The Quiet American
Graham Greene, 1955

the fifth book in the visitor recommendation series;
suggested by Jake Wildstrom

I'm glad the algorithm put this book up near the top, because if I'd had to go for years knowing that it was lurking farther down the list, the guilt might have been too much for me to take. See, this was one of the books I was supposed to read for English class back in high school, and I… I never even opened it. I don't think I had to write an essay about it, because if I had, I wouldn't have been able to do much better than, "It's about this guy… from the United States… who doesn't say much. I believe he has a crew cut." I hope I can do better this time.

I do wonder what I would have made of this had it appeared elsewhere on the list, as different juxtapositions make different themes come to the fore. For instance, I'd read Nineteen Eighty-Four many times before picking it up again as part of my Orwell project, and reading it in the context of Orwell's other books, I was struck by the extent to which it's really just a variation on his previous work — beneath all the totalitarian trappings, it's another tome on British poverty. And reading The Quiet American immediately after Ender's Game, I found it hard not to read the former as a direct precognitive refutation of the latter.

The Quiet American is about the relationship between two foreigners in Vietnam in the early 1950s, during the First Indochina War. One is world-weary British journalist Thomas Fowler, who has a Vietnamese mistress and a liking for opium, and has no intention of ever leaving. The other is Alden Pyle, recently arrived as part of the American Economic Mission. He's a polite, serious, clean-cut young man who has been inspired by the books of one York Harding to do what he can to stop the spread of communism and plant the seeds of democracy overseas. He's "not very keen on hard liquor," says "darn" when he gets upset, and is a virgin at age 32. And while in the 1950s these qualities may have read as generically American, these days they read as specifically Mormon. C'mon, a white-bread, non-swearing, alcohol-averse American virgin who goes overseas, sacred texts in hand, to do missionary work on behalf of his belief system? You might as well pin an engraved "ELDER PYLE" nametag on him and be done with it.

But it isn't just the Mormon connection that made me think of Ender's Game while reading this. Both books are about the disparity between intentions and results. Ender's Game is about a boy named Ender Wiggin who, by the end of the first chapter, has already kicked another boy to death. He does the same thing to another boy later in the book. Alden Pyle is a killer as well. When Greene started writing The Quiet American, the battle against Ho Chi Minh's insurgency was still the responsibility of the recent colonial power in the region, France; the American presence in Vietnam was limited to a delegation of "advisors." Pyle is one of these. He is in fact a junior CIA operative who is not just a fan of York Harding, but has come to Vietnam to put Harding's ideas about the region into practice. Harding, a sort of Thomas Friedman figure whose time spent in Southeast Asia amounts to a handful of days, contends that the communist uprising there has been successful largely because it taps into a wellspring of resentment of the French colonial regime. The solution, Harding says (and Pyle repeats), is for the battle against the communists to be led not by the French but by a "Third Force," i.e., a locally popular strongman who will act as a bulwark against the domino effect in exchange for U.S. backing. Pyle selects General Trinh Minh Thé and supplies him with explosives. Thé uses these to blow up a square in Saigon, turning dozens of shopping mothers and trishaw drivers into shredded corpses. Pyle is upset; the agreement was that Thé would blow up a military parade, not a bunch of civilians. He gives Thé a stern talking-to. Still, he tells Fowler, "It was a pity, but you can't always hit your target. Anyway they died in the right cause."

Pyle's body count is nothing compared to Ender's. At the end of Card's novel, Ender literally reduces an entire planet to a cloud of dust, wiping out every lifeform on that world, including an intelligent, spacefaring species. It's completely over the top, and this is deliberate. For the thesis Card sets forth in Ender's Game is that no matter how many lives you might take, no matter how vicious your tactics might be, you remain morally spotless if you have the right intentions. Ender hadn't meant to kill those boys; he just misjudged the amount of damage he was doing. Nor was he motivated by bloodlust. His victims had been bullying him, and Ender made a rational strategic decision to hurt them badly enough that they would never threaten him again. The same goes for annihilating the bugger homeworld. Ender hadn't intended to commit murder on a global scale. He thought that his attack was part of a computer simulation. Even if he had known, he'd been told all his life that these aliens constituted an existential threat to life on earth. They weren't one, but again, according to Card's moral calculus intention is everything. If Ender thought that he was doing what it took to secure the survival of the human race, then it doesn't matter that he was actually slaughtering billions of benign sapients. They died in the right cause. Besides, when he learns what he's done, he feels really bad about it. And in taking that guilt upon himself, Ender emerges not merely blameless, not merely heroic, but essentially perfect.

Greene's emphasis is different. Much of The Quiet American concerns Pyle's attempt to win Fowler's mistress away from him. This may sound like a caddish thing to do, but Pyle is no lothario; on the contrary, he's what the Internet kids call a white knight. He's concerned for Phuong's welfare given the insecurity of her current arrangement. Fowler is already married, has a history of leaving women, and is getting a bit long in the tooth. He can't marry Phuong or even support her for very long, and after he's gone — one way or another — she might end up having to work in a brothel. Pyle is already uncomfortable with the way Fowler has made Phuong party to adultery, but the thought of her turning to prostitution is one he can't abide. Thus he plans to propose to Phuong immediately, even though his acquaintance with her amounts to a couple of dances. But Pyle is a straight arrow, and doesn't want to make his move behind Fowler's back. He goes so far as to track Fowler down in the middle of a war zone in order to explain his intentions and ask for his blessing — and, to Fowler's astonishment, seems to expect that he'll get it. Pyle is so trustworthy himself, his motives so pure, that he is comically trusting of others, leading to a scene in which he has Fowler translate his proposal to Fowler's own mistress, as her English is not very good. It's over the top, and again, this is deliberate. Card pumped up Ender's body count to make the point that it didn't matter; Greene does the same with Pyle's innocence.

For the main thrust of The Quiet American is that no matter how noble you think your motivations are, it's what you do and not what your intentions were that determines the morality of an action. Fowler is not Greene's mouthpiece, exactly, but it seems pretty clear that the conclusion he draws after the bombing is meant to be instructive. That conclusion is that nothing justifies committing an atrocity. Pyle can shrug that wars have casualties and that it's sweet and fitting to die for democracy, like Thomas Jefferson heralding the salutary effects of occasional bloodshed — treating people like abstractions. But to Fowler, when you see a real town square full of real pulped babies, that's the end of the story — it's evil, and no amount of blathering about the greater good can change that. Card spends a lot of effort in Ender's Game establishing that Ender's motives are pure, but to Fowler, that actually makes things worse. You might be able to reach someone who knows he's doing wrong by appealing to his conscience. But someone like Pyle, or Ender, who would never do anything he thought to be wrong, who is firmly convinced that committing these atrocities is virtuous… such a person, Fowler decides, can't be swayed. He can only be stopped.

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