Into the Storm, Tom Clancy & General Fred Franks Jr.

Putnam, 1997, 531 pages, C$37.50 hc, ISBN 0-399-14236-3

I’ve said it before, but it’s an axiom worth reprinting again: Publishing is a funny business. You can sell a lot of unlikely books if you have the right hook, and the quality of the product rarely has anything to do with the end result. Neither does reader enjoyment; you can slide and dice the numbers any way you want, but there aren’t very many rational answers for the wild best-selling success of Stephen Hawkins’ math-heavy A Brief History. Many have uncharitably suggested that it was a book that was more interesting to display than to read, and that’s not far from the truth. Not many people have read A Brief History of Time all the way through, but many poseurs proudly include it in their personal library.

In much the same vein, General Fred Franks’ Into the Storm could have easily been yet another of those dry military history textbooks: Published by a specialized printing press, advertised in a few small magazines, bought by a few hundred universities and overwhelmingly invisible to the general public. Regardless of the quality of the work, this would have been a hard-core military book for a small audience of military buffs. Or, even worse, an unpublished manuscript.

But in our universe, Tom Clancy stepped in.

Or, should I say, best-selling techno-thriller author Tom Clancy stepped in. He (or someone else) thought it might be a good idea to co-author a series of non-fiction books with professional military personnel. Into the Storm is, reportedly, the first book in this series.

In a sense, everyone should come away happy from this experience. Clancy gets to work with interesting people and acquires a considerable amount of credibility as an expert in the field. The co-authors get an experienced wordsmith and vulgarizator. Oh, and a best-seller is certain.

And that’s the really surprising thing about Into the Storm. It’s a jargon-heavy pure military text. It describes the history of mechanized infantry from the Vietnam War to the Gulf War. It describes, in overwhelming detail, how ground troops prepared and fought in the Gulf War. It’s a biography of General Fred Franks. It’s a summary of fifteen years’ worth of changes in the US Army. It’s a primer on how to fight a modern war with modern weapons. In short, it’s not beach reading. And yet it was published, massively marketed and probably bought by thousands of readers who were probably expecting another Clancy pot-boiler. Gotcha!

It’s not even a bad book, though it definitely has its limitations. For even the moderately knowledgeable military buff, it’s often dry reading. While the details are exhaustive, they’re usually not presented in a compelling way; there’s a limit to how excitingly you can describe transit operations and force preparation. Some of it is even dull beyond belief. You almost have to be a professional military analyst to enjoy the full book. There’s also an additional annoyance in that Franks seems to be using passages of Into the Storm to answer Norman Schwarzkopf’s criticism in his autobiography It Doesn’t Take a Hero. Naturally, readers who aren’t familiar with the previous book might not care at all.

But don’t let that blind you to the interesting sections of Into the Storm. At its best, it’s a clear description of the overhaul of the US Army after the scars left by Vietnam. It’s a rather good autobiography of a professional military man. It’s occasionally a good description of the Gulf War. From time to time, you’ll even uncover a nugget or two of fascinating military trivia. Its grasp of the real-world military chain of command and logistics is also unparalleled in widely-available literature.

But if you’re not a dedicated military buff, goodness, don’t pick up Into the Storm expecting another easy read by Mr. Clancy. It all too often happens that the publishing industry fools relatively smart people in buying total crap, but in this case it’s fascinating to see the complete opposite—the marketing industry managing to convince a large audience to buy over their heads. Now that Into the Storm has hit the remainder stacks, you can find out for yourself if you’ve got the mettle for 500+ pages of hard-core military jargon.

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