In the interest of educating myself in the classics, I finally watched Apocalypse Now last weekend. It made me happy to finally be in on all of those references people had been making, with the napalm in the mornings when Charlie's not out surfing and the helicopters blasting Wagner - though it was kind of disappointing that they were clustered around one part of the movie, if only because I had to quit playing 'Spot that Reference' halfway through its considerable runtime. It also brought me joy to watch their feeble attempt to make Harrison Ford look like anything less than the consummate bastion of unflappable masculinity he obviously is and always has been.
|Come on, give it up, Harrison. Muttering, stuttering, nerd glasses... They all know if they gave you half a chance, you'd kill Kurtz yourself. With office supplies.|
The squad's mission to find him serves to reflect the Colonel's own journey, revealing that he went rogue because he recognized the fundamental hypocrisy of America's mission: to win a war against a fierce opponent on his own territory without confronting the brutality it would require. In their journey, the squad sees napalm, possibly one of the most inhumane weapons imaginable, used against the VC, as the US troops go surfing (in a war zone, by obvious benefit of being bugf*ck insane), and, later and more tellingly, being treated to a show of America's most popular Playboy models flown in from home. The soldiers are very well equipped; they are furnished with all sorts of luxuries; and yet they are unable to overcome the enemy, because they are not mentally prepared to kill and die - to fight the war on the enemy's terms.
There is an excellent book, called What it is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes, which I would recommend to anyone interested in understanding the mindset of American soldiers, and it seems to suggest that Apocalypse Now was right on the money. Marlantes makes a similar point from the benefit of his own personal experience in Vietnam: soldiers in the U.S. military are not psychologically (he argues spiritually) prepared for what they are meant to do. The public at large prefers to think of it in patriotic terms, with "our boys" being sent out to "serve their country" and "fight for our freedom." When they come home, they're expected to make use of their benefits and "settle back in" to civil society. If they "get sick," as they so often do, society prefers to ignore the problem. After all, it doesn't make sense, does it? These men "did their duty." They "fought the bad guys." They "neutralized the enemy." What could be traumatizing about that?
Of course, none of the political filibustering the politicians use can hope do justice to the harsh, immediate savagery of close combat. Vietnam was a special conflict in that it illustrated this schism with unique finesse: soldiers were given napalm, attack helicopters, Agent Orange and Willie Pete, and ordered to use them to spread liberty. The story that was being spun could not have thrown the reality into starker contrast. The result was soldiers on the ground who dehumanized the enemy, brutalized prisoners, blew civilians to hell, and ultimately failed to process what they had experienced. Though the apparent message of Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz is that a brutal war can only be won by brutal means - that the army should have come to terms with its mission's brutality - Marlantes' work expands upon this concept, and actually creates an argument for incorporating what was true about it into how our wars are really fought. He does not advocate pacifism, but rather says that military discipline should be built around the archetype of the warrior: one who fights, and if necessary kills, to protect his own. It is wrong, he argues, to use our soldiers so extensively while being ashamed of them - and ashamed we are, even if we resort to insecure jingoism to hide our shame. If we are to have a military - that is, if pacifism is to be rejected - we should at least train it to accept the primal violence of its work. The soldier must know what it is to kill, so that he may kill out of initiative, rather than by following an order. It is deceptively easy to think that every war can be fought with drone strikes, that we can be cleanly separated from the moral consequences of our actions simply because we are pressing a button instead of pulling a trigger.
In Apocalypse Now, the Colonel's superiors ordered him assassinated because he was not following the accepted rules of engagement, and they could not understand the thinking that led him to adopt his chosen methods. Perhaps they were even scared of how effective he was proving to be. Indeed, once the Colonel's army is finally revealed, the scene seems to be a positive celebration of the urge to kill, not just a place of acceptance. Obviously, his brutality (or rather, his implied brutality) is not acceptable for the army of a civilized nation; it is more an exaggeration of the repressed violent aspect of human nature, or by another interpretation, a ringing condemnation of a society that denies its dark side while still using it to effect most of its foreign policy. But I think that internalizing this concept properly in our military does not have to lead to an end of reason. Rather, it should allow us to face the atrocities of war head on, to see them at once as tragic and necessary.
But not all of it is necessary. And this is what would make such a shift uncomfortable for policymakers. It would no longer be enough for a war to look good on paper - it would have to withstand public scrutiny, and most importantly, the scrutiny of the soldiers fighting it at every stage. I think this is exactly what we need. We as a society have to come face to face with the horror of war, and to see its necessity - and sometimes, I believe it is necessary. There are times when one must kill in order to save, and only by accepting that can we come to see what is necessary and what is not. While war remains our dirty, decidedly big secret, while we pretend that the brutality our soldiers sometimes inflict is anything apart from exactly what their training has told them to do, the militaries of the western world will continue to do increasing harm to our fighters, ourselves, and those we perceive to be our enemies.
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