The vast, overwhelming image of death at random opens the door to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The rambling novel deals at least part of the time with the rocket attacks against London from German bases in the Netherlands, and how they broke people down. The surreal blancmange of what we might call “collareral damage” that roams the city destroying life and property also absorbs the genteel niceties of past ages; what is left behind is detached from traditional morals: whoring, gambling and drinking, those great Regular Army traditions, become the norm for the population at large, in part because World War 2 itself was so often fought in cities, by and against civilians. But just as important is the fact that the huge American army was mostly citizen-soldiers, draftees plucked out of civilian life and hammered quickly into shape, but never completely transformed into soldiers.
For Pynchon the failure of morality extends beyond terror attacks to the very builders and declarers of wars. His war is run by sinister if comical moguls for whom business has become the ultimate aphrodisiac. He finds the new world flawed from its beginnings: victorious but profoundly disillusioned GIs streaming into Berlin, at once distrustful of the Red Army they meet there. The floods of orphans, refugees, displaced farmers and awols coming to their senses in suddenly quiet, but utterly devastated, Europe can create only one kind of world, resigned to infinite corruption, misinformation, fabrication and incidental brutality.
In that postwar setting one is not surprised to encounter a story like The Ugly American, William J. Lederer’s 1958 novelization of CIA (OSS) and civilian operations in southeast Asia during the critical final years of French involvement in Vietnam.
Lederer is forced by reality to pick up where Pynchon left: a world in confused revolt, the throes of the old style of imperialism giving way to the new, as United States and Soviet agents contend for the loyalties of emerging nations.
The disparity between the sanitized, airbrushed official version of events in faraway places and reality there is Lederer’s focus. While he sympathizes with U.S. territorial imperatives, he regrets that our expansiveness is mostly blind, grasping, ignorant and dangerous. Many if not all ideological battles of the Cold War could have been won with a change of attitude, but the American Foreign Service reflected official policy. This meant our overseas representatives were ignorant of the language and culture of places like Vietnam, and utterly incapable of understanding that their war against communism was in many ways a war against poor people, and hardly ever the pure ideological struggle it was purported to be.
At Dien Bien Phu the French allowed themselves to be encircled by communist fighters trained in Maoist doctrine as well as Maoist martial principles the French were too proud to educate themselves about. Their defeat was inevitable, because they were incapable of believing white Europeans could be outsmarted and outlasted by motley forces with inferior equipment. At the same time, their lenient, conqueror’s, morality contrasted poorly with austere communist morality, to people who had never slept in a bed or sat in a dining room. Like the Americans, they were unable to fathom the cultural mores of the people they fought against, They saw only the map, and heard only the propaganda.
These two novels guide us directly to an age where war is fought on television, with great cultural flagships, and many lives, destroyed by the tools of their own success. Once again, the westerner cannot grasp the essential sophistication of his opponent. We have a difficult time accepting that the U.S. could possibly have offended anyone, and are surprised they could be so clever in their retaliation.
In these two novels, so different in style, we find much that helps explain why the world as we know it has come to be. It is impossible to separate one era or one generation from those that precede and follow it; the things that happen in one time proceed from the past and directly correspond to the things that happen in the next. American cultural hegemony and military might is an awesome spectacle for the world to behold, but, to the extent that we project a double standard of morality, we are seen as hypocrites. It may not be possible to restore our moral sense, either domestically or geopolitcally, but, it would be the best public relations maneuver we could make.