December 02, 2007

COIN Book Club, No. 5

This week's edition of the COIN Book Club is another work of fiction: The Quiet American, by Graham Greene. Charlie will admit to this being one of her favorite books of all time. (To complete her commentary on the the duality of man, her other favorite is TH White's, The Once and Future King). But unlike The Centurions, our only previously reviewed novel, this is not a story of soldiers. At times, it barely feels like it's about an insurgency at all. That is, until one of Greene's famous scenes settles around you like a thick fog. Ultimately, his story is one of foreign policy, intrigue, and the perils of good intentions.

The Quiet American is set in Vietnam before Dien Bien Phu while the French are still fighting the Vietminh, long before the Americans arrive to fight the Viet Cong. And the story is told through the eyes of Thomas Fowler, a British reporter largely modeled after Greene himself: a cynical ex-pat who understands the locals in a nuanced but imperial sort of way. He's juxtaposed with the titular quiet American, Alden Pyle: a Boston native who arrives in Vietnam with his dog-eared copy of York Harding's treatise on democracy in Asia to work in the Economic Legation. They argue over both Fowler's mistress and the future of Vietnam.

Neither fight is really fair. Pyle is, for the most part, a caricature of an American, with his broad face and crew cut. Two scenes provide the backdrop for their most intense arguments; those same two scenes are also why this book is on the reading list. The first takes place when Fowler goes north and essentially embeds with a French unit after an attack by the Vietminh.

So much of war is sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for somebody else....Doing what they had done so often before, the sentries moved out. Anything that stirred ahead of us now was the enemy. The lieutenant marked his map and reported our position over the radio. A noonday hush fell: even the mortars were quiet and the air was empty of planes. One man doodled with a twig in the dirt of the farmyard. After a while it was as if we had been forgotten by war....

Two shots were fired to our front, and I though, "This is it. Now it comes." It was all the warning I wanted. I awaited, with a sense of exhilaration, the permanent thing.

But nothing happened....I caught the phrase, "Deux civils."

The civilians were mistakenly shot by the French patrol, which is then recalled in preparation for the evening's air raids. Amidst all this, Pyle tracks down Folwer in Phat Diem and asks declares his love for Fowler's mistress Phoung. Pyle's clumsy but genuine pursuit of Phoung becomes Greene's allegory for American intentions in Vietnam more broadly.

But not all of the argument is so subtle. As this is a Graham Greene novel, there is more than enough intrigue to go around (Charlie promises not to ruin it here). The next time Fowler and Pyle are stranded together outside the wire is both more tense and more dangerous. Having run out of gas on their way back to Saigon, they are forced to take refuge in one of the many watch towers that line the road. But while the French control the roads, the Vietminh control the night. "Their" watch tower is secured by two young Vietnamese soldiers. Pyle asks,

"Don't you trust them?"

"No French officer," I said, "would care to spend the night alone with two scared guards in one of these towers. Why even an platoon have been known to hand over their officers. Sometimes the Viets have better success with a megaphone than with a bazooka. I don't blame them....You and you like are just trying to make a war with the help of people who just aren't interested."

"The don't want Communism."

"They want enough rice," I said. 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 to do."

"If Indo-China goes..."

"I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does "go" mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I'd bet my future harp against your golden crown than in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they'll be growing paddy in these fields...."

The argument continues until the Vietminh patrol arrives, upon which Fowler and Pyle flee leaving the Vietnamese guards to die in the ambush. The intrigue grows after their return to Saigon as Fowler learns that Pyle has more than an academic interest in promoting a "third way" (communism and colonialism being the other two) for Vietnam.

What's telling about the novel is that Pyle is not evil. He's not corrupt. He's not power hungry. And, as seen by Fowler, he's still incredibly dangerous. Perhaps all the more so, given his good intentions. (It was this aspect of the book that often made Charlie think that it should be required reading for all of her undergraduate students who wanted to save the world.) Again, Pyle is a caricature. And Fowler's insistent detachment is both disingenuous and, at times, equally indefensible. But, to Charlie's mind, it is this ongoing debate between imperfect cynicism and deluded but genuine idealism that animates the novel, and makes it required reading for those who find themselves frequently torn between the two.