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.