Misguided moral certitude, sometimes against all evidence and resulting in unintended consequences, is not exclusively an American trait. Maybe it’s just that we have perfected it to the point where the rest of the world sees our firm beliefs as a flaw rather than a virtue.
Philip Caputo, in his searing and slightly bloated new novel, Acts of Faith, shows just how dangerous blind faith can be, how seemingly good intentions by foreigners in a third-world land can go wildly wrong and spawn chaos on both large and small scales.
If this sounds like a veiled allegory of Bush administration policies in Iraq and elsewhere, it is not accidental. Caputo, best known for his Vietnam memoir A Rumor of War, uses the civil war in Sudan and the intervention by United States relief workers — “mercenaries with a conscience,” he writes — to provide a cautionary tale about what happens when foreigners interfere with decades-old religious and tribal relations.
Here we have three Americans, whose motives range from missionary work to secular do-gooding to compassionate capitalism, in war-torn Sudan in the late 1990s to deliver food, aid and idealism to the people. Unintended or not, the consequences of their “acts of faith” leave the place worse off than before they came. And it also leaves most characters’ personal lives in shambles. All is not fair in love and war, at least in this war.
Pre-release reviews of the novel call it an updating of Graham Greene’s Vietnam-foreshadowing The Quiet American, but it also owes something to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in its depiction of a moral morass.
But quiet, these three Americans in Act of Faith are most certainly not. All have agendas, personal or professional.
For Douglas Braithwaite, a pilot from Tucson who starts a private airline to deliver humanitarian aid to zones not authorized by the United Nations, it begins as a righteous quest to help his fellow man. But his motives are suspect, as is his back story. Eventually, greed and hegemony overtake any humanitarian concerns.
He is a character whose personality and philosophy are modeled on President Bush. Douglas is described early on as “the breed of American male who dislikes revealing his innermost self, not because he’s shy or ashamed of what’s there but because he abhors introspection and prefers to act, without giving much thought as to why.” Later, a character observes that “the American was never more fraudulent than when he was most sincere.”
Another American in Sudan, the missionary-gone-native Quinette Hardin, oozes sincerity as well. She starts out helping a nonprofit buy back Christian Sudanese slaves from the Muslims but eventually falls in love with a rebel general and marries him. Her addition to the village causes many unintended problems, mainly cultural but also religious. Instead of uniting people, Quinette draws a wedge between Muslims and Christians, which escalates into battles that take hundreds of lives.
Quinette’s Christian faith is strong at the novel’s outset and wavers only slightly. When things go bad, she falls back on religion to “forgive” her many misdeeds. She, too, is self-deluded. After she sees that her efforts to get guns to the rebels from her pilot friends have backfired, Quinette refuses to acknowledge she was wrong.
“Had she held on to these thoughts and carried them through, she might have reached some interesting conclusions about actions that arise from deep convictions; but they exited her mind within seconds.”
The third American — and the most self-aware — is Wesley Dare, a Vietnam-vet pilot who admits his motive is to make money. He has a seen-it-all wariness, that makes him doubt Douglas’ altruistic motives. “Having seen what true believers were capable of, Wesley Dare had turned disbelief into a kind of belief in itself.”
The voice of reason among the aid workers is Fitzhugh Martin, an ex-Kenyan soccer star turned U.N. relief worker. He reluctantly joins the Americans and it’s through his eyes that we see the subtle corruption take hold. But even Fitz succumbs to the moral and ethical shortcuts, the rationalizations for heinous behavior. “He found success came when he told himself that he was doing a small wrong thing in order to do a big right thing,” Caputo writes.
Fitz gives the reader an African’s view of life in a continuous war zone: “What was it about this place that it created visionaries of all kinds, warrior-prophets and warrior-saints, messiahs true and false, Sufi mystics, dervishes dancing in the mirages of the mind, its boundless horizons inspiring men to imagine that anything is possible.”
The Muslim-Christian conflict is not the center of the novel, but it pervades society and is evident on every page.
It’s Douglas’ faith in “goodness” that leads him from delivering supplies to running guns. It’s Quinette’s fervent belief in God and her denunciation of Muhammad that leads to a village uprising. It’s Dare’s avarice and petty jealousy that leads to his demise and the lives of innocents.
But, really, no one is innocent in Acts of Faith. When the carefully made plans unravel, they have no one to blame but themselves for overreaching and trying to change a society they have no business meddling with.
As Caputo writes, they are “so American in their narcissism, in their self-righteousness, in their blindness to their inner natures, in their impulse to remake the world and reinvent themselves, never realizing that the world wishes to remain as it is.”Sound familiar?