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Believing America is only good, America's leaders brought horror to Vietnam and are now bringing it to Iraq.

December 6, 2004

It wasn’t really our fault. We didn’t really mean to harm anyone, did we? We meant only good. We wanted nothing but the best for the Iraqi people. We wanted to give them democracy. We are innocent.

On March 30, 2003, 12-year-old Ali Ismail Abbas was sleeping in his home in Baghdad when an American missile landed on his house, killing his father, his mother, who was six months pregnant, his brother, his aunt, his three cousins, and three other relatives. The explosion turned Ali into a human torch. His arms and upper body burst into flames resulting in burns over half of his body. Ali Abbas’s charred arms, only the bones remaining, were amputated in order to save him.

Photographs of Ali Abbas--his arms reduced to stumps that ended two inches below his shoulders, his body burnt--were transmitted and viewed around the world, while Americans were treated to an alternate war on their TV screens: the daring rescue of PFC Jessica Lynch. “One body can hold all the suffering the world can feel,” Graham Greene wrote in The Quiet American, his fiercely political fifty-year-old novel about American involvement in Vietnam. The pictures of Ali Abbas portrayed America not as a liberator, but as an avenging juggernaut without a conscience.

Greene’s polemic against American involvement in Vietnam, inspired by his observation of events in Indochina in the 1950s, resonates with hyper-meaning as we watch Iraq go up in smoke and a President wrapped in a bubble of messianic fervor. “Innocence is like a dumb leper wandering the world meaning no harm,” Greene wrote. Then, we invaded Vietnam because we feared communism, believed in the Domino theory, and planned to seed democracy there. Now, we’re in Iraq because we fear terrorism, believe in pre-emptive strikes, and hope to seed democracy there. Then, Vietnam spiraled out of control. Now, Iraq is in chaos: fueled by the outrage of an occupied people, lit by the match of Muslim fury.

Alden Pyle (the “Quiet American” of the novel), like President Bush, indeed like all very young children, has very simple, definitive views about the world. Pyle, like President Bush, is full of good intentions. He goes to Vietnam, armed with explosives, to bestow it with the gift of democracy, whether the Vietnamese people want it or not. “Pyle was determined to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world. Well, he was in his element now with the whole universe to improve.” Since Pyle believes America means only good, he can justify all his actions. When he is criticized for his involvement in a bombing that kills many Vietnamese civilians, he responds: “It is a pity, but you can’t always hit your target. Anyway, they died in the right cause; in a way, you could say they died for democracy.”

“I never met a man with better intentions for all the trouble he caused,” Greene writes.

When Greene first wrote the novel, American reviewers lacerated him for rendering Alden Pyle so crudely: as an oaf, a dunderhead, a nitwit, a person blind to the suffering he caused. When Pyle steps on some blood after the bombing, he worries about his shoes. Fifty years later, Alden Pyle and his progeny sit in the White House. They view themselves as essentially very good: completely innocent, while they are quick to see others as bad or evil. They insist on either-or positions: “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” “If you oppose the war, you hate America.” Yet, they embrace situational ethics when it suits them. They support the war in Iraq, but they reject the draft. They ask for the ultimate sacrifice from our military, but would not ask it of themselves in their youth. The President calls for resolve and courage from the troops he sends to death far from home, but could find in himself neither the resolve nor the courage to face the 9/11 Commission alone.

American idealism and good intentions have caused so much pain to those who did us no harm. Even in the face of the agony we inflict in the name of democracy, many of us do not see ourselves as anything but innocent. When Ali’s doctor told an American reporter that the boy said that he hoped no other child would suffer as he did, the reporter was shocked. “Doctor,” she said, channeling White House ideology, “does he understand why this war took place? Has he talked about Operation Iraqi Freedom and the meaning? Does he understand it?”

Greene’s fiction predicted the consequences of our innocence and good intentions in Southeast Asia long before the publication of the Pentagon Papers and the final tally of 58,000 U.S. war dead. Called a prophetic novel for the accuracy with which it forecast America’s involvement in Vietnam, The Quiet American is a reminder of the perverse, lethal nature of our idealism, innocence, and hubris. As we hear the terrible, chilling echo from Iraq--so many Americans killed today, so many Iraqis killed today--one cannot help but pray that Alden Pyle and his children will be held to account for the blood on their shoes.


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