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

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’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.

But 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
Another Quiet American
Benefits Of Essential Oils For Meditation
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