Graham Greene did not write a book about how "America bumbled into Vietnam."
The fact that so many Americans read The Quiet American as a book about how America bumbled into Vietnam indicates just how deeply the myth of good intentions is ingrained in our national psyche.
The fact that Phillip Noyce, director of the 2003 film remake of The Quiet American, thinks that Alden Pyle was "a dunderhead" and a "caricature" is the root of his movie's failure.
When Alden Pyle arrives in Vietnam, he certainly seems naive. He has a foolish affection for a pseudoscientific political tract on what we now call "promoting democracy." He is comically large in a country of small people. He is ostensibly bemused by our narrator Fowler's louche, cynical, almost nihilistic manner. He is charmingly provincial about women. He is contemptuous of the French and heedless of the dilemmas of colonial administration. He is not--he'd tell you--interested in colonialism anyway. All in all a portrait, well-played, of a Yankee ninny with a half-baked Freedom Agenda and a penchant for getting people hurt without actually intending it.
So what's he doing in the aftermath of a catastrophe directing people in fluent Vietnamese?
Fortunately for literature, Greene, an author whom I increasingly believe to be greater even than Conrad, didn't carry biases about the redemptive qualities of the West's good intentions. Even in his outwardly comic works--Our Man in Havana, for instance--the comedy is a thin mask for a more substantial horror. In TQA, Pyle is occasionally played for yucks, and his half-baked political convictions are genuine mockery of America's half-baked politics, but Pyle is no bumbling moron. No Quixote. No Candide. Alden Pyle is a character played by Alden Pyle, the latter of whom is a cold, bloody figure willing to put bombs in a marketplace in service of his theories. He is an intelligence agent who lies. He doesn't end up dead because he's dumb. He ends up dead because he is a soldier in a war.
He's a soldier in a war that Greene saw the Americans pursuing in 1953.
It wasn't a war that was bumbled into. It wasn't an accidental war. There is no such thing as an accidental war. It wasn't the result of good intentions gone awry, of bad intelligence, of decent convictions that simply exceeded the operational capacity of the military. It was a calculated policy, enacted over the course of decades with callousness and deception, in the service of an ideology no less deluded, brutal, inhuman, and flawed than the colonial French that preceded it or the native Communism that followed. Actually, it was more deluded, more brutal, more inhuman, and more deeply flawed.
Whatever it was, it was not an accident.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
Graham Greene did not write a book about how "America bumbled into Vietnam."
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
As every breathing human being now knows, the dauphin made a speech today in which he explained that the lesson of Vietnam is that terrible things happen when a superpower leaves, and I'm happy to report that every Briton but Blair, even as we speak, is thinking the same damned thing.
Alors le coup. Proust avait ses madeleines mais moi, j'ai l'ârome de la graisse du mess. Lors de plus des soldats et des Marines ont matérializé des tentes du camp de transit en route des WC fétides ou en queu au mess, j'ai été encore chez moi : au monde dont j'avais passé la plupart de ma vie adulte.For a long time, I rose early. Sometimes a band of rosy light would stretch across the horizon promising a magnificence to come, only to fade quickly into a gloomy murk whose rapid descent across the band of sky visible through the flapping door of my tent is now in my mind inseparable from the sense of disappointment that once welled in my chest on a similar morning in a similar tent in a place not altogether different from this one, but neither was it entirely the same, merely a figuration of my mind whose soft edges recalled to my mind any number of foreign yet familiar places, whose borders, like the limits of memory, were neither fixed nor infinite, but restlessly located upon a territory in between. As my eyes opened and the cool air floated into the tent like a familiar perfume worn by a woman I may once have known, but whose chimerical form breaks up delicately at the efforts of my mind to recall, like a footprint on a sandy shore washed ceaselessly by waves, I see here and there the forms of soldiers, each lost in private reverie, their minds likewise casting back into the deep pool of the past even as they moved into the hot, dry, and dusty air of the desert, which in my mind is now inseparable from the sense of disappointment that once welled in my chest on a similar morning in a similar tent in a place not altogether different from this one. I had not slept well. Lodged between two great mountains of men, who nightly fell rapidly to dreaming and thus began a concert of snores, sounds redolent of my own youth and training, so loud as to be nearly visceral, a chorus full of memory and futility and despair, whose metronomic regularity seemed to contain within its rumblings the very passage of time itself, I had failed to find either rest or the solace of recollection, and so have my recent days passed neither thinking nor sleeping, but merely drifting on a sea of memories of a disappointment that once welled in my chest on a similar morning in a similar tent in a place not altogether different from this one, but neither was it entirely the same, merely a figuration of my mind whose soft edges recalled to my mind any number of foreign yet familiar places, whose borders, like the limits of memory, were neither fixed nor infinite, but restlessly located upon a territory in between . . .
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
The United States invaded Iraq and deposed its leader, who was later captured and executed. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a non-ideological, military-police state whose Ba'athist government combined bits of pan-Arabism with Iraqi Nationalism with pseudosocialism with market kleptocracy with Gulf Oil State. Following the ouster of Saddam and his government, the United States estabilished a proconsular government. It was the position of the United States that the Ba'ath Party was the functional equivalent of the Nazi Party, and so began the process of de-Ba'athification. Of course, the Ba'ath Party was not all that similiar to the Nazi Party, functionally or otherwise. It was, for one thing, around for longer. To advance in the military, or to pursue a professional career, or to find work in the oil industry--or for a thousand other entirely mundane reasons--you'd have to join the Ba'ath Party. Which makes the more accurate (and more obvious) equation between the Ba'ath Party in Iraq and the Communist Party in the USSR. Can you imagine, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the purging of Party Members from civil, military, and professional society? It would have been impossible.
