My son and I recently watched Apocalypse Now. At 62, believe it or not, I’d never seen it. I was aware of the film when it was released in 1979, but chose not to see it, given the raw aftermath of Vietnam, people I knew who were involved, the ongoing brutality.
And here we are today. Little has changed.
This is not a movie review so we’ll not discuss the excellent cinematography, the great writing, direction and acting, the links to the novella Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.
However, it is important to highlight the central point of the picture:
If you get in over your head, you can very well lose it.
Vietnam was a war run by civilians, like calling on orderlies to perform brain surgery. The stated motives were good: help the South Vietnamese avoid communist enslavement, give them a chance at freedom, save the region from cruel dictatorship. The tactics and the strategy: not so good. We did not fight to win. We did not accurately assess the commitment of the enemy, we misread support at home, and we did not heed sound military advice.
In Apocalypse Now, a genius madman has left the ranks of the U.S. Army to fight the war his way, prompting a command decision he be assassinated. After failing to convince his commanders to fight to win, he makes himself a demigod, far upriver in Cambodia, the king of his own tribal army, a warlord employing the most brutal methods. Played by Marlon Brando, he is Colonel Walter E. Kurtz who explains at one point:
I remember when I was with Special Forces. Seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate the children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile: a pile of little arms. And I remember I…I…I cried. I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it. I never want to forget. And then I realized, like I was shot — like I was shot with a diamond…a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought: My God, the genius of that. The genius! The will to do that: perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than me, because they could stand it. These were not monsters. These were men, trained cadres — these men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who have children, who are filled with love — but they had the strength — the strength! — to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment. Without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.
Notice the break from reality and the launch into insanity with the statement, “You have to have men who are moral and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling, without passion, without judgment.” When has immorality packaged as moral proceeding served anyone’s interests?
It is not a matter of killing without feeling or passion or judgment. In war, it is a matter of killing for a purpose, a moral purpose, largely one of self-defense, and/or the defense of the defenseless, all as a last resort. We did not prevail in Vietnam because we allowed civilians to override military experts, but more than that, we lost because we lost our moral compass, our mission was not superior to the mission of the enemy, an enemy that was capable of any atrocity, for as long as was necessary. As is always true, without moral leadership, there is no moral compass, and without that compass, defeat is inevitable.
We have not learned the lesson of Vietnam or heeded the warning from Apocalypse Now.
Orderlies rule the military. We do not properly evaluate enemy strength or will. Our volunteer soldiers are sent to die under insane rules of engagement. They face a committed enemy so vile and so monstrous he will commit any atrocity for as long as it takes. But worse, we have no moral leadership, no one telling our troops ours is a righteous quest to save the widow and orphan, to defend the defenseless and to defend our country.
Instead we have a president who won’t even name the enemy, a hollow man who either ignores or appeases our enemy, even as he demoralizes our troops. He is an enemy within, more lethal to us than jihad.
We also have a Republican front runner speaking his mind, filled with bluster, inspiring war fever, and like Kurtz, a man facing only one side of reality, responding with a kind of madness, suggesting our only path to victory is committing greater atrocities than those committed by the monsters. He would have us kill without feeling, without passion and without judgment. If we follow this man, we will leave the moral high ground and kill just like the monster we face, forsaking ourselves and our values, the very beliefs that define us, the beliefs we once fought to protect, values two million Americans gave their lives to preserve.
In the end, Kurtz simply allows his executioner to have his way, committing a kind of suicide, his last concern his legacy in his son’s mind. In the end, Kurtz makes no apology, and with his dying breath, he whispers, “The Horror!” He is consumed by the horror he could never overcome, no matter how horrible he became. Like Kurtz, will we commit suicide by allowing our executioner to destroy all that is dear, hoping the children we betray will understand?
In the end, the ultimate horror is betraying all we are and all we’ve been given by a cowardice so low, even honor dies, and with it, all hope of saving the remaining threads of goodness in the world. So far, the cowardice displaying in the Western world does not inspire. It invites the horror.