Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Quiet American

Posted by Chris at 12/14/2007 10:35 AM ...

Abu Muqawama and Charlie's take on Graham Greene's The Quiet American finally pushed me over the edge, and I bought a copy. I've been meaning to do so since watching the Brendan Frasier/Michael Caine remake of the movie adaptation, which first appeared as an Audie Murphy film in 1958. The new Graham Greene centennial edition has a heavy cardstock cover and slightly ragged pages, giving it an old-fashioned, artsy feel. I usually prefer very crisp laser-edge page cuts, but somehow this seemed right for this book.

Charlie and AM focus on the conflict between idealism and cynicism that flow through the book, representing the dichotomy of old colonial empires and American democracy-promotion, as well as the use of the love triangle between the book's three main characters Phoung, Fowler, and Pyle. My impression was a bit different, but I think it flows from this particular understanding of Greene's message.

Pyle, the American, is a caricature of the idealistic American reformer who goes out to save the world from itself, naively believing that our way is the only way - that American democracy and ideals universally apply to all people, and all situations everywhere. Fowler, on the other hand is a cynical, middle-aged, English journalist, who has all but "gone bamboo". The differences between the these two characters illustrate Greene's, and many Europeans' image of the contrast between Europe and America. America is young, confident, and idealistic, striding out into the world to set it right, while Europe is tired, older, and more cynical.

Pyle embodies America's continuing belief in the universalism of its economic and political system. He, like most Americans, thinks that all people are best served by our unique approach to republican democracy and capitalist economics. Fowler, on the other hand, understands that most people just want to be left alone to live their lives in peace. Fowler and Pyle discuss just this issue while hoping to safely pass the night in a watchtower they are stranded in with two frightened Vietnamese sentries. Fowler tells Pyle that if the Vietminh show up, they probably shouldn't rely on the sentries for assistance.

"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."

The Pyles of the world didn't understand in Vietnam, and don't understand now, that not everyone shares the same concerns and outlook on how to best organize the world. I think that this is exemplified in how we handled the occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The neo-con organizers and promoters of the venture, assumed that after Saddam's removal, an American-style democracy, with goals and policies like ours would appear out of the ashes. They assumed that there would be no power vacuums or chaos resulting from the sudden change of regimes without any governing or security apparatus when they fired all the Baathists and dissolved the Iraqi army.

Pyle, like the neo-cons, operates on Faith, not Reason. That's why I agree with Charlie's assessment that The Quiet American should be required for idealistic undergrads who want to save the world.

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