Why Officers Need Novels

on Sep 15 in Reviews by

Bruce Fleming | September 12, 2006

The Navy and Marine Corps encourage some of the more talented students at the Naval Academy to enroll in masters’ degree courses that overlap and then extend beyond their work at the Naval Academy. A semester after their graduation from USNA, they go to their service selection with a graduate degree that will be of use in the fleet or the Corps. As I write, the gears are grinding to eliminate subjects like English and History from the list of acceptable subjects for graduate degrees. I think this is fixin’ to be a disaster. Not all officers need novels, but some officers should have read them.

Why? Of course officers don’t need novels to lead a charge up the hill. But somebody has to decide whether or not to charge in the first place. That’s where the novels and history books come in. And the one who’s read the books may end up being the very one leading the charge. What’s really sad is when he has to do this knowing, say, that charging up this hill — or into this country — is a bad idea precisely because he’s learned from the past through books.

Let me give a concrete example of the value of literature — here specifically novels, and one in particular — to those in uniform — .

Just about the time of the final French defeat in Indochina at Dien Bien Phu (1954), the English novelist Graham Greene was writing a novel called The Quiet American. It came out before there was any substantial American involvement in Vietnam. Had enough of the American brass read it and taken its lessons to heart, I’d like to think we’d never have gotten involved in that disastrous mis-step, where so much heroism was expended for so little. Read the book: The American experience in Vietnam is all heart-breakingly pre-figured in this eerily prescient novel. And even scarier, in these days of downturn in Iraq, so is most of our engagement in Iraq.

The Quiet American is narrated by a broken-down English correspondent with very little to recommend him except that he sees the flaws of the title character, the “quiet American” named Pyle. The correspondent, Fowler by name, has a wife in England who won’t grant him a divorce, a Vietnamese mistress who prepares his opium pipes, a serious death wish, a gut, and a spot-on take on the American. Pyle is actually Spec Ops, or perhaps CIA: officially he’s with the Economic Mission of the US Embassy. Only his plastics aren’t, as he leads Fowler to believe, for kids’ toys, but for explosives.

Pyle is appealing in many ways: he’s young, he’s articulate, he’s smart (by way of Harvard, it seems), he believes he’s there to do good, but in fact does so much harm that ultimately the passive Fowler is obliged to turn Pyle over to his enemies to stop him causing more destruction. Pyle’s besetting sin is precisely his idealism. Here, this means his pre-formed ideas that can’t be swayed by looking at reality — his pig-headedness. Pyle comes to Vietnam convinced that what the people want is “democracy.” Fowler says no: What they want is for “one day to be very like the previous one,” and “their handful of rice.” Pyle knows, just knows, this isn’t so. Based on what? The theoretical books of a certain York Harding, a man who himself had been only a few weeks in Vietnam.

York Harding, it seems, has preached the virtues of the “middle way” — that so-American search for “moderates.” Here the “middle way” is between the French colonial masters in their last throes and the nominally Communist rebels led by Ho Chi Minh. Pyle identifies a rag-tag guerilla group in the mountains as this “third way” and begins setting off explosives that create Baghdad-like scenes in Saigon to support them.

Fowler tries repeatedly to reason with Pyle: There is no third force — this is all in the Americans’ heads. Most fundamentally of all, Fowler tells Pyle, the Vietnamese don’t want people with white skins coming in and telling them what they want. Pyle doesn’t even seem to process the argument — he’s out to save the world for “democracy.” The result is a bloody carnage when his plastics go off. For Pyle this is merely “collateral damage.”

The French officers know they’re fighting a losing war, but are professionals and fight on. Fowler sympathizes with their hopeless situation. The French explain to Fowler why they can’t win: The fighters are indistinguishable from the peasants and the paths north are mined again every night. The blundering American, so full of energy and certainty and desire to do good, is convinced that he and his people are going to do things differently. What the French officers say in this book is, of course, what we Americans concluded (the hard way) almost two decades later. Think of what could have been avoided if someone, the right someone, enough someones, had read this book and taken it on board!

Books alone, of course, don’t change history: People have to take their lessons to heart. But The Quiet American is a book that those in uniform (and out: it was civilians who led us into both Vietnam and Iraq) should have read, and taken to heart.

Cutting out MAs in English and History for the Navy and Marine Corps is a small step, to be sure, but it’s a step in the wrong direction, and it shows a dangerous mind-set. Instead of less knowledge of how people have processed history and current events, we need more. And then we need the brass to listen when the Marine Captain with the MA in English talks about books like this.

No, not everybody has to have done the reading. But somebody has to have. And then we have to listen to them.
Sound Off…What do you think? Join the discussion.

Bruce Fleming is a professor of English at the US Naval Academy and the author of Annapolis Autumn: Life, Death, and Literature at the U.S. Naval Academy,and Why Liberals and Conservatives Clash. His latest book Disappointment is also now available

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