Red Storm Rising is a fantastic story of a war that never was: a conventional conflict between the Soviet Union and NATO in the broader European theater in the 1980s. Red Storm holds a distinction of being considered a ludicrous book – why would two hostile nuclear power engage in a conventional war which included attacks on one party’s core territories – until Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent American response. Now, Red Storm Rising feels incredibly prescient.
I read Red Storm for two reasons. The first was a comment on Twitter on the realistic depiction of Soviet/Russian power in the book. Indeed, while reading Red Storm I was struck by how the main effort in the war is the Soviet invasion, occupation, and attempt to hold Iceland. The satellite plots could have been cut and the book would have been a coherent history of an imaginary Russo-Icelandic War. The other storylines in the book center around what is needed by either side to hold Iceland and the consequences of NATO or Soviet control of the island.
The other was an unexpected connection to computer gaming. I knew of course that Tom Clancy later founded Red Storm Entertainment, responsible for the hit Rainbox Six series as well as other games. But from Sid Meier’s Memoir more about the history of this book. It was Clancy’s first, written while he was still selling insurance, and written in collaboration with war game designer Larry Bond. Sid Meier wrote about how his first meeting with the two involved playing a fun and complicated board game.
These threads together — the proto-Ukrain War story of the book and the connection to war games – made the book make a ton of “sense.” It reads very closely to what you would imagine if someone designed a detailed turn-based war game and then novelized the results. The incredible technical detail may not have been something forced into the book, but rather extracted from the game rules and sourcebooks. Whatever the case, Red Storm brought back memories of reading The Viking Scribes and other dramatic retellings of game outcomes.
In terms of actual storytelling, Red Storm focuses more on parallelism and contextualization than characterization. Psychological realism is present, but not at the level in Fallen. You learn pretty quickly which characters are brave or cowardly, honorable or wretched, self-sacrificing or opportunistic in equal measure on both sides. Complicated plans sometimes execute flawlessly, sometimes with serious flaws, and other times collapse because of arbitrary or bizarre coincidences. The only lack of parallelism is that while Clancy and Bond describe the messiness of Soviet Politbureau meetings, they don’t try to the meetings of, say, the National Security Council or Cabinet. But it’s easy to read into the subtext that the professionalism and steadiness of American military leadership (for that also is how SOviet military leadership is described) would be undermined by their political masters too.
Sid Meier, in his book, mentioned that even after writing Red Storm Rising Tom Clancy had to keep selling insurance because of the terms of the book contract. I assume whatever those specific terms were, they explain why none of Tom Clancy’s other books have continuity with Red Storm Rising. While reading Red Storm you grow to love certain characters and hope to follow their lives. But while in later books we will learn a lot about Jack Ryan and Jonn Kelly, we never get to re-visit Mike Edwards, Amelia Nakamura, or Pavel Leonidovich Alekseyev.
A humorous note: somehow in my mind I was able to follow the events in Iceland but backward! For some reason, the map of Iceland was mirror-imaged in my mind. The populated area of Iceland is in the south-west.
In any case, I kept remembering Sigur Ros’s famous Route One video to accurately imagine the landscapes and environments of that island. The descriptions in the book also made me think of the Pacific Northwest.
The book held up well over the past few decades, except for incorrect speculation about what would become the F-117 Stealth Fighter, and regular descriptions of Russian paratroopers as competent, professional, or so on.
Red Storm Rising is an educational and enjoyable book describing the thinking behind a conventional war between nuclear powers, a detailed depiction of military hardware and its use in the 1980s, and a p