I finally got around to reading Graham Greene's early Vietnam-era novel, The Quiet American, and wrote a newspaper column about "the sad fact that it remains as relevant in the age of terrorism and Iraq as it was a half-century ago...Greene saw our misunderstanding of the region into which we were preparing to barge as a guarantee of disaster."
by Edward Cone
News & Record
Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" is one of those famous books that I never quite got around to reading. Having finally dispatched it this summer, I claim no fresh insight into the novel's meaning and message beyond the sad fact that it remains as relevant in the age of terrorism and Iraq as it was a half-century ago.
"The Quiet American" is set in Vietnam during the early 1950s, in the waning years of French colonialism. Greene began writing it before the epic siege of Dien Bien Phu and published it in 1955, just after that decisive French defeat, when the United States was still years away from large-scale involvement in the region. But Greene saw clearly that we were on our way to Southeast Asia in force and also that we could not prevail in a war we did not understand.
With remarkable prescience, the writer has one of his characters, a French bomber pilot named Trouin, voice the hard truth: "You know better than I do that we can't win. You know the road to Hanoi is cut and mined every night. You know we lose one class of St Cyr [the French military academy] every year.... But we are professionals; we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop. Probably they will get together and agree to the same peace that we could have had at the beginning, making nonsense of all these years."
And Greene understood a central fact of the war that America had not yet entered, which some Americans still don't grasp more than three decades after our inglorious retreat: The grand geopolitical strategy we presumed to be behind the fighting was much less important to the home team than it was to us. Already, by 1955, Greene knew that many Vietnamese were motivated not by communism or anticommunism but by the desire to throw off the colonial yoke. And he knew that situation was untenable, even as the Americans first tried to use a local warlord's army to influence the course of events.
As Fowler, the world-weary British journalist who serves as Greene's narrator and alter-ego, says to the idealistic American agent, Pyle: "You and your like are trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested."
"They don't want Communism," Pyle replies.
"They want enough rice," Fowler says. "They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."
Greene saw our misunderstanding of the region into which we were preparing to barge as a guarantee of disaster. In one of the book's most famous scenes, Fowler talks to a French detective about Pyle's death. "They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair's about, and you gave him money and York Harding's books on the East and said, 'Go ahead. Win the East for Democracy.' He never saw anything he hadn't heard in a lecture-hall, and his writers and his lectures made a fool of him."
It's chilling to read those words four years into our current war in Iraq and to realize that we entered this war, too, without fully considering the complexities of the situation. Then, as now, our best intentions were not enough to keep us from blundering into a bloody mess in a faraway place. The news from Iraq, day after day, recalls the scene after Pyle's warlord ally carries out a bombing attack on civilians in a Saigon square, leaving Fowler to contemplate a mother holding her mutilated baby in her lap. "A two-hundred-pound bomb does not discriminate," he thinks. "How many dead colonels justify a child's or a trishaw driver's death when you are building a national democratic front?"
Greene did not anticipate a happy ending. Fowler, the jaded voice of post-imperial Britain, recognizes in the Americans similar traits to the mother country -- and foresees similar disasters for the lands they conquer and eventually leave behind. "We go and invade the country; the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren't colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made peace with the king and we handed him back his province and left our allies to be crucified and sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we'd stay. But we were liberals and we didn't want a bad conscience... We shall do the same thing here. Encourage them and leave them with a little equipment..."
"The Quiet American" is a work of fiction that speaks truth. It should be required reading in the White House and on Capitol Hill. Too bad that hasn't been the case for the last five decades.
© News & Record 2007