Fortunately, no American with sufficient influence to stem this decision was troubled by perspective, and the United States purged military, civil and professional Iraq of Ba'ath Party members. Of course, under Ba'ath Party dictatorship, there were no opposition parties, no political organizations, no independent labor unions. The only substantial units of social organization outside of the official party were familiail, religious, and ethnic. Clan. Tribe. Sect. Naturally, then, when the government collapsed and political organization became necessary in order to acquire influence in the "new Iraq," organization occured not ideologically but ethnoreligiously. Naturally, since the United States imposed a system of proportional representation (believing, obscenely absurdly, that proportional government would abnegate potential sectarian divisiveness--a fair shake for all, and all that), the majority ethnic group took over. Naturally, the former ruling minority looked askance at such a development. Naturally, they rebelled against their occupiers and a government percieved at once as in bed with the occupying United States and in bed with the hated neighbor, Iran, against whom the Sunni minority had waged an 8-year war at the cost of a million Iraq lives.
The United States, limitless political savant that we are, simply began demanding that the government reach "accommodation." That it reach "consensus." That it "form a unity government." That it "solve" its "political crisis." Each of these is a euphemism. What do they actually mean?
What they mean is that the United States would now like the newly empowered Shi'ite majority to voluntarily devolve some of its own political power to the very Sunni Arabs who formerly ruled Iraq. You may remember them as the ones we once tried to purge from life in Iraq. Not to compromise on some particular piece of legislation, but to willingly, openly, and freely undercut the advantage of its own numerical advantage in order to quiet the agitation of restive parties. What could possibly impede such a request? Perhaps that Nouri al-Maliki is constrained by more hard-line Shia factions within his own governing bloc. Perhaps that even were that not the case, Nouri al-Maliki is a Shi'ite politican, and like any politician anywhere at any time, his first interest is in acquiring and preserving power for those who share his politics. I'm sure we can think of some more reasons if only we put on our thinking caps.
Now Carl Levin, a Democrat, has become the first major politician to publicly propose an idea formerly floated by right-wing war supporters. A coup! My goodness, it's almost as if there's a certain bipartisan foreign policy consensus, grounded in American exceptionalism, committed to imperial aims, that renders any claims that Democrats constitute an opposition ridiculous on their face. The idea here is that somewhere in Iraq there is a Pharaoh who will unite the Upper and Lower Kingdoms. He would speak a language of national unity that would appeal to American domestic necessity. He would be staunchly opposed to Iranian influence. He would be willing in certain circumstances to act as an American proxy in the region. He would be able to train and equip a military that could maintain domestic order and police Iraq's borders. He would be Saddam Hussein, if we hadn't lynched him already. Whoops. Guess we really are screwed, Carl.
Monday, August 20, 2007
An article in the Post asks if the War on Drugs has undermined the War on Terror. This question seems to me to be as fully engaged with reality as the question of whether or not a man who has self-amputated both arms with a band saw has undermined his ability to fly by flapping them.
Another notes with something like surprise or regret that little progress has been made at "ending tyranny in our world." You don't say? Little progress has been made on perpetual motion mechanics, and the alchemists never did trasmute lead into gold. Outside of a a bad Aronofsky film, there is no fountain of youth.
So the metaphorical war to eradicate demand for the world's most popular non-essential commodity has run up against a less metaphorical war against a more insubstantial euphemism, whose imagined prerogatives are daily undercutting the President's impossible goal. Complicating matters is the fact that the President does not, in fact, care to "promote democracy," a fact made plain by his actions and clarified by an unnamed bureaucrat who pithily slaps down an unnamed official working on "democracy issues": "Policy," says the bureaucrat, "is not what the president says in speeches."
What the President says in speeches, meanwhile, is totally mad:
Sharansky invited Bush to Prague this spring hoping to jump-start the democracy agenda. Bush advisers saw it as a chance to reaffirm his vision of ending tyranny. "Some have said that qualifies me as a 'dissident president,' " Bush told the gathering. "If standing for liberty in the world makes me a dissident, I wear that title with pride."Some? Who? How many? When? Presidential infelicity is an old joke now, but for the holder of the world's most powerful single office--the man who commands a half-trillion-dollar-a-year military apparatus, forty-billion-dollar-a-year intelligence services, the departments of Defense, State, Homeland Security, and Justice--to call himself a dissident . . . That's perhaps the most seriously untethered self-concept since the last time some guy all highed up on PCP stepped in front of a moving bus, confident that his super strength would bring it easily, painlessly to a halt.
Sunday, August 19, 2007
Here is an article explaining that Democrats are committed to ending the Iraq War by continuing the American occupation. Good idea, messieurs et madame.
And here is an article detailing how the Democrat-controlled Congress gave--wait for it--the Bush Administration more authority to conduct domestic surveillance, searches, and seizures than the Executive sought. Consider that for a moment. More.
Anyway. Bon dimanche. A lundi.