Monday, September 12, 2005

Beacon No. 64: We've Heard It All Before


In the past week I finally read The Ugly American, William Lederer and Eugene Burdick's 1958 novel about American diplomats and citizens in the fictional Asian nation of Sarkhan. Writing from their own experiences, Lederer and Burdick portrayed Americans abroad who were smart, inquisitive, humble and effective—and an equal number who were dense, ignorant, proud and career-minded.

The novel (really a collection of interconnected short stories) takes place around and immediately after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam in 1954, an event that underlined the difficulty a Western army had in fighting what were then called the Viet Minh. In fictional Sarkhan, some American diplomats and businessmen win local hearts and minds with their can-do spirit and willingness to get their hands dirty, while others stay isolated at the embassy by language, casual racism or bureaucracy, ignorant of the country's growing Communist insurgency.

In other words, all the problems of U.S. diplomacy and soft power have been with us for decades, and potential solutions have been around for just as long.

Despite The Ugly American's continuing relevance, Lederer and Burdick's sharp-eyed critique isn't embraced by the State Department, which was so ticked off at the book that it issued a Reply to Criticism in The Ugly American in 1959. Even today, the book doesn't appear on the recommended reading list for those interested in taking the Foreign Service Written Exam.

So who is reading it? Apparently it's a required text in the Army's special forces, which is no surprise because the book is practically a billboard for the Green Beret counterinsurgency model.

A Note on Language: While I'd always thought the phrase "ugly American" described ugly behavior, it actually refers to an American engineer in the book who, while physically ugly, works with his equally homely Sarkhanese counterpart to develop an innovative, bicycle-powered pump to lift water to terraced rice paddies.

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