't miss the sucker! It's a great big target with an enormous thermal signature. You zap it while it's still in boost phase, and the eight to 12 warheads it's carrying will drop down and burrow into the earth. They won't even go off.

Playboy: Still, by your own count, the Russians have some 10,000 of those missiles to throw at us----

Clancy: Hold on. Ten thousand warheads--just 1400 missiles to carry them.

Playboy: Still not reassuring. That's a lot of missiles for a few high-tech weapons to intercept.

Clancy: It's more than a few! The system I'm talking about could fire 500 bursts per second, 1500 in three seconds. Ivan's got only 1400 missiles.

Playboy: Somehow, we still don't feel safe. If a submarine can send out decoys against a torpedo, couldn't the Soviets fool our billion-dollar lasers with aluminum-foil planes?

Clancy: Target discrimination is not going to be terribly hard, because the lasers are going to be looking for large infrared targets. If you wanted a decoy to generate that sort of image, each one would have to cost almost as much as a missile, making it unfeasible. Even so, the SDI system can cycle through targets so quickly, at such a high rate, that it could probably take out both the missiles and the decoys, if such decoys were ever launched.

Playboy: Your faith in technology is greater than most people's. Aren't at least a few of those 1400 Soviet missiles going to get through?

Clancy: Hey, maybe more than a few. Maybe 100 or more. I've already said the SDI system may not be 100 percent effective. It merely gives the Soviets more of a rationale to sit down with us and negotiate the ICBMs away. And that makes it worth it.

Playboy: You obviously love this military stuff, yet you were kept out of the Service because of poor eyesight. Do you think you'd rather be doing it for real, instead of just writing about it?

Clancy: I've told all my friends in the military that I'd rather do what they do than what I do. The reason is, I'm just a minstrel, when you get down to it. OK, I may be a very smart minstrel, or a very lucky minstrel, or a very successful minstrel. But I'm just a minstrel. And people out there who do this work every day are more important than I am, and they do not get the recognition that I do.

Playboy: Is there a message you're trying to get through in your novels?

Clancy: My feeling on messages comes from Sam Goldwyn: If you want to send a message, use Western Union. But if there is a message in what I write, it is that the people who serve in the U.S. military are in essentially the same kind of work as police officers and firemen. Their job is to risk their lives for people they don't know. I don't say they're perfect, and they don't claim to be perfect; but they are entitled to as much respect.

Playboy: When did you decide you were going to be a writer?

Clancy: It was always my dream. I wanted to see my name on the cover of a book.

Playboy: But you didn't publish anything until you were an adult. And then it was a letter to the editor.

Clancy: Yeah. To the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, the monthly journal of the U.S. Naval Institute. I said that it wasn't doing its job properly of explaining its role to the American people--that the United States needs a Navy. What the Navy people were mainly doing was communicating back and forth among themselves. Totally incestuous.

Playboy: Turns out that you've taken over that job for yourself.

Clancy: Never thought of it that way. Yeah.

Playboy: Was it your Jesuit education that instilled in you the discipline to sit in front of a word processor eight hours a day?

Clancy: Do I look like a very disciplined person? [Waves at the cluttered study around him] I tend to be something of a slob. I fight against it, but it seems to be a losing battle. I tend to be lazy. Though my writing is the first disciplined thing that I've been able to do in my life. It took me 35 years, but I've finally found something I'm good at. I guess it just took me a long time to grow up.

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