Apocalypse Now

Several weeks ago Leslie read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and asked me if I’d read it. I had, but it was a long time ago in Grad School and, though I seemed to recall liking it, any specific insights into it had long since faded. Furthermore, my memory of it had been distorted by seeing Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Now that I’ve seen the movie again, both versions, and reread the book, it’s clearer how the movie distorted my memories of the book. I’m wondering if my adult experiences, particularly newly-found interests in economics, haven’t given me greater insight into the book.

Though I’m more critical of Apocalypse Now than I was when I saw it in 1979, I still consider it the best Vietnam War movie I’ve seen, though I’m no expert on Vietnam movies. Perhaps I enjoyed it because it seemed to symbolize the insanity of that war rather than accurately portray it. The violence, particularly in Apocalypse Redux is so over the top to anything I personally observed that I don’t identify with it, though I certainly identify with the tendencies to turn “savage” that accompany any war-time experiences. In many ways, the movie is the Catch-22 or Mash version of war, true in spirit, though not actual events.

I still have vivid memories of my first day in Vietnam as our boat reached harbor in the middle of the night and waited for daylight so we could disembark. I was too nervous to sleep and spent the night at the railing watching helicopters and guns ships light up the sky, pounding the jungle in the distance. As I looked over the railing, sea serpents swam up to meet the ship lights. With first light, I realized just how precarious our position was by the number of sunken and half-sunken ships that filled the harbor. Finally, they loaded us up in LST’s and ferried us to shore, only to be greeted by Americans swimming and lounging on the beach. You’d have thought we’d just landed on the Southern California Beach we’d left a month earlier.

Having personally experienced that kind of disconnect , I could easily accept the crew member water skiing behind the boat as they head up river to find Kurtz. No one can be on duty twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year without finding some sort of recreation to break the tension. I wouldn’t even be shocked to find there was a real role model for First of the Ninth Air Cavalry commander Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore, though it’s hard not to see him as a stereotype based on Patton and Custer. For me, the character was too over-the-top to be effective, but the callous arrogance seemed quite familiar.

Luckily, I never went nearly as far up the river, literally or figuratively, as Captain Willard, though it’s easiest to identify with him in the movie. Though he appears crazy in the opening scenes, he seems more and more sane as the movie progresses. You’d have to be a little crazy, in my mind, to have volunteered for more than one tour of duty in Vietnam. Being shot at nearly daily the six months I was there convinced me I could find better places to spend my time.

I don’t think anyone can experience combat, even at the relatively mild level I did, without being changed forever. I remember being glad after I got home that I wasn’t married before I left because the person that came home wasn’t the same person that had left. I casually dated some of the girls I’d known in college before I left, but I never could connect with any of them again. I doubt a wife would have appreciated the month and a half I spent sleeping in the day and thinking at night, trying to sort out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, particularly since earlier goals suddenly seemed trivial, if not meaningless. I wasn’t Captain Willard, but I could easily identify with parts of him.

While in Vietnam I longed for home, but felt strangely disconnected after I returned. In fact, I volunteered to extend my duty so I could stay until my platoon members were scheduled to be relieved. The army wouldn’t allow that; they already had another officer scheduled for my slot, a career soldier who ended up dying with the Battalion on his second tour of duty. I felt guilty about leaving the next six months until everyone I knew had come home and I lost touch with them. Shortly afterward I turned against the war but could never bring myself to join a protest because it felt like a betrayal to those I’d fought with, not to mention to those who’d died while I was there.

You can’t be exposed to the kinds of danger, and horrors, you experience in combat without becoming calloused. One of my platoon’s assignments was to protect the nearby village from Viet Cong attacks. Unfortunately, all the fire we got came from the village itself, though there was no way of telling if it was the villagers themselves that were firing on us or Viet Cong infiltrators. It wasn’t reassuring to discover that the translator we hired from the village was caught by infantry troops while fighting Viet Cong forces. After a few incidents with hand grenades and claymore mines, we were returning fire from the village, even after the priest visited us and reassured us that the villagers were friendly. The only thing I hated worse than the thought of killing an innocent villager was the thought of one of my own men being killed. Thank God I never had to actually attack Viet Cong controlled villages. I do not even want to imagine that. Sadly, I wasn’t too shocked when Captain Willard shot the Vietnamese woman the crew members had wounded.

Even worse, I could identify with Kurtz’s rage when the Viet Cong cut off the arms of children who’d been inoculated with polio vaccine. It’s not hard to imagine how I might have reacted if I’d caught them. I doubt it would have followed Geneva conventions. There’s no better reason to avoid war. I don’t know if you ever escape these changes. I remember when there was a time when a burglar and rapist was making the rounds in a neighborhood where I lived. I didn’t own a gun, but I borrowed one quickly from my brother. Neighbors took turns staying awake, watching each others houses. Some worried about what they would do if they actually had to confront the guy. I had no doubt what I would have done. Once you’ve broken the taboo of trying to kill another human being, you can never go back.

