Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Innocence is a kind of insanity: Graham Greene and Iraq

Toward the end of Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel, The Quiet American, the two main characters meet in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing of a Saigon public square that has left women and children dead. Thomas Fowler, a British journalist covering the French occupation of Vietnam, suddenly realizes that Alden Pyle, an American intelligence operative, is supplying General Thé (a Vietnamese insurgent) with the weapons used in the bombing. Pyle believes the U.S. is supporting an anti-colonialist and anti-Communist “Third Force” in Vietnam. The violence is justified in the name of bringing democracy to Vietnam.

Standing amidst the wreckage, Fowler confronts Pyle.

I forced him, with my hand on his shoulder, to look around. I said, ‘This is the hour when the place is always full of women and children – it’s the shopping hour. Why choose that of all hours?’

He said weakly, ‘There was to have been a parade.’

‘And you hoped to catch a few colonels. But the parade was cancelled yesterday, Pyle.’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘Didn’t know!’ I pushed him into a patch of blood where a stretcher had lain. ‘You ought to be better informed.’

‘I was out of town,’ he said, looking down at his shoes. ‘They should have called it off.’

‘And missed the fun?’ I asked him. ‘Do you expect General Thé to lose his demonstration? This is better than a parade. Women and children are news, and soldiers aren’t, in a war. This will hit the world’s Press. You’ve put General Thé on the map all right, Pyle. You’ve got the Third Force and National Democracy all over your right shoe . . .’

. . . He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, ‘What’s the good? He’ll always be innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. All you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.’

He said, ‘Thé wouldn’t have done this. I’m sure he wouldn’t. Somebody deceived him. The Communists . . .’

He was impregnably armoured by his good intentions and his ignorance . . . A two-hundred-pound bomb does not discriminate. How many dead colonels justify a child’s or a trishaw driver’s death when you are building a national democratic front?

- The Quiet American, Penguin Books edition, pp. 162-163

Different war. Same question. Alden Pyle personifies every U.S. administration from Eisenhower to George W. Bush that engaged in nation building based on a diabolical combination of good intentions and ignorance. The myth of U.S. innocence is indeed a form of insanity that is leaving thousands dead and millions homeless as refugees flee Iraq, while those remaining descend into the abyss of civil war.

Whatever the reasons for going into Iraq, and whatever the reasons for staying or leaving, let us not for one minute delude ourselves into thinking this war is based on anything but U.S. self-interest. We are not liberators. We are fools who had the hubris to believe we could destroy a thousands year-old culture shaped by a painful history of colonialism and remake it in our image. We have made an idol of our own imperial ambitions, and painted it with a thin veneer of benevolent nation building. Like the company commander in Vietnam who famously said, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it,” we find ourselves repeating history in Iraq.

Where is our Graham Greene today?

1 comment:

David J said...

Great quote,
It's funny I've been thinking about Green lately and that book (the only one of his I've read). There must be something obvious about the message.

Where are they now? The sane voices of descent, more still the voters the action takers.