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The Best and the Brightest

A DANGEROUS FRIEND;\o7 By Ward Just; (Houghton Mifflin: 256 pp., $25)\f7

May 16, 1999|TOM ENGELHARDT | Tom Engelhardt is the author of "The End of Victory Culture." He is also consulting editor at Metropolitan Books

Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage," Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead," Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"--American fiction writers have conjured up powerful portraits of war, largely from the foot soldier's chaotic point of view. But war as experienced by the policy makers, the civilian shapers, the power holders and the bureaucrats has not been a subject of American fiction. In fact, power generally has not much been favored by fiction writers. Ward Just has been the exception. Since the 1970s, he has brought us rare tales from the back rooms, bedrooms and corridors of influence and power in Washington. It is typical of him that in "A Dangerous Friend," his fierce new book about the Vietnam War, there are no soldiers, no bloody battles and only one dead body. Its pages are filled with civilians--bored, ambitious or idealistic volunteers, low-level officials in flight from the blandness of a vast provincial empire and launched happily on a "nation building" adventure in a distant land.

His is not the Vietnam we think of--not after more than two decades in which that war has been reduced, on page and screen, to the time of full-scale American military build-up and battle seen mainly through the eyes of beleaguered "grunts." For 18 months, from December 1965 to May 1967, Just covered the war for the Washington Post, was wounded and reported on it memorably in "To What End," a wartime book now out of print. In "A Dangerous Friend," however, he turns to the year that just preceded his arrival in Vietnam, when it seemed as if the enemy might be on the verge of victory but when civilians still felt that control over the war was in their hands.

Indeed, a model for such a novel already existed, just not an American one. In 1955, the year after the first Vietnam War--between the French and the Vietnamese--ended, British novelist Graham Greene published "The Quiet American," a prescient fable about blind imperial power. Its narrator, an English reporter pursuing life with his Vietnamese mistress at the margins of a colonial war, meets a young American official named Pyle with an "unmistakably young and unused face," an enthusiast determined to "do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world." A provincial armed with the teachings of one anti-communist scholar, Pyle arrives in Saigon cloaked in an unbreachable American "innocence" and with a Vietnam of his creation already etched in his mind.

In his novel, Greene took a cherished American self-image--of purity in the face of a corrupt world--and gave it a malign twist. The imperial innocence of a global power that doesn't know itself or its limits had to have, in his view, a killing edge. If other worlds existed only to the extent that you invented them, then there would be worlds you would destroy exactly because you had never even noticed them. Pyle's inability to take in a Vietnamese landscape that lies before him but hopelessly beyond his grasp leads inexorably to the unnecessary deaths of at least 50 people (a modest enough body count, given what was to come). Greene's book began at the end with news of Pyle's murder, and ended at the beginning, with the British narrator, any illusion of neutrality stripped away, watching American bombers being unloaded, gifts to the gods who would soon preside over a new, bloodier, ever more "innocent" version of the war just ending.

It was a novel that reporters like Just would carry to Vietnam in their minds a decade later--and that Just evidently still carries with him. He picks up on Greene's deadly innocence, boldly builds "A Dangerous Friend" on it and takes it to a new place. He begins, as Greene did, with the fate (though not the death) of one American innocent, Sydney Parade, a 29-year-old political scientist in 1965, given to long hair and jeans, working at an unnamed foundation, bored with his adventure-free life, his Czech emigre wife and their small child. One day he meets a loose cannon of a bureaucrat, Dicky Rostok, a "menacing figure," who receives Ho Chi Minh in his dreams, can run a dinner table conversation "like a college professor turned talk-show host" and is already taking notes for the book on the war he will someday write. Rostok runs the Vietnam office of Llewellyn Group, a melange of scholars, analysts and aid workers, "men who are eager to understand our Asian Antietam, and master it." Their main task is to collect the necessary information to assess the nature of "progress" in "the effort" and to "report directly to the office of the secretary of defense." Rostok's "nation-building" appeal inspires Parade, who volunteers for a year's tour of duty even though his wife threatens divorce.

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