I still can’t imagine anyone I fought with in Vietnam losing it as totally as Kurtz did, or, for that matter, losing it even as much as the troops fighting at the last bridge they cross. The scenes added back to Apocalypse Now Redux seemed so bizarre that I had hard time relating to the movie. I must admit I was much more convinced by the portrayal of Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness than I was by the portrayal of Kurtz in Apocalypse Now.

10 thoughts on “Apocalypse Now

  1. What an amazing read this is, bringing your own first-hand experience of Vietnam right into the heart of the experience of book and film that we can all identify with. I just sat here for a long time thinking after I had read it – not what the blog reader usually does! I don’t know what it felt like to write and post this, but thank you.

  2. Thanks, Jean, but I hope I always try to relate what I read to my own feelings and experiences. I did this earlier when I discussed O’Brien’s Things They Carried.

    It seems to me that the real value of blogs is the personal sharing that we do. If I want hard facts, I still go to the newspapers and magazines, but when I want to know how people really feel about events I always turn to blogs

  3. Yes, exactly, that’s how I feel too, Loren.

    Every time I post a book review, people say ‘this is so personal’ and I think well, um, yes! This is the only thing a blogger can do that is difficult for a professional reviewer to do – no point me doing the same thing they do, but less well.

    Much easier with some topics than others, though!

    • I don’t think I’ve read many “professional” poetry reviews in the last five years, jean. Almost every book I’ve read has come from reading fellow bloggers.

      And, strangely enough, I don’t think I’ve read one book that I haven’t liked on some level.

  4. This writing you’ve done about your experience of war and its aftermath in connection with Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now is vivid and compelling, especially when you wrote that everyone you knew DID come home and that you felt unsettled until you knew that they were all home. I couldn’t help but feel deep relief when I read that they had all come home and experience true understanding when you wrote that you were not the same person as the person your were before you had been in war.

    Two of Richard’s friends visited us in the six months I lived with him after his return from Vietnam. One man (barely 19 and who had lied about his age when he enlisted), was on an R&R and then returned to Vietnam, and Richard never heard from him again. The other man was extremely edgy and vigilant, frequently getting up and looking out the window at any loud sound. He looked haunted.

    Richard said that although he was glad to be home, he missed being with people who, in his words, “understand how things are.” He did lose touch with everyone he had known in Vietnam.

    Because he loved the natural world, I know he would have loved the photographs on your blog as well as your writings about poetry and fiction and films. He would have recognized you as someone who “understands how things are.”

    Since 2001, your blog has been telling a story that no movie has yet told. It has been a huge part of my healing. As always, thank you!

    • To be more exact, everyone in my PLATOON came home, am. Unfortunately I knew far too many people who didn’t come home.

      Luckily, I only felt responsible for those who I commanded, not everyone else.

      I’m sure it was the death of those I knew that created so much of the hatred of the Viet Cong that dominated my life while I was there.

      I don’t think an “Eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is a vey wise philosophy, but, at some level, it does seem hard-wired into us.

      On a more sophisticated level, I guess we choose to call it karma, instead, but the idea seems too similar for my taste.

  5. Just to clarify, I did understand that it was everyone in your platoon that came home, not everyone you knew.

    A dear friend of mine, who is 90 years old and lost her son in Vietnam in 1969, has spoken to me of her experiences with the hatred of the Viet Cong that you speak about, as well as the hard-won ability to deal with it that you also speak about. I think that, too, is hard-wired into us. The ability to overcome (I’m searching for a word, here. Not sure if that is the right word.) hatred so it doesn’t consume the rest of our lives.

    That’s a perceptive connection you made between “An eye for an eye” and the concept of karma, i.e., cause and effect.

  6. I was married to a combat Vietnam veteran- Mekong riverboat patrol- who never completely returned from Vietnam. He believed that Apocalypse Now! was the most accurate portrayal of all the Vietnam-era films made: the intricate weaving of so many of Conrad’s themes wih the mid-century hell endured by so many of his USN comrades and the Vietnamese. Heart of Darkness, for all of its “flaws”, addressed themse that certainly make most people squirm, and for good reason. But, Conrad wrote about apects of human nature, regardless of his reader’s revulsion. For my husband, and for so many, Tim O’Brien’s work decades later served as a literary translator of the devastating trauma inflicted on so many by our multinational policies. For those of us left behind in so many ways-spouses, children, family, friends- such literary and cinematic/visual sense-makers can serve hopefully to re-engage us into societal discourse, instead of leaving us frozen in time and our own grief.
    Thank you, Loren, for addressing issues that might cause your readers to shift in our seats. As with your other posts, and with the efforts of writers worth reading, they aim at truth.

    • I certainly don’t feel capable of speaking for Vietnam vets, but for me Vietnam was a surreal event, one that I was woefully unprepared to face, mostly because my education failed to prepare me for what awaited us. At least Apocalypse Now hinted at some of the realities of war, though by exaggerating the horrors it may well have undermined itself. In that sense, the original cut seemed much more effective than the later Director’s version.

      Sadly, too many high school teachers, particularly history teachers, largely at the urging of parents, fed students overly idealized versions of our history, glorifying war and its results. The study of history should be more than an indoctrination of Patriotism.

What do you think?