Acts of Faith by Philip Caputo

“God save us always from the innocent and the good,” says Fowler, the cynical correspondent in Graham Greene’s searing castigation of American idealism in Vietnam, The Quiet American. No doubt Philip Caputo, whose own memoir, A Rumor of War, stands as a seminal text in the literature of the Vietnam War, was acquainted with a few Pyles, Greene’s symbol (sometimes caricature) of American moral arrogance, during his time as a Marine Lieutenant in the mid-60s. In his latest novel, Acts of Faith, Caputo gives us a more complex, yet equally caustic, meditation on the perils of American innocence.

Douglas Braithwaite and Quinette Hardin are American relief workers in one of Africa’s most devastated countries, Sudan, where an Islamist regime in the north has been waging a savage war against poorly armed Christian and Animist blacks in the south for two decades. Doug heads Knight Air Services, an independent airline that delivers humanitarian aid to people in so-called “no-go zones” in southern Sudan. Quinette, an evangelical Christian in her mid-20s, works for WorldWide Christian Union, a human rights organization that redeems black slaves captured by Arab raiders. Drawn to Sudan by a combination of altruism and a yearning for adventure, Doug and Quinette are just two of the many dedicated foot soldiers in what is passingly described as “the recolonization of Africa by the imperialism of good intentions”.

History is replete with examples of well-intentioned people who, enamored of their vaunted notions of what is just and right, have rationalized their crimes under aegis of some sacrosanct cause or utopian end. Think of all the lives sacrificed on the altar of one ideology or another in attempt to lay the “grandiose foundations of the future”, as Rubashov puts in Arthur Koestler’s classic novel about political commitment Darkness at Noon. Unlike the ideological warriors of yesteryear, Doug and Quinette are not in the thrall of an overarching political philosophy. They are, rather, zealots of the heart, or, as Doug’s foil, a crude Texan mercenary pilot by the name of Wesley (Wes) Dare, describes them, “bleeding hearts”. These “Hebraic souls,” besotted with moral clarity, simplistically divide the world between good and evil. Dispensing with the neutrality often demanded of aid workers, Doug and Quinette take the side of the long-suffering Nuba people, who are under assault from Khartoum’s Murahalleen. In violation of U.N. regulations, Doug uses his airline to run guns for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a ragtag rebel force fighting a losing battle against well-funded government militias. In a radical rejection of her Iowan roots, Quinette, in effect, joins the rebel forces when she weds SPLA commander Michael Goraende. For both Doug and Quinette, these acts are borne of an extreme sense of moral responsibility. Sitting on the sidelines is tantamount to active complicity in the killing of innocents.

Doug and Quinette’s Manichean worldview proves particularly disastrous when combined with a singularly American strain of optimism, a kind of militant Pollyanna spirit often expressed by neoconservatives and some liberal humanitarians. Wes, long put off by Doug’s messianic attitude, terminates their business agreement once he gets wind of his partner’s scheme to renege on their contract. Doug is also a ruthless businessman, weaned on a capitalist boosterism celebrated in his native land. He’s hell-bent on raising his airline’s market share, putting his competitor out of business, and seizing the “big mo” (momentum). This is relief work — corporate America style! You would think that Doug’s moral absolutism would be in constant conflict with his more practical (read: cutthroat) business philosophy. But you would be wrong; he negotiates these competing claims without the slightest sense of crisis. “Douglas was a soul split down the middle, the entrepreneur and the idealist,” writes Caputo. “If he could enlist those agencies in his crusade, he could reconcile the halves of his divided self and serve God and Mammon at the same time.” When Wes, as payback for Doug’s betrayal, divulges Knight Air’s clandestine arms-dealing operations to a grating CNN correspondent, Doug stops at nothing to prevent the devastating exposé from being aired. He calmly rationalizes the calculated murder of his opponents, since, after all, hadn’t they betrayed the sacred cause?

Though Quinette justifies the atrocity – perpetrated by her husband – on the same grounds, she invokes an insufferable religiosity absent in Doug. She believes God is on her side, and thus all her actions, including those of her comrades, carry a divine imprimatur. So when she forces 400 Nubans to pose as slaves in a scheme to sell them to her former boss in a bid to raise cash for arms, she is convinced her forgiveness is foreordained since “the purpose demanded it.” Her stirrings of conscience are relieved by the thought that the WorldWide Christian Union will see a boon in contributions as a result of this largest ever slave redemption. Here, again, innocent logic is the enabler of morally bankrupt conduct.

Innocence is the tragic flaw that ruins the classically tragic characters of Quinette and Doug. 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 and that oneself is not as malleable as one likes to think,” writes Caputo, who sums up his characters with devastating precision. “We know what we are, but know not what we may be,” he reminds us, invoking Hamlet’s words to further situate his novel in the context of tragedy. “But what we become is what we have been all along,” observes Fitzhugh, a Kenyan who is the work’s most perceptive figure. “To outward appearances, each of us is a half truth. The self we present to the world conceals a clandestine self that awaits its time to come out. Africa had not changed Quinette. It had merely provided the right circumstances and the right climate for her pretty chrysalis to pop open and reveal the creature within.” Haunted by the people they’ve sacrificed along the way, these quiet Americans eventually face “African justice.” Doug, after being tortured in a Khartoum prison for four months, is kicked out of Africa, forced to leave “with little more than the clothes he wore, the failure he had always dreaded becoming”. Quinette, having given up everything to join the cause, finds herself in a kind of limbo when the war ends, forced to endure all the hardships of being an African woman. “She had asked Africa to redeem her from the bonds of the commonplace and give her an extraordinary life. It had, but now it was extracting the price: It was keeping her,” Caputo writes.

Acts of Faith is in many ways a cautionary tale, a timely admonishment to Americans in an era when our politicians promise to spread freedom and democracy across the Arab world. The humbling experience of the Iraq War is a stark reminder of our limitations. The idea that we can arrogate to ourselves the right to determine the fate of other nations is pure folly. Indeed, it is an act of faith.