I was in search of Graham Greene’s “A Quiet American”, but settled for Ward Just’s “A Dangerous Friend”. I never read either author although both are well-regarded. Thematically, Sydney Parade, the principal character in “A Dangerous Friend”, is a quiet American; borderline idealist out to win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese in the early 1960s. Escaping the boredom of civilian and married life, Syd opts into the Llewellyn Group, a contractor embedded in nation and collaborator building. Syd believes in America’s goodness and power. This invincibility that is increasingly eroded by reality. Be it illusions or delusions, best intentions are more dangerous than intended evil ones.
Fifty years since Vietnam America suffers from the same lack of human intelligence. The legacy of drafted body bags has made foreign escapades technologically distant. Syd was in Nam during the build-up stage. The failure to understand the country and the people in it abound. A U.S. soldier is taken prisoner. The intelligence and military services have no idea where he is. An ex-pat French family and the Vietnamese can readily find him. The Llewellyn Group, seeking to curry favor, has to relies on a Hispanic team member married to a Vietnamese woman to retrieve him. No one speaks the language.
This is a distinctly American book. It captures America’s ideal of doing good and being liked with its character flaw of needing to win and control. Neither flaws are unique to Americans, they are only accentuated when combined with its military hardware. “A Dangerous Friend” reveals that software, not hardware, is the better policy. It requires more thought than superficial and disingenuous nation building by politicians.
This book is a fast summer read. I recommend it as a political war novel without the genre heroics.