Innocence, a Kind of Insanity

April 08, 1991|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- When I was very young, and much surer of myself, I was quite put out by the anti-Americanism of Graham Greene's ''The Quiet American.'' I wrote a notice of the book (which came out in the United States in 1956), saying that Americans were not as stupid as Greene made us out to be, and that after the hash the French had made of their Indochina war the United States -- which by then had made itself responsible for the new South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem -- could scarcely do worse.

Diem was the brilliant Catholic mandarin who had gone into exile in the United States during the first Indochina war, living for a time with the Maryknoll Fathers and acquiring the patronage of the CIA. After the French defeat he went back to Vietnam with a program of nationalism and land reform. Americans expected him to undercut the appeal of the communists, who now governed North Vietnam but had left their underground political and military network in South Vietnam.

Greene had been something of a literary hero to me, explorer of the mined moral terrain of pre-Vatican II Catholicism, where Scorby, the colonial policeman, killed himself out of love, believing that in doing so he damned himself, and Sarah the adulteress becomes a saint, her lover crying out, ''God, you've taken her but you haven't got me yet.'' There was the whiskey priest in revolutionary Mexico, in ''The Power and the Glory,'' who ''felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed.''

How remote all that now seems from the moral universe of guiltless self-actualization and self-satisfaction we have inhabited since the 1960s. That was a time of grandeur imposed by the responsibility of choice, to sin or not. The category of sin has since been removed from us. A Greene hero or heroine would say of today that the devil has won. But a Greene hero or heroine would also acknowledge that the mystery of existence is that the devil seems always to have won, but hasn't.

Greene had no trouble writing about saints and the seemingly damned (he quoted the French poet Charles Peguy, ''the sinner is at the very heart of Christianity. No one is more competent than the sinner in the matter of Christianity. No one who is not a saint''). His difficulty was with the innocent, whom he hated for their irresponsibility, but could not convincingly describe.

This was the problem in ''The Quiet American.'' Pyle, the American innocent, is responsible for a murderous bomb explosion in the Place Garnier in Saigon, in front of the National Theater and the Continental Hotel, meant to blow up French soldiers and thereby demonstrate that a ''Third Force'' of anti-colonial resistance existed in Indochina, rival to the communists. He never comes alive.

He is, in the novel, an unconvincing big baby, whose American ''placing'' -- school and family references, manner of speaking, political enthusiasms -- remains false. (But then I can think of no English novelist who has created an American who convincingly comes off. Something about us escapes them.)

About the novel's political content, however, it is evident that I was wrong and Greene right. The bombing really did happen, of course. There really was a quiet American. The Third Force the United States sought was actually found in Ngo Dinh Diem. He proved a disappointment, though, so another Third Force was looked for and found in Gen. Duong Van Minh (''Big Minh''). Diem then was an obstacle and the Kennedy administration approved a coup to remove him.

But Big Minh was a disappointment too. Another Third Force figure was sought and found, and Big Minh had to be removed. And so it went, for another 10 years after that, until the scramble for helicopters from the embassy roof.

After Diem was assassinated, Richard Helms of the CIA said: ''If you get killed in the course of a coup, I don't know if you call that assassination.'' Greene's Pyle, the Quiet American, said after the Place Garnier bomb went off, killing a crowd of ordinary Vietnamese: ''It was all a sad mistake. There should have been a parade.'' The parade had been canceled.

He went on, ''It was a pity, but you can't always hit your target. Anyway, they died in the right cause.'' Greene's narrator, the world-weary English journalist, reflects that ''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.''

I write about this, of course, because Graham Greene died Wednesday, in his 87th year -- at last permitted, one trusts, to put to rest the moral tensions of his existence. I do so also FTC because of what is happening in Iraq, Kurdistan and Kuwait, where American innocence has again proved a kind of insanity.

An American exercise in international ''law-enforcement,'' accompanied by explicit American encouragement to the people Iraq to rise against Saddam Hussein, now is producing millions displaced and homeless, hundreds of thousands atrociously dead, and American abandonment of those who have risen against the tyrant.

President Bush says of the situation that he is ''troubled'' by the human suffering, and the State Department's spokeswoman says that ''we are extremely concerned about reports of atrocities and refugees.'' But who, both seem to suggest, would have imagined that what we did would have had consequences?

However, as Pyle said in Saigon, they are dying ''in the right cause.'' All this is one reason why I, myself, think an American program to build a new world order an absolutely terrible idea.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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