From the works of Brad Thor and Vince Flynn to Matthew Betley, military thrillers regularly top the bestseller lists. They’ve been popular since at least the 1950s, but after 9/11, readers have absolutely flocked to them.
In light of Pope Francis’s recent change to the Catechism involving the inadmissibility of the death penalty, however, some are having doubts about the genre.
When it comes to just war, legitimate defense, and the death penalty, military thrillers pull no punches. Authors set up complex, highly stressful situations that make it seem reasonable to torture and/or execute one’s enemies without strict oversight. Betley’s latest novel, Field of Valor, features a secret execution approved by the U.S. President. And Thor is well known for his all-too-real depictions of Americans waterboarding enemy combatants.
Indeed, the thinking that often comes up in these books, such as in Thor’s recent Spymaster, is that the ends justify the means.
Before Pope Francis’s change, we could, with some degree of ease, see how these authors were presenting convincing situations that portray the State’s legitimate use of the death penalty. After all, the heroes in most military thrillers are sworn enemies of the deep state. They root out corruption and cut through the political correctness of their times. Doing so usually means breaking the rules.
Overly pious believers might take a reactionary stance. Military thrillers traffic in a rationalization of the death penalty, they might say, and even glorify it. Betley often portrays his hero Logan West as a kind of death deity, an Old Testament bringer of justice infused with righteous vengeance. Isn’t Betley asking us to see West as an instrument of God’s vengeance—someone who not only kills but does so with relish?
That’s another thought that often appears in these books: enemies who are about to be dispatched have brought it upon themselves.
Readers with some military experience might call out a hyper-pietistic response as sentimental. The reality of war leaves the maudlin behind. When your loved ones are incapacitated and are about to be vilely abused by a psychopathic genius, as happens in the climax of Lee Child’s The Hard Way, you do what’s necessary, which means you shoot to kill.
As mentioned, authors in this genre are very creative when it comes to creating situations that make it seem reasonable to take the law into one’s own hands.
If I personally have a horse in this race, however, it’s to remind the debaters of literary standards. We don’t judge the success of a novel per se by its theology. We judge it by the established literary standards of its genre.
Yes, we can have a theological discussion of how writers portray characters’ beliefs. Surely we can debate the world-building an author is doing in terms of his concepts of natural law. But those discussions are secondary when it comes to judging the work of art as a work of art. Theology doesn’t co-opt or override the aesthetic.
And that consideration brings us back to our question. May we still legitimately enjoy military thrillers?
By literary standards, yes. We may rightly appreciate the way Thor deeply investigates the thought processes of his characters while plotting intense action scenes. We ought to respect the fluid descriptions of hand-to-hand combat that Betley excels at, and his spirited sense of masculine camaraderie. Child’s books are not military thrillers but more of detective procedurals. Still, we can rightly credit him for his consistent depiction of Jack Reacher as a consummate Nietzschean superman.
By extension, however, we can appreciate to an even higher degree someone like Vince Flynn. When Flynn passed in mid-2013, fans and critics already regarded him as one of the top authors of military thrillers. That reputation has only grown. Flynn’s novels have all the penetrating character analysis and bone-crunching action you expect; his literary bonafides are on full display in his works. But interspersed quietly throughout his books are moments of great religious insight. These moments depend on his literary skill, not on some shoehorned-in theology. Flynn used his literary talents to elevate the military thriller to an art form pointing to the beauty of faith. The ending of Consent to Kill, which I won’t ruin here, is a perfect example.
The question is not whether we may enjoy the military thriller. The first question, rather, is to what degree we may enjoy them as literary works of art. The second question is similar: at what point does our appreciation end? And we may dare ask a third question. Does this author have an ability to point his art towards something greater?