By Gene Lyons
Updated August 06, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

All boys love to play soldier. Forbid them toy guns, many a pacifist-leaning parent is dismayed to learn, and they will conjure six-shooters with their fingers and turn Wiffle ball bats into shoulder-launched tank killers. Furthermore, some boys, for both better and worse, yearn to play soldier all their lives. It’s this latter group that has made Tom Clancy a very wealthy man, breathlessly consuming his wordy, bombastic, wildly sentimental, and wildly successful novels about heroic American soldiers and the high-tech weapon systems that love them. Lieut. Col. Walter Mitty, USMC, present and accounted for, sir!

What? Tom Clancy, the very epitome of clenched-jaw, hyperpatriotic thrillers like The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger, sentimental? Absolutely. As mawkish as any Harlequin romance and roughly as realistic as Sleepless in Seattle. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and in a manner guaranteed to offend martial sensibilities. The point is that the astonishing end of the Cold War has sent Clancy — like all authors of end-of-the-world melodramas — scurrying about seeking new villains to embody the Absolute Evil. In Without Remorse, Clancy’s solution is to turn back the clock to the Vietnam era and to pit his long-running character, Mr. Clark, also known as chief bosun’s mate John T. Kelly, USN, against two kinds of domestic enemies: drug-smuggling pimps and antiwar traitors in high places.

Imagine, if you will, a Dirty Harry adventure scripted by Ollie North. The year is 1970, and the times are out of joint. Scruffy peace activists are picketing the Pentagon and even Clancy’s characters admit ”feelings about the war that the more polite called ‘doubts,’ and which they called something else, but only among themselves.” Exactly what else they called them, Clancy never makes clear. Anyhow, when first we meet him, protagonist Kelly — a Navy SEAL nicknamed the Snake in Vietnam for his stalking skills — has retired from active duty and lives on an island in Chesapeake Bay, quietly mourning the accidental death of his beloved wife. Enter Pam Madden, a runaway hooker with a nasty drug habit and the proverbial heart of gold, whom Kelly nurses back to health. Alas, Pam’s pimp soon catches up with her and murders her in a particularly grisly fashion to teach his other girls a lesson. Before you can say Tom Swift and His Homemade Silencer, Kelly sets out on a one-man revenge mission — determined to exterminate every callow brute who played a part in destroying Pam’s virginal innocence. It never occurs to Our Hero that prostitutes sometimes lie.

Meanwhile, back in Southeast Asia, some equally callow brutes also need killing — and nobody better for the job than the Snake. Temporarily abandoning Operation Pimp, he joins the CIA to help liberate a group of POWs declared dead but held in a secret prison camp by North Vietnamese Commies whom even their Russian advisers despise. ”Arrogant little people with arrogant little minds and the vicious disposition of serpents,” an honorable Soviet pilot calls them.

Will Kelly succeed in bringing home the POWs and resume his career as The Invisible Man — avenging hero of the Baltimore ghetto? Or will hip-talking, pot-smoking traitors in the very bowels of the Nixon White House betray the top-secret mission and doom their nation’s defenders? Incredibly enough, given his turgid style and psychological absurdities, Clancy still knows how to tell a tale, and the millions of would-be warriors who make up his loyal readership will no doubt find themselves thrilled to their toes. C+