Monday 31 August 2009

Fwd: How the lessons Graham Greene outlined in ' A Quiet American' are still being avoided in the US

A wonderful piece by Andrew J. Bacevich on America's ability to avoid learning the sort of lessons Graham Greene outlines in his classic book.

Bacevich is a former US Army Colonel who served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. He is now professor of history and international relations at Boston University. His most recent book is The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism.


Summer 2009

Best Intentions: An Appreciation of Graham Greene 

Graham Greene, The Quiet American. London: Heinemann, 1955.

In Washington, where the honorific "historic" ornaments every speech, appointment, conclave, and legislative initiative however trivial, those who earn their living purporting to explain "what it all means" have a limitless supply of material. Small wonder that the senatorial defection of an unprincipled hack from one party to the other qualifies as Big News, while the nomination of an associate justice to a seat on the Supreme Court becomes equivalent in significance to the Normandy invasion.

To suggest that this rampant narcissism induces a distorted, not to say warped, view of reality is to understate the case. Rebutting this presumption of Washington's supreme importance requires a constant effort. Students of U.S. foreign policy might feel some obligation to sample the cascade of pretentiously titled tomes produced by movers and shakers situated In the Stream of History or At the Center of the Storm who claim to have engineered or participated in or at least witnessed events of enduring significance.

Yet a steady diet of such excretions results in the need to cleanse the palate and flush the mind of accumulated toxins. To assist in that effort, Americans are fortunate in being able to draw on a rich homegrown tradition of observers who have devoted themselves to puncturing Washington's conceit and delighting in its folly, a tradition running from Mark Twain all the way down to Garry Trudeau and Jon Stewart.

For a less comic approach that stands beyond the confines of the American tradition, there is Graham Greene's prophetic novel The Quiet American. Appearing in 1955, Greene's fictional narrative became within a decade must-reading for those seeking to understand how the United States blundered so badly in Vietnam. For those today seeking to understand how the United States blundered so badly in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Quiet American remains an essential text.

Greene has little interest in Washington or in those who genuflect before the White House as the cathedral of supreme power. To locate the nub of the matter he looks elsewhere, to the grimy world where functionaries labor to translate Washington's high-sounding clichés into actual policy, with the consequences borne by ordinary people who never fly on Air Force One or appear on the Sunday morning talk shows.

In this case, the setting is Saigon, near the end of the first Indochina War. French efforts to suppress the Viet Minh insurgency and retain their empire in the Far East are failing. The United States, although nominally supporting France, is actually positioning itself to supplant its ally as the region's dominant outside power. Within a decade, of course, this effort will yield a second Indochina War and ultimately a second Western defeat. 

Greene's protagonist is Thomas Fowler, a God-haunted, burned-out British journalist, who in late middle age has fled to the East in the wake of a failed love affair that had wrecked his marriage. From Saigon, he half-heartedly covers the war, mostly by passing along press releases issued by French military spokesmen. Steadfastly refusing to take sides, he stands apart and simply reports. 

In Saigon, he has taken up with the beautiful and much younger Phuong. Whether Fowler loves Phuong—whether he is capable of love—is difficult to say. Yet he needs Phuong desperately, for sex and companionship, to prepare his opium pipes each evening, above all as someone whose presence keeps at bay Fowler's fear of facing alone the terrors of old age. In return Phuong wants only one thing: a guarantee of security, which implies marriage. Yet this Fowler cannot deliver: he remains formally wed and his wife, back in England, is a Catholic whose conscience will not permit her to dissolve their union.

Into this relationship comes Alden Pyle, a young American newly assigned as an economic attaché with the U.S. mission. Pyle is polite, modest, and boyish. "With his gangly legs and his crew-cut and his wide campus gaze," Greene writes, "he seemed incapable of harm." 

Yet appearance and manner are deceiving. Pyle's nominal assignment is a tissue-thin cover; he is actually a CIA agent (although the agency is never identified as such). To stem the Communist tide threatening to inundate Southeast Asia, the agency wants to conjure up an indigenous democratic alternative to French colonialism. Pyle's job is to devise this Third Way. As he undertakes this task, Pyle draws inspiration from a journalist named York Harding, a sort of proto–Thomas Friedman who parachutes into various trouble spots and then in best-selling books serves up glib recipes for advancing the cause of liberty. In Pyle's estimation, the challenge he faces does not appear all that difficult. York Harding provides the answer: "you only had to find a leader and keep him safe from the old colonial powers."

"Impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance," Pyle embodies all that Fowler (and Greene) can't stand about Americans: too much money, too much confidence, and too little self-awareness. Cruising the streets of Saigon in oversized Buicks, air conditioning everything in sight (to Fowler's dismay, even the U.S. legation's lavatories), passing out cigarettes as if they exist in infinite supply, and quoting York Harding, zealots like Pyle proceed on the assumption that American know-how backed by American values can make short work of even the most perplexing difficulties. Born and raised a Unitarian, Pyle takes God's existence as a given, his faith reinforcing his conviction that America's purposes necessarily reflect God's will.

As eager and as earnest as he is naive, Pyle first cultivates Fowler as a source of information, but soon falls in love with Phuong. Professing his intention to do the right thing by everyone, Pyle promises Phuong that which Fowler cannot: he will make her his bride, taking her back home to New England to live happily ever after. When Phuong accepts, Pyle compensates Fowler with apologies and assurances of his own everlasting friendship and respect.

When not conspiring to steal Fowler's girl, Pyle is conspiring to devise the Third Way, his efforts to find the right leader centering on a shadowy figure known as General Thé. As with the U.S. officials who in our own day fell under the spell of Ahmed Chalabi, Pyle has persuaded himself that General Thé's aims and America's aims align neatly. As was the case with Chalabi, this turns out to be a massive misjudgment.

Positioning General Thé as the anointed successor to the French requires first demonstrating the powerlessness of the colonial regime. This effort finds expression in a campaign of terror orchestrated by Thé, using plastic explosives covertly provided by Pyle, but to be blamed on the Communists. Pyle purports to believe that the campaign will concentrate on military targets. In fact, Thé organizes a savage attack on civilians in the center of Saigon, which Fowler and Pyle witness. 

Momentarily taken aback by the bloody consequences of his handiwork—his shoes are spattered with human remains—Pyle quickly recovers and assures Fowler that the victims of the bombing had "died for democracy." Their deaths were a "pity," he tells Fowler, "but you can't always hit your target. Anyway they died in the right cause." Pyle's own sense of righteousness survives the incident intact. He knows he meant well. That knowledge obviates any need to take responsibility or to make amends. In his own mind, he remains blameless.

Fowler's own determination to avoid taking sides does not survive this episode. In his innocence, Pyle has become like "a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm," even as he contaminates everything he touches. The ease with which Pyle rationalizes and then dismisses the results of his own recklessness persuades Fowler that detachment has become untenable. So the observer becomes a participant. 

To prevent the American from committing further mayhem, Fowler initiates his own conspiracy, arranging for Pyle's assassination by the Viet Minh—an outcome by no means disagreeable to the French. Once Pyle has been dispatched, Phuong returns to Fowler's bed, this time to stay—in an unexpected act of generosity, Fowler's wife has decided after all to grant him a divorce. So the novel ends with a tormented Fowler reflecting that even though (or perhaps because) Pyle's death had put his own life right, "I wished there existed someone to whom I could say I was sorry."

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. 

Is Pyle as naive as he appears? Are his professions of high ideals real or contrived? Does he take seriously the verities offered by York Harding in books like The Challenge to Democracy and The Role of the West? Or does he merely appropriate them to lend a veneer of respectability to a ruthless enterprise? When Pyle prattles on about freedom and democracy, does he mean what he says? Or is it just so much cant? Although Greene poses these questions—which by implication apply not only to Pyle but to the nation and the cause that Pyle serves—he refrains from offering explicit answers. 

Indeed, Greene suggests that the answers may not really matter. "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. 

Whether feigned or real, therefore, innocence poses a problem. Good intentions informed by the simplistic belief that the world can be fixed and things set right only succeed in killing people.

