Jim Webb & Graham Greene: With a Vietnamese Baby on Your Mind

by Tom Watson
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Senator James Webb invoked Andrew Jackson in his response to President Bush on Tuesday, he used a classic bit of the novelist’s art put the weight of Ole Hickory’s plain political talk at the service of criticism of modern corporate greed. It fit, but the edges were knocked off. Such is also the case with the landscape of the New Vietnam that the soldier-author chronicles in his 2002 novel Lost Soldiers, parts of which became briefly controversial during Webb’s contest with George Allen in Virginia.

Webb and GreeneWebb’s modern Vietnam is seen through the eyes of an old soldier who remains besotted with the land of his conflict, and newly enamored of a young girl who happens to be the American-influenced daughter of a communist official. The American’s job is to work with the government to repatriate the bones of dead soldiers. Suffice to say, a political complication arises. But that made-for-Hollywood plot (which ends in a Bangkok shoot ’em up) is far less interesting than the relationship between the American and the Vietnamese whose lives still revolve around the outcome of the war.

When it’s good – and at times it’s very good indeed – Lost Soldiers forms a worthy bookend to Graham Greene’s classic tale of French colonialism and American intrigue, The Quiet American.

The Quiet American (1955) is a short, brilliant read centering on the lives of a British journalist, an American spy, and the young Vietnamese woman they both love; set in Saigon amidst the decline in French control, it’s a moralist story of misguided idealism mixed with violence and terror. The Americans are the guileless interlopers, the British are the jaded observers, the French are the corrupt power, and the Vietnamese are the inscrutable, ageless pragmatists, waiting out colonial squabbles.

The young American CIA agent Pyle believes his briefing books, doesn’t hesitate to arrange violence, and yet is cast as the innocent – in love with the beautiful Phuong, but clueless as to the ancient ways of the “real Vietnam.” As Pyle and Fowler (the journalist) vie for control of Phuong, their contest is an obvious stand-in for the joust between the old colonial ways and the new American geopolitical strategy.

In the essay that’s in my Vintage paperback copy, Zadie Smith writes that Pyle’s “worldy innocence is a kind of fundamentalism: he believes that there must be belief. By hook. By crook. Reading the novel again reinforced my fear of all the Pyles around the world.”

Flash forward five decades – through the French loss of the north, their eventual pull-out, the increasing American involvement, the escalation, the long war, the American pull-out, the communist victory and recriminations, and the growing Vietnamese economy. Webb’s American is moderately quiet, but he’s as far from innocent as Webb can paint him. Brandon Condley, an ex-Marine, is charged with recovering the remains of his lost countrymen, requring a working relationship with the communist regime and a deep knowledge of how the country works.

Webb VietnamBut Condley is not the hero; that role belongs to Dzung, a South Vietnamese war hero who might have led his country if his side had won the war, now reduced to driving a cyclo as his family starves in Saigon’s squalid District Four. The plot is misdirection really, and gets in the way of the best parts of the book – the cultural and class struggles within modern Vietnam, including Condley’s pursuit of the materialistic daughter of the cooperative Colonel Pham, who just happens to be engaged to – wait for it – a jaded French businessman.

Full circle in the moral tale, and there can be no doubt Webb has enfused the portrait of Greene’s Vietnam into his own. The self-described “redneck class-warrior” of the Senate shows a complexity that jousts with his plainspoken persona; then again, maybe that’s just political ad-writing in the end. Webb values the people who see the gray areas, who inhabit them, and who can make nuanced judgements and accept a status quo that is far less than perfection.

This may motivate his politics as well; it certainly informs Webb’s position on the current American quagmire. Yet the searcher for the Lost Soldiers still acts on faith, still has some bit of belief that made Graham Greene’s Pyle into a sappy killer:

Condley’s craggy face twinkled with secret happiness as the boat fought its way upriver. His shoes were squishy from the water in the boat and his fingers were crinkly from the rain. He feared the raw, surging power of Song Thu Bon, but at the same time he felt oddly content. The chalky river that ran from the mountains in Laos all the way to the sea just south of Da Nang was as comforting as an old friend. He had memories along its banks. Some of the memories were horrible. A few of them were even good. But all of them had meaning. And what was life if it brought you no meaning?

Greene, too, believed in his own faith, even as he ridiculed absolutist thinking; it was part of his Catholic point of view – a jaded, but still faithful view. Edward Short in Crisis Magazine:

Suggesting that Greene can be read without reference to his Catholic faith is like suggesting that Surtees can be read without reference to fox hunting. Suggesting that his faith was bogus, or assumed to sell books, is simply untrue. Greene’s faith was central to his being. That he failed to adhere to certain Church teachings does not invalidate his recognition of the binding truth of those teachings or brand him a hypocrite. He saw his failings clearly enough and never tried to appear better than he was. If anything, like Swift, he delighted in appearing worse.

These days, books like these are poignant reading. Greene’s is a classic, the very masterwork of early U.S. involvement in a long, lost war. Webb fought in that war; his son fights in today’s war, as his father tries to change the policy of an administration that’s all too Pyle-like. What I’d like to say here is more simple really – Jim Webb, the chameleon politician, the plainspoken legend, is a very good writer of novels.

