In the latest issue of the journal World Affairs, Andrew J. Bacevich offers an appreciation of Graham Greene and his novel, The Quiet American:
In the twentieth-century English-speaking world, Greene ranks alongside Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh among the small number of writers addressing explicitly Catholic themes who might qualify for the accolade “great.” Yet Greene’s relationship with Catholicism—with God, for that matter—was profoundly ambivalent and riddled with contradictions. He cheated on his wife, cheated constantly on his several mistresses, and during his restless travels frequented prostitutes. Fealty and self-denial did not figure in his makeup. He was not a nice human being. Yet Greene’s intimate familiarity with sin combined with considerable gifts as a writer to produce works of profound insight.
The Quiet American, deriving its energy from Greene’s scabrous anti-Americanism, offers one example. The novel stands in relation to Cold War America as Uncle Tom’s Cabin stands in relation to the antebellum South: it expresses its author’s ill-disguised loathing for the subject he depicts. Yet one need not share Greene’s animus toward the United States to appreciate his achievement. Indeed, Americans above all should be grateful to Greene since they—should they choose to do so—can benefit most directly from that achievement.
. . . “Innocence,” he writes, “is a kind of insanity.” When it comes to the exercise of power, the idealist intent on doing God’s work is likely to wreak as much havoc as the cynic who rejects God’s very existence. Those who credit themselves with acting at the behest of the purest motives are hardly less likely to perpetrate evil than those who dismiss ideals as sheer poppycock.
Only those who recognize the omnipresence of sin—recognizing first of all that they themselves number among the sinful—can possibly anticipate the moral snares inherent in the exercise of power. Righteousness induces blindness. The acknowledgment of guilt enables the blind to see. To press the point further, the statesman who assumes that “we” are good while “they” are evil—think George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11—will almost necessarily misinterpret the problem at hand and underestimate the complexity and costs entailed in trying to solve it. In this sense, an awareness of one’s own failings and foibles not only contributes to moral clarity but can help guard against strategic folly.