I f you’re looking for entertainment options that include American heroes taking on Islamist terrorists, then don’t wait for the movies. For the most part, filmmakers are Missing In Action in the War on Terror (with the exceptions of The Kingdom and Vantage Point). Television, which seems to be more market-driven, has done much better with shows like 24, JAG, Sleeper Cell, NCIS, and The Unit, taking on terrorists with varying degrees of seriousness and frequency. Even lighter fare, such as Chuck and Burn Notice, makes frequent references to America’s real enemies.
But the most entertaining and serious efforts to address the War on Terror in the realm of pop culture come from novelists.
Near the end of the Cold War, the military procedural — a.k.a. the technothriller — occupied the top of bestseller lists, largely thanks to Tom Clancy. Among the more successful of the Clancy imitators was former Navy pilot Stephen Coonts, whose excellent Flight of the Intruder was the second novel to be published by Naval Institute Press (after Clancy’s Hunt for Red October).
Clancy is still omnipresent, but his counterterrorists operate mostly in immensely popular video games — or in paperback potboilers based on those franchises — rather than in hardcover bestsellers. Of course, it didn’t help that he wrote himself into a corner by making Jack Ryan president of the United States.
Coonts still writes moderately successful hardcover thrillers, and, like Clancy, his name is featured on paperback series “co-written” with lesser-known authors. I lost interest when he elevated his hero, Jake Grafton, to rear admiral, taking him out of the cockpit. By 1999’s Cuba, about the power struggle as Castro dies of cancer, Grafton was working at a command level and Coonts was building series around supporting characters.
But what has really impaired Coonts’s books is the fact that it’s increasingly difficult to come up with compelling airpower scenarios for fighting the terrorist threat.
On the espionage front, John le Carré has become a shrill shill for the Left, and Big Pharma (as in the ludicrous, unreadable Constant Gardener) is a far less compelling villain than KGB spymaster Karla. You would think that the author of The Little Drummer Girl could adapt better. But then I always suspected that more le Carré books were sold than actually read, anyway. Meanwhile, the masterful Len Deighton, who delivered a constant stream of classics from The Ipcress File onward, all but disappeared when the Berlin Wall fell.
But military and espionage thrillers are alive and well, with a mostly new set of authors who deliver action and suspense, debate the issues, and give us a window into the covert world. Readers have good choices, no matter what elements they prefer.
In 1999, when James W. Huston published his first novel, Balance of Power, it was immediately dubbed a “technothriller.” But this former “Top Gun” F-14 pilot and big-shot trial attorney was already taking on the issues that would frame the global war on terror (GWOT). Huston’s debut and its sequel, The Price of Power, debated whether Congress could still issue a letter of marque to a Navy carrier battle group when a pacifist president refuses to respond to an attack by Islamic terrorists in the South Pacific.
Next, in Flash Point, he dramatized the issue of whether the U.S. could declare war on an individual (a bin Laden-like figure) who attacks American military forces. He also theorized, in 2001’s Fallout, that the most effective terrorist attack might come from jihadists enrolled in a flight school to use planes in a suicide attack from within the United States. Huston was on top of the arguments that dominated the post-9/11 debate: Each of these books, remember, was written before 9/11.
His post-9/11 novels, The Shadows of Power and Secret Justice, explored how far American covert operatives could and should go while pursuing terrorists, including a discussion of waterboarding that was slightly ahead of the talking-heads’ curve. Huston’s marvelously entertaining mix of brains and brawn — along with some nice on-air plugs from Rush Limbaugh — had him becoming a fixture on bestseller lists before some health issues sidelined his writing: Juggling his day job as a high-powered trial attorney and the book-a-year contract grind was temporarily impossible.
Huston returns this month with a new thriller, Marine One. To tell you whether this book has a GWOT theme would be a major plot spoiler. Let’s just leave this sneak preview at welcoming James Huston back to form in a typically fast-moving, intelligent political thriller that’s full of surprises and insider knowledge.
Alex Berenson is further evidence that the New York Times editorial writers don’t read their own foreign correspondents. Anyone who read the dispatches of Dexter Filkins (whose writings are collected in one of last year’s best nonfiction titles, The Forever War) or Alex Berenson would certainly know who the enemies of humanity are in the world, and George W. Bush would not make the list.
In just three books, Berenson has covered the Axis of Evil — plus al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Russia, and China — and even tracked yellowcake smuggled out of Iraq. Berenson’s latest bestseller, The Silent Man, displays all of his strengths as a writer, with an intelligent and suspenseful plot, and a wealth of authentic detail that shows that the author knows how the world works and how the people in his globe-trotting plot think and live. The main character uncovers a jihadist plot to explode a stolen Russian warhead in Washington, D.C.; one character, a doctor, is a “moderate” Muslim who allows himself to be used and does not have the courage to stand up. Berenson’s thrillers are sophisticated, literate, and mostly believable. But don’t let that stop you: They are gripping, suspenseful, and contain enough action to keep the pages turning.