Other blog sources:

Some great reads
Of Suits and Screen Caps
Stroking

Another Quiet American
You know you live in Hanoi when…
War: A Reader’s Guide?
The interesting Mr. Webb.
WFB on Webb’s Novels
Webb’s Novel On Marine Corps Reading List

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  • Tom K
    January 30, 2007

    This got me thinking once again about the aptness, or inaptness, of parallels between Iraq and Vietnam.

    Bringing in Gen. Patraeus reminds me of the French going to Jean de Lattre de Tassigny. de Lattre was a first rate commander, and enjoyed
    a good deal of success before being withdrawn with a fatal cancer
    (shortly after his son was KIA).

    Some still say he would have won the Indochina War for France had he
    stayed healthy. God willing, Patraeus will stay healthy, and he may prove just as able.

    While most analogies between Iraq and VN (French or US) are severely
    flawed, the following one, which may be the most important, holds up, I
    think: both are out of time, in that each is post- or quasi- or neo-colonial. All of these cover for policies that are not in fact
    colonial, but may as well be for all the chance they have of succeeding
    in the modern world.

    If de Lattre has stayed healty, France might not have been driven out of Indochina for a while longer, but she would have gone, just as she
    went from Algeria, and just as we, whatever the abilities of Gen. P,
    will eventually go from Iraq. We can, however, put that eventuality
    off a very long way if we are prepared to remain in a state of armed readiness for battle. Are we?Should we be? Those are the important questions now, I think. Because whatever happens next, the day is coming when we will have to decide if we want to accept the
    consequences of leaving, or those of staying, and neither is gonna be
    pretty.

  • January 31, 2007

    Yes, de Lattre was a great commander but never did the French really control the whole country – they controlled bases, outposts, and cities. And there were many, many holes in their defenses – hole s that the VietMinh exploited almost at will to move people and arms. And of course, deLattre lost the north.
    Also, the French were fighting a colonial war and the U.S. (ostensibly) is not – nor is there a particularly nationalist movement arrayed against us.
    TK – what do you think of Webb’s writing? Think it’s a worthy chapter in work that includes Greene’s? (Who was, at the time, considered anti-American).

  • Tom K
    February 1, 2007

    Greene was clearly anti-American, I think, if that definition includes someone who is not inherently hostile to the US or Americans, but is strongly opposed to US policy. In VN, he was also very prescient.

    Another author who is sometimes considered anti-American, but I think was not, is Bernard Fall, the indispensible resource (in English, at least) on the French Indochina war, and a very valuable one on the US war (in which he died, ~1968, pursuing a story on the “Street Without Joy” that he had named one of his key works after).

    I haven’t read enough of Webb’s work to make a judgment, though I have liked everything I have read (mostly articles, speeches and essays) and recommend “Fields of Fire”, his first novel, very highly.

    DeLattre did not lose the North. He did not lose anything. He concentrated on the North (when many wanted efforts focused in the south). He established a perimeter within which Hanoi and key rice fields were found, and defended in more effectively than anyone had been able to previously. When he was recalled, France’s prosepcts were brighter than anyone thought they would be when he had started. But it wasn’t enough; after he left, the line he had established could not hold, permanently, Dien Bien Phu came, and France lost Vietnam. Not the North: she lost the whole thing at once. There’s a good piece on his efforts, prepared for a US military publication in 1969, at:

    https://calldbp.leavenworth.army.mil/eng_mr/txts/VOL49/00000001/art9.pdf

    The Iraq War is a “colonial war” in the sense that, like the US involvement in VN, it carries all the disadvantages of a colonial war: resentment of occupation and outside interference, nationalist opposition, etc. I think you understate the significance of this when you say there is not “a particularly nationalist movement arrayed against us.” To the extent this is true, it is only because Iraq is not, particularly, a nation. But there is significant resentment, combining national, ethnic and religious elements (with the latter predominating).

    It is not, in fact, a colonial war because, if we prevail, we don’t get to possess anything (like the US-VN scenario). This is a difference with enormous moral implications, but seems to have no favorable effect on our operations or reputation. In part, this is because many suspect that we have larger designs than we admit; in part, it’s because any Western nation that seeks to control the internal political structure of a 3d world (and esp. moslem) country is going to be viewed as the moral equivalent of colonial for a long time, however benign their actual intent may be.

  • February 2, 2007

    Well, TK actually there’s quite a sizeable group of critics who would say we’re going to possess – in terms of sphere of influence, at minimum – the oil in Iraq. And certainly, our multinationals have “possessed” billions of dollars in contracts. Maybe that’s the modern colonialism; pity no Greene (or even Webb) is yet writing, that I know of. Great fiction can often illuminate with greater clarity than the history books…

  • February 6, 2007

    Wow Tom. In one blog post you site one of my favorite elected officials, one of my favorite writers and one of my favorite rock bands. And somehow they all make sense together in a title. Color me impressed 🙂

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