Back in Washington, those who dream up such policies somehow manage to evade accountability. Discredited policymakers depart with clear consciences, en route to a visiting chair at Georgetown or a cushy billet in some think tank. There is no blood on their hands, the dirty work having been contracted out to soldiers, whose compensation, writes Greene, "includes the guilt of murder in the pay-envelope" and who upon returning home from battle may find their sense of personal culpability more difficult to shake.

America means well: on this point the vast majority of Americans will permit no dissent. We differ from all other great powers in history. Our leaders differ as well. To those who formulate U.S. policy, ideals really do matter. As President Obama insisted in his Cairo speech, anyone depicting the United States as a "self-interested empire" is way off base.

When U.S. policy goes awry, therefore, the culprit might be bad luck, bad planning, or bad tactics, but American motives lie beyond reproach. Thus, the reassuring take on the Iraq War, now emerging as the conventional wisdom, is that—however mismanaged the war may have been early on—the "surge" engineered by General David Petraeus has redeemed the enterprise: a conclusion doubly welcome in that it obviates any need to revisit questions about the war's purpose and justification, while meshing nicely with the Obama administration's inclination simply to have done with Iraq and move on.

The implications of trivializing Iraq are already evident in the debate regarding "Af--Pak": the overriding concern becomes one of finding the general best able to apply to Obama's war the "lessons" taken from Bush's war. That such an approach should find favor in Washington would not have surprised Graham Greene. Those who conceived the Iraq War, the cheerleaders who promoted it from the sidelines, and critics of that war who have now succeeded to positions of power share a common interest in wiping the slate clean, refurbishing the claim that the United States meant well because the United States always means well. No doubt mistakes were made. Yet America's benign intentions expiate sins committed along the way—or allow those in authority to assign responsibility for any sins to soldiers who in doing Washington's bidding became sources of embarrassment.

Vietnam once laid waste to Washington's claim of innocence, until Ronald Reagan helped restore that claim. Every indication suggests that American innocence will survive Iraq as well, this time with Barack Obama as chief enabler helping to sanitize or erase all that we do not wish to remember. A people famous for their self-professed religiosity won't even bother to look for someone to whom they can express contrition.

Friday 28 August 2009

Disappearing south Atlantic glaciers

A field campaign to the remote south Atlantic reveals that glaciers on
the island of South Georgia are disappearing at remarkable speed. This
massive glacial retreat is part of an emerging climatic pattern. The
implications are momentous, says Øyvind Paasche.

Friday 21 August 2009

Some interesting points in this New Scientist article

How psychology can help the planet stay cool

"I'M NOT convinced it's as bad as the experts make out... It's everyone else's fault... Even if I turn down my thermostat, it will make no difference." The list of reasons for not acting to combat global warming goes on and on.

This month, an American Psychological Association (APA) task force released a report highlighting these and other psychological barriers standing in the way of action. But don't despair. The report also points to strategies that could be used to convince us to play our part. Sourced from psychological experiments, we review tricks that could be deployed by companies or organisations to encourage climate-friendly behaviour. Also, on page 40 of this issue, psychologist Mark van Vugt of the Free University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands describes the elements of human nature that push us to act altruistically.

As advertisers of consumer products well know, different groups of people may have quite distinct interests and motivations, and messages that seek to change behaviour need to be tailored to take these into account. "You have to target the marketing to the demographic," says Robert Gifford of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, another of the report's authors.

Messages that seek to change behaviour need to be tailored to the interests of individual groups

The affluent young, for instance, tend to be diet conscious, and this could be used to steer them away from foods like cheeseburgers - one of the most climate-unfriendly meals around because of the energy it takes to raise cattle. So when trying to convince them to forgo that carbon-intensive beef pattie, better to stress health benefits than harp on about the global climate.

Though conservative pundits have been known to attack such efforts, characterising them as psychological manipulation or "mind control", experiments indicate that people are willing to be persuaded. "From participants in our experiments, we've never heard a negative backlash," says Wesley Schultz of California State University in San Marcos. In fact, according to John Petersen of Oberlin College, Ohio, we are used to far worse. "Compared to the barrage of advertising, it seems milder than anything I experience in my daily life," he says.

