Study Guide

The Quiet American Warfare

By Graham Greene

Warfare

'Was that a grenade?' he asked with excitement and hope. (1.1.78)

For Pyle, who's never seen a war up close and a teenager's sense of his own immortality, the prospect of a grenade exploding nearby impresses him like fireworks or a thunderstorm.

'Are you really looking for the people who killed him?'
'No,' Vigot said. 'I'm just making a report, that's all. So long as it's an act or war – well, there are thousands killed every year.' (1.2.2.21-2)

The war makes homicide investigation little more than paperwork. Vigot's not pleased. He can't fully do his job he would like to be able to do, and he's had to learn how to live with this restriction on his work, his passion, and his spirit.

The war was very tidy and clean at that distance. (1.4.1.1)

Perspective and placement matter for what is seen and what is reported. War doesn't look bloody and messy from a distance.

Rubble and broken glass and the smell of burnt paint and plaster, the long street empty as far as the sight could reach, it reminded me of a London thoroughfare in the early morning after an all-clear: one expected to see a placard, 'Unexploded Bomb'. (1.4.1.3)

Not every dropped bomb explodes. If you saw the old Disney movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks, you might remember how Emelius takes advantage of an unexploded bomb: he moves into a grand fully-furnished house vacated for fear of a delayed explosion. We don't think Fowler will be quite so luck here.

The canal was full of bodies: I am reminded now of an Irish stew containing too much meat. The bodies overlapped: one head, seal grey, and anonymous as a convict with a shaven scalp, stuck up out of the water like a buoy. There was no blood: I suppose it had flowed away a long time ago. (1.4.1.40)

Up close, the war is not so neat and tidy, and there's no one to clean up the mess. People have become corpses, sickly reminders of some unknown battle and the nearness of death, and obstacles to the living.

So much of war is sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for somebody else. With no guarantee of the amount of time you have left it doesn't seem worth starting even a train of thought. (1.4.1.43)

Greene's account of war is more comprehensive than most—remarkable given his concise style.

Twenty yards beyond the farm buildings, in a narrow ditch, we came on what we sought: a woman and a small boy. They were very clearly dead: a small neat clot of blood on the woman's forehead, and the child might have been sleeping. He was about six years old and he lay like an embryo in the womb with his little bony knees drawn up. 'Mal chance,' the lieutenant said. He bent down and turned the child over. He was wearing a holy medal round his neck, and I said to myself, 'The juju doesn't work.' There was a gnawed piece of loaf under his body. I thought, 'I hate war.' (1.4.1.46)

The sight of innocents killed, a pious mother and child especially, reinforces Fowler's rejection of God and religion. Such "mal chance" shouldn't exist in a world governed by a benevolent God.

Perhaps to the soldier the civilian is the man who employs him to kill, who includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope and escapes responsibility. (1.4.1.47)

Fowler wonders about the perspective of soldiers, who have to live with the memory and consequences of the orders they carry out. That might explain some of the reasoning behind things the Veteran's Day—it sounds like quite the load to bear.

The cannon gave a single burst of tracer, and the sampan blew apart in a shower of sparks: we didn't even wait to see our victims struggling to survive, but climbed and made for home.

[…]

I put on my earphones for Captain Trouin to speak to me. He said, 'We will make a little detour. The sunset is wonderful on the calcaire. You must not miss it.' […] and the wounds of murder ceased to bleed. (3.1.4.12-13)

You might think that Greene is judging Captain Trouin for sharing the view of a sunset right after he attacked a populace from the air, but Greene understands why the pilot takes the time. It's a way of coping: "the wounds of murder ceased to bleed." He's holding on to his humanity.

'But we are professionals: we have to go on fighting till the politicians tell us to stop. Probably they will get together and agree to the same peace that we could have had at the beginning, making nonsense of all these years.' (3.1.5.24)

Lines like this give The Quiet American a reputation as an anti-war novel, and not unjustly.