Part Three, Chapter 2
Fowler returns to Saigon and is surprised to find Pyle waiting at his flat. Pyle explains that he has come because the American Economic Attaché informed him of Fowler's visit. Fowler greets Pyle with a smug comment: "Still playing with plastics?" (204) While the two men are chatting, Fowler opens and reads a telegram from his editor in England, who has granted his request to extend his time in Vietnam for an additional year. Fowler asks Pyle if he and Phuong are married yet, and Pyle replies that he is planning to go on special leave so they can get married "properly" (205). He plans to take Phuong back to America so she can settle in while Pyle finishes his service in Vietnam.
As Pyle is on his way out, Fowler warns Pyle not put too much faith in York Harding. He says, "We are the old colonial peoples, Pyle, 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, that's all. General Thé's only a bandit with a few thousand men; he's not a national democracy" (207). Pyle pretends that he doesn't know what Fowler is talking about and tries to dismiss Fowler's accusations. Based on his awkward reaction, it is clear that Pyle has involved himself in the recruitment of a Third Force.
Fowler gives himself the task of finding a new apartment so that he is not living amongst memories of Phuong. He visits an apartment in a modern building. The owner has a large art collection and personal library, which he would like to sell to Fowler along with the apartment. Fowler tells him that he is not a collector, and the apartment owner seems disappointed to hear this. He insists that he will only sell the apartment with the art collection included, and Fowler begins to wonder if the man would insist on selling himself with the art collection. Fowler leaves the apartment, thinking that the man is the type of "old colonialist" that Pyle imagines.
Fowler enters the street and stands in a coffee center, where he sees two American girls eating ice cream. After they finish their treats, one says to the other, "We'd better be going to be on the safe side. Warren said we mustn't stay later than eleven-twenty-five" (210). The other girl is curious about why they need to leave the square. Fowler listens to their conversation and wonders what they are talking about. As he daydreams, his surroundings suddenly shatter into pieces. He finds himself on the ground, surrounded by wreckage.
Fowler is relatively unharmed by the explosion, as are the other patrons in the cafe. His eardrums are overloaded, however, so it is difficult for him to hear. He thinks that this attack must be similar to the bicycle bombs, wondering whom his paper will want him to blame. As soon as he exits the cafe and enters the square, however, he sees that it is flooded with police. Fowler realizes that that this attack is much more serious than Operation Bicycle, which he now categorizes as a "joke with plastics" (212).
Fowler is immediately concerned about Phuong because he knows that she always gets a milkshake in the square at approximately this time. He tries to push through the barricade, but he cannot find his press pass and the police will not let him enter. Fowler looks around and sees a grotesque scene of violence; a mother holding her dead baby. He continues to push, and then he sees Pyle. Pyle reassures Fowler that Phuong is not in the square because he "warned her not to go" (213). Suddenly, Fowler is able to piece everything together, and the word, "warn" begins to sink into his consciousness. He now understands Pyle and his Americans cohorts supplied the bomb ingredients to General Thé, and now many innocent people are dead in the name of "democracy."
Pyle insists that it wasn't supposed to occur this way - there was supposed to be a parade and the bomb was meant to take out generals, not civilians. Fowler forces him to see that civilians still would have been injured, even if the attack did occur during a military parade. Pyle refuses to acknowledge the severity of what has happened, and the only thing he says about the massacre is that he must get a shoe shine before he sees the Minister - he has blood on his shoes, after all. Fowler is completely disgusted and can't believe how Pyle is "impregnably armored by his good intentions and ignorance." He has lost all respect for Pyle and cannot believe the stupidity of the American alliance with General Thé. In a moment of haste, Fowler stops a trishaw and instructs the driver to take him to Quai Mytho, where Mr. Heng lives.
Pyle's repeated defiance of Fowler's warnings reveals the young American's naiveté and inexperience in the realm of war. When Fowler hints at Pyle's involvement in Operation Bicycle, Pyle tries to pretend that he doesn't know what Fowler is talking about, but his acting is transparent. In fact, his lies only prove that Pyle knows more than he is letting on. Fowler knows that Pyle is in over his head, and he tries to give him sound advice - he even resorts to using the first person plural when talking about the "old colonialists," as if forging a connection with Pyle will make him listen to reason. However, Pyle's immediate reaction to criticism is to "shut out the unwelcome intruder," which shows that he is still unwilling to listen to a different perspective. His stubborn nature will eventually lead to his demise.
When Fowler leaves the apartment he is viewing and comments that the seller reminds him of Pyle's "typical colonialist," it raises the topic of perception and self-examination. Fowler is well aware of his country's deep and complicated involvement in colonial affairs and he understands how British involvement in a colony's government will likely jeopardize that country's future development; he has seen the effects of colonialism firsthand. Pyle, however, is unable to conceive of America as a predatory force, even though its interference in the Vietnamese conflict shows a deep alignment with the colonial mindset. Once again, Pyle proves himself to be immutable - he is never willing to change his opinions even after receiving new information.
The conversation between the two American girls foreshadows the impending doom that is about to strike the square. Their presence in the shop is curious, and they draw attention to themselves with their remarkably similar appearances. They do not say why they need to leave the ice cream shop, but it is clear that they need to leave in order to remain "safe." A mysterious man named Warren has warned them to leave - which means that an American has deemed them worthy of a warning. Fowler doesn't know what is going on, but he can tell something bad is going to happen, as does the reader. Additionally, this detail shows how the Americans do not want to harm those they deem "innocent" - like these American girls and Phuong - but many nameless Vietnamese innocents will die nonetheless. It is a microcosmic representation of the inherent flaw in York Harding's work and therefore, Pyle's actions.
Pyle's ignorance is on full display in this chapter, causing him to become an unsympathetic character. It is important to note that Graham Greene received criticism from many American readers for this rather harsh and one-sided portrayal. Fowler observes that Pyle is "impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance." He is blind to the destruction that General Thé has wrought on the innocent people of Vietnam and is unable to acknowledge that Thé might not be innocent in this bloodshed. He unquestioningly follows York Harding's teachings and has allowed the idea of the Third Force to shape his personal philosophy, so it is even harder for him to admit that the American plan has proven to be incorrect. He refuses to acquire knowledge through any medium other than textbook scholarship.
Meanwhile, Fowler accuses Pyle of justifying innocent deaths in the name of democracy. He defends himself by claiming that the attack was meant to occur during a military parade, but Fowler counters that there would still be women and children amongst the civilians watching the parade. Fowler is disgusted, thinking, "A two-hundred-pound bomb does not discriminate. How many dead colonels justify a child's or a trishaw driver's death when you are building a national democratic front?" (216) By the end of this chapter, it is clear that Pyle will have to reckon with the fact that he is partially responsible for this destruction. Additionally, at the end of the chapter, Fowler is racing off to see Mr. Heng, which means that Pyle's misstep that day has finally forced him to take a side.