The Quiet American is a marvelous book, or rather, it is one in which Greene’s utter disdain for the reckless incompetence of power gets a near perfect expression. Take this snippet from near the end of the work:
Pyle said, “It’s awful.” He looked at the wet on his shoes and said in a sick voice, “What’s that?” “Blood,” I said. “Haven’t you ever seen it before?” He said, “I must get them cleaned before I see the Minister.” I don’t think he knew what he was saying. He was seeing a real war for the first time: he had punted down into Phat Diem in a kind of schoolboy dream, and anyway in his eyes soldiers didn’t count.
“You see what a drum of Diolacton can do,” I said, “in the wrong hands.” 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 The 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 The on the map all right, Pyle. You’ve got the Third Force and National Democracy all over your right shoe. Go home to Phuong and tell her about your heroic deed-there are a few dozen less of her country people to worry about.”
A small fat priest scampered by, carrying something on a dish under a napkin. Pyle had been silent a long while, and I had nothing more to say. Indeed I had said too much. He looked white and beaten and ready to faint, and I thought, ‘What’s the good? he’ll always he innocent, you can’t blame the innocent, they are always guiltless. Ail you can do is control them or eliminate them. Innocence is a kind of insanity.’
He said, “The 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…
“Impregnable armoured by good intentions and ignorance.” That is what will — or at least should be — engraved on David Brooks’ tombstone. And I’m only giving him the props for his intent there out of whatever residual nil nisi bonum remains to me.
Why the vitriol, and memory of stupid wars, with the overwhelming weight of the violence reserved for far away others who don’t look like “us”?