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The Decline of the Military He Loved

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
Vol. 19, No. 06
Weekly Standard


Tom Clancy's premature death is rich in unfortunate symbolism, because the U.S. armed forces, whose renaissance he celebrated in the 1980s and beyond, may be heading back to the "hollow," pre-Clancy days of the 1970s. Although he kept writing up until the end, and continued to sell scads of books and video games, Clancy is mostly associated with the Reagan years, and for good reason. He was part of a pop culture outpouring, which also included the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun and Clint Eastwood'sHeartbreak Ridge, that marked an inflection point in American attitudes towards the military.

Largely gone were the antiwar depictions common inMASH (1970), The Deer Hunter (1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979) and in books such as Born on the Fourth of July (1976) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969). One of the last gasps of this mindset was Oliver Stone's 1986 filmPlatoon, which depicts soldiers shooting Vietnamese civilians and even each other.

There was a kernel of reality in these harsh depictions. The armed forces in the 1970s were a mess. Drug use, racial tensions, alcoholism, and other problems were rife. After the end of the draft in 1973, the military had a hard time making the transition to an all-volunteer force. The problems were symbolized by the disastrous mission to rescue the hostages in Iran, which ended with a fiery aircraft accident at an improvised landing strip codenamed "Desert One." In 1980 the army chief of staff, General Edward "Shy" Meyer, warned: "Basically what we have is a hollow army."

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