19 December 2009
The book takes place in Vietnam during the war, but prior to the arrival of American forces. In this scene, Fowler (an English journalist) and Pyle (an American economic attaché with some secret dealings going on) are sitting in a guard tower on the road to Tanyin after their car broke down. Across from them sit two very scared Vietnamese guards who are primarily concerned with staying alive through the night and hoping that the Vietminh don't attack their post.
"They don't want Communism."
"They want enough rice," I said. "They don't want to be shot at. They want one day to be much the same as another. They don't want our white skins around telling them what they want."
"If Indo-China goes..."
"I know the record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does 'go' mean? If I believed in your God and another life, I'd bet my future harp against your golden crown that in five hundred years there may be no New York or London, but they'll be growing paddy in these fields, they'll be carrying their produce to market on long poles wearing their pointed hats. The small boys will be sitting ton the buffaloes. I like the buffaloes, they don't like our smell, the smell of Europeans. And remember - from a buffalo's point of view you are a European too."
"They'll be forced to believe what they are told, they won't be allowed to think for themselves."
"Thought's a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?"
"You talk as if the whole country were peasant. What about the educated? Are they going to be happy?"
"Oh no," I said, "we've brought them up in our ideas. We've taught them dangerous games, and that's why we are waiting here, hoping we don't get our throats cut. We deserve to have them out. I wish your friend York was here too. I wonder how he'd relish it."
"York Harding's a very courageous man. Why, in Korea..."
"He wasn't an enlisted man, was he? He had a return ticket. With a a return ticket courage becomes an intellectual exercise, like a monk's flagellation. How much can I stick? Those poor devils can't catch a plane home. Hi," I called to them, "What are your names?" I thought that knowledge somehow would bring them into the circle of our conversation. They didn't answer: just lowered back at us behind the stumps of their cigarettes. "They think we are French," I said.
"That's just it," Pyle said. "You shouldn't be against York, you should be against the French. Their colonialism."
"Isms and ocracies. Give me facts. A rubber planter beats his labourer - all right, I'm against him. He hasn't been instructed to do it by the Minister of the Colonies. In France I expect he'd beat his wife. I've seen a priest, so poor he hasn't a change of trousers, working fifteen hours a day from hut to hut in a cholera epidemic, eating nothing but rice and salt fish, saying his Mass with an old up - a wooden latter. I don't believe in God and yet I'm for that priest. Why don't you call that colonialism?"
"It is colonialism. York says it's often the good administrators who make it hard to change a bad system."
"Anyway the French are dying every day - That's not a mental concept. They aren't leading these people on with half-lies like your politicians - and ours. I've been in India, Pyle, and I know the harm liberals do. We haven't a liberal party any more - liberalism's infected all the other parties. We are all either liberal conservatives or liberal socialists: we all have a good conscience. I'd rather be an exploiter who fights for what he exploits, and dies with it. Look a the history of Burma. We go and invade the country: the local tribes support us: we are victorious: but like you Americans we weren't colonialists in those days. Oh no, we made our allies to be crucified and sawn in two. They were innocent. They thought we'd stay. But we were liberals and we didn't want a bad conscience."
"That was a long time ago."
"We shall do the same thing here. Encourage them and leave them with a little equipment and a toy industry."
"Oh yes, I see."
"I don't know what I'm talking politics for. They don't interest me and I'm a reporter. I'm not engagé."
"Aren't you?" Pyle said.
"For the sake of an argument - to pass this bloody night, that's all. I don't take sides. I'll still be reporting, whoever wins."
"If they win, you'll be reporting lies."
"There's usually a way round, and I haven't noticed much regard for truth in our papers either."
Pyle: "So you think we've lost?"
"That's not the point," I said. "I've no particular desire to see you win. I'd like those two poor buggers there to be happy - that's all. I wish they didn't have to sit in the dark at night scared."
"You have to fight for liberty."
"I haven't seen any Americans fighting around here. And as for liberty, I don't know what it means. Ask them." I called across the floor in French to them - "What is Liberty?" They sucked in the rice and stared back and said nothing.