Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"The Quiet American" and its relevance today

A few days ago I watched the 2002 film "The Quiet American" based on the novel by Graham Greene and starring Michael Caine. It was a thoughtfully paced story of powerful historical fiction set in early 1950's Vietnam. I had actually seen the film at the time that it was released and enjoyed it then, but that was back when I was working 12 hours a day in the bank mines and could at times lose a few minutes of attention when sitting still in a darkened room. This time it was much more compelling.

Perhaps my understanding of this kind of literate espionage novel, which is not characteristic of the overall genre, had been moved to another level by reading every Charles McCarry novel of this type in 2008 and 2009. "The Quiet American" is the story of a time and place, it is a love story, and above all it is a vivid story of the roots of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the early 1950's that was orchestrated by former OSS officers, by then called the CIA. Money in, manipulation of puppet leaders, murders, and terrorist bombings all resulted from these efforts. To the world press and even the normal political process, it was all behind the scenes.

The next day in a bookstore I sat on a vacant radiator at the end of a set of bookshelves to skim the book, which it is obvious now that I had never read, and see if the film was a faithful adaptation. It seems so, with the exception of the fact that the book may have had more time for double dealing, atrocities, and killings. What I really wanted to see, however, was the date of publication - 1955.

So forces that were in place that would lead to 500,000 U.S.troops in Vietnam 10 years later were laid out plainly by Greene and published openly. Of course that's just a comment of hindsight, but even the story that Greene told was startling, or appalling. I wonder what the reaction by readers at the time was. Was it seen as an excellent piece of creative writing. Was their any broadly held thought that the basic construct might be the truth.

Greene, a member of Britian's M16 during WWII, lived in Vietnam during parts of 1951 and 1952. He did his research well. What was reported in the world press of record at the time saw nothing. There was no monopoly on fiction.

In what ways have we and do we now play out the same scenario. What has just happened in Korea? We know, or think we know, the basic facts of the North Korean attack on South Korean territory. We know that North Korea just let the world know that they are vastly expanding their nuclear weapons program with state of the art technology from somewhere. We know that the uncompromising face that we see from Chinese leaders on financial and economic issues is one that they are afraid of losing domestically. We know that South Korea was bitterly disappointed in the uncompromising approach of the Obama administration in recent failed trade treaty negotiations. We know that North Korea is going through a leadership change and only a look at the sickly brat who has been running the country for almost 20 years can tell you that he has enemies there who have no interest in seeing his roly poly 28 year old son assume power.

Who are the actors that we don't see. Where are the relationships not seen. "The Quiet American" reminded me that we cannot expect to find these answers in the established news media. The creative among us may have some ideas but even they may need to be lucky to actually see the truth if its right in front of us. Isn't there an old blues song called "Them that know don't talk". If not there is definitely Sonny Boy Williamson's "Whole lotta people talking, mighty few people who know".

From Graham Greene to the Mississippi Delta - this post is over.


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