Good neighbours

DEEP down, most of us want to fit in with the crowd, and psychologists are exploiting this urge to conform to encourage environmentally friendly behaviour.

Researchers led by Wesley Schultz at California State University in San Marcos and Jessica Nolan, now at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, have found that people will cut their electricity usage if told that their neighbours use less than they do.

In one experiment, the researchers left information with households in San Marcos asking them to use fans rather than air conditioners at night, turn off lights and take shorter showers. Some messages simply stressed energy conservation, some talked about future generations, while others emphasised the financial savings. But it was the flyers that implored residents to join with their neighbours in saving energy that were most effective in cutting electricity consumption (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol 34, p 913).

In another study, the researchers told households what others in their neighbourhood used on average. High users cut their consumption in response, but low users increased theirs. The problem disappeared if the messages were reinforced with sad or smiley faces. The smileys received by the residents who were already saving energy provided sufficient encouragement for them to keep doing so (Psychological Science, vol 18, p 429).

Information economy

MOST people seem to conserve energy if provided with real-time feedback on how much they are using. But feedback can be too immediate.

For instance, Janet Swim has a General Motors car that shows her mileage per gallon plummeting each time she accelerates. It's just not very useful, she argues, because it's hard to place that momentary piece of feedback in the context of her overall driving behaviour and fuel efficiency.

In contrast, the Toyota Prius display shows mileage per gallon over 5-minute intervals for the previous half-hour. With that contextual information, people can experiment with different driving styles to see how they affect mileage, and even compete with themselves to improve over time. The 2010 Honda Insight goes one better, flashing up an image of a trophy to reward thrifty driving.

The benefits of feedback are not restricted to car gadgets. Studies show that devices that display domestic energy usage produce savings of between 5 and 12 per cent.

Competitive instincts

EVERY spring, selected student dormitories at Oberlin College in Ohio compete to discover which one can cut energy use by the most. Computer screens give the students detailed feedback on electricity consumption, and in one study dorms cut their electricity use by 55 per cent (International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, vol 8, p 16).

The researchers running the study have not yet crunched their numbers to separate out the effects of competition from the feedback on electricity consumption, but the large savings compared to other studies that lack a competitive element suggest a strong effect. "The competition, at least in this environment, is critical," says John Petersen, Oberlin's head of environmental studies.

Petersen concedes that Oberlin may attract students with green sensibilities atypical of society at large. The project is about to extend into the real world. Equipment to provide detailed feedback on electricity use will be fitted into 53 apartments and six business units in a development now under construction in the city of Oberlin. "We hope to create volunteer groups that will compete with one another," says psychologist Cindy Frantz.

Here and now

PEOPLE have to be persuaded to act on climate change even though the benefit won't be felt for decades. Research by David Hardisty and Elke Weber of Columbia University in New York suggests ways to achieve this.

Hardisty and Weber have found that people respond in exactly the same way to decisions involving future environmental gains and losses as they do when making financial decisions (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol 138, p 329). This allows psychologists' knowledge of how to manipulate financial decision-making to be brought into play.

For instance, schemes that give people an upfront cash payment for insulating their home will work better than those promising long-term savings, even if the people receiving cash end up paying a little more in the long run.

And because we are generally more worried about future losses than we are impressed by future gains, messages are more effective if framed to warn people that they will lose $500 over 10 years if they don't follow a particular course of action to limit climate change than if they are told they'll be $500 better off if they do take action.

Social networks

AS SOCIAL animals, we like to interact with others and take inspiration from their actions. Psychologists are working out how to exploit this to spread behaviours that will help limit climate change. "My sense is that social networks are going to be important," says Swim.

Allowing people to document successes in saving energy on their Facebook pages could drive change among their friends, and the Oberlin team is considering integrating this into its urban residence experiment.

Tawanna Dillahunt and colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, think such opportunities presented by Facebook can be combined with our liking for furry animals. Inspired by the attachment that people can develop towards Tamagotchi virtual pets, the team is testing the persuasive power of a "virtual polar bear" standing on an ice floe that grows bigger as people adopt environmentally friendly behaviours such as taking shorter showers. Initial results suggests the polar bear has pull.