Echoes of the Vietnam war run through American society still. The mocking of institutions and leaders, cynical apathy about our polity and indifference towards getting involved all has its roots in Vietnam. Such a direction seems like a progression, when looking at The Quiet American (Graham Greene) and Dispatches (Michael Herr). While The Quiet American is a novel, it also operates as a social commentary on the Americans and the French in Vietnam, with some war correspondence thrown in. The Americans in the novel think they know what they’re getting themselves into and are sure the French are just fools. American theorists have outlined what needs to be done, and the Americans in the novel simply have to enact the theory. But the Americans in the novel never stop to think through the practical implications of their theories, and what happens if things don’t fit the theory. In the real world, people — innocents — die.
The Quiet American is a kind of echo of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, in that both are murder mysteries wrapped around questions of good and evil, friendship and betrayal, and how individuals are to live in a society uncomfortable with its place among nations. “It’s a strange poor population God has in his kingdom, frightened, cold, starving…you’d think a great King would do better than that,” Fowler (the Greene stand-in) thinks, only to follow with “it’s always the same wherever one goes,–it’s not the most powerful rulers who have the happiest populations.” [The Quiet American, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, p. 41). Greene’s book diverges most distinctly from Dostoevsky’s in its spareness, avoiding the profundity that can settle over Karamazov like cream, and in its sudden plunge into full-fledged war reporting. The differences make it an easier, if not as satisfying, read. Fowler is an agnostic, perhaps an atheist, but against his own better judgment not a nihilist, but stands as a fine fictional model of a journalist and the profession’s callous crucible.
The Quiet American infuses Dispatches, Michael Herr’s collection of non-fiction reporting from Vietnam. The same military and government spokespeople telling their lies, only in a different language. The same futile battles winning nothing. The same cultural treacheries. The same bleak search for some kind of meaning. The same helpless rage, on all sides. The Americans are no longer quiet. Some of them are “terrible ones,” Herr tells us.
Greene would not be surprised. He saw it coming, the American response to their ruined idealism. The Quiet American even plays out as part of a meta narrative in Dispatches, the correspondents trying to recreate scenes from the novel, passing around passages of it as though it were a secret Gospel of the place.
Dispatches above all captures the absurdity of war in a way that leaves you forlorn. You love some of Herr’s soldiers, Mayhew and Day Tripper especially. The correspondents he respects are drawn remarkably, especially the photo journalist Sean Flynn. The villain is not the Viet Cong or any other human opponent, just the war itself and the shamefully detached American men, so-called leaders, who theorize about it. Dispatches has none of the glamour and glory of books from World War II like The Longest Day or The Desert Fox. It is a book of crisis, military, personal, existential, filled with swaggering disbelief.
I ended both books shaking my head. But I would recommend both of them without question.