''THIS IS THE patent age of new inventions/ For killing bodies and for saving souls,'' Lord Byron wrote, ''All propagated with the best intentions.'' The lines serve as an epigram for Graham Greene's ''The Quiet American.''
That novel first appeared in 1955, but a filmed version arrived in theaters last week, a timely renewal of its prophetic relevance. Michael Caine's performance as Thomas Fowler, the opium-ridden British journalist who jousts with - and befriends - an American intelligence operative, just received an Oscar nomination. Americans may go to this movie for the superlative acting, but in the ''patent age'' of a coming war, they may find something more.
Graham Greene was a connoisseur not of good and evil, but of innocence and corruption. The dangers of the latter are well known - here is Greene's great theme - but the former is especially to be feared. In his novels, Greene obsessed with that moral paradox. In ''The Power and the Glory'' the well-meaning police lieutenant is a source of death and chaos, while the deeply flawed fugitive priest brings those he encounters more fully alive. Scobie, the hero of the ''The Heart of the Matter'' suffers ''corruption by pity,'' and embodies the tragedy of Europe's intrusions into Africa. ''The Honorary Consul,'' in which an American is kidnapped in Argentina, features a main character for whom ''caring is the only dangerous thing.'' And always, innocence, which Greene defines in ''The Quiet American,'' as ''a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.'' A leper is the title-character in ''The Burnt-Out Case,'' set in the Congo, where the question - the hero's name is ''Querry'' - is between dumb innocence and nihilism.
One can tell the brutal story of European colonialism as a saga of the dangers of good intentions (The Belgians, after all, embarked on their genocide in Congo in the name of the eradication of slavery). Good intentions always cloak a more ambiguous agenda, and as an Englishman who came of age while the noble savageries of the trenches played out during World War I (the ''War to end War''), Greene knew that very well.
Yet it was when he applied this critique to the nascent American impulse in Vietnam that Greene achieved his literary masterpiece, and his sharpest political critique. Alden Pyle, the ''quiet American'' of the title, is a man whose bookshelf includes idealistic political titles like ''The Challenge to Democracy,'' but ''tucked away'' on the same shelf is ''The Physiology of Marriage,'' indicating his pathetic innocence when it comes to sexuality.
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Pyle is drawn to Fowler's mistress, a beautiful ''Annamite'' woman named Phuong. Pyle wants to rescue her from Fowler, who embodies the corruptions of ''the old Europe,'' to use a phrase current in Washington. Pyle wants to rescue Phuong's nation too, aiming to create a virtuous ''third force'' that is neither communism nor colonialism. ''We are the old colonial peoples, Pyle,'' Fowler admits, ''but we've learned a bit of reality, we've learned not to play with matches. This Third Force - it comes out of a book.''
Yet to bring it about, Pyle supplies not only matches, but explosives. After a horrendous blood-spattered bombing, Fowler tells Pyle, ''You've got the Third Force and national democracy all over your right shoe.'' Fowler sees what will come in the wake of the American intervention, but Pyle does not. ''He was impregnably armo red by his good intentions and his ignorance.'' Fowler, with no particular sense of virtue, finally takes action against Pyle, and become implicated in his murder. With the American dead, Fowler's mistress has no choice but to return to him. The last line of the novel reads, ''Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.''
Greene's is a bleak vision, as if the only choice is between ignorant, damaging innocence and complicitous but self-aware corruption. ''The Quiet American'' is nowhere more prophetic than in that simple name Greene gave to the woman who motivates both men. The name Phuong, Fowler says, ''means Phoenix, but nothing nowadays is fabulous, and nothing rises from its ashes.'' What Greene could not have known in 1952-55 when he wrote the novel is that the ultimate circle of hell into which Pyle's CIA successors would descend, still from idealism, would be the late 1960s assassination-murder program called ''Operation Phoenix.'' Operation Phuong.
Vietnam haunts our national spirit because America's violence was so well-motivated - destroying villages, yes, but only to save them. Vietnam teaches that good intentions are not enough. In the patent age of new inventions, there must equally be the knowledge - we have it from Greene, but also from the American generation that fulfilled his prophecy - that saving souls by killing bodies is impossible. Beware a nation announcing its innocence en route to war.