America’s Heart of Darkness

Francis Ford Coppola published his last masterpiece 40 years ago, Apocalypse Now, the most sophisticated cinematic reflection on Vietnam and the problem that war posed for American freedom. Now, it’s again in theaters for this celebration and we have an opportunity to reflect on it, since we have again had serious political problems caused by what seem like unending “small” wars.

It is a remarkable testament to our Founders and to our national character that we have not turned our entire way of life over to war like the Romans did. American power is and has been unparalleled and yet we do not do the destructive things we easily might. But this does not mean that we do not love war at all or that it is not important to our politics.

In some ways, we still define ourselves as the innocent victims of aggression in World War II and therefore the champions of justice, freedom, and democracy. We not only won, we deserved to win, and we didn’t deserve to be involved in the worldwide catastrophe. That is a rare, perhaps unparalleled combination of morality and success. By contrast, Vietnam seems to be the war that put an end to that confidence in our strength and morality.

The war tore America apart. Not only did we not win, but our public authorities—poetic, political, moral—turned against the war. Many famous directors made movies about it, primarily to show the hell of war. They are not without merit, but they do not reach Coppola’s achievement, because they are not able to criticize the war from the Right rather than the Left, and even more importantly, are not able to show the real allure of war.

Maybe America should have won. This is what drives our protagonist, Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen in his best performance. He is a narrator—a character who can reflect on his situation and his own soul. He can learn something that allows him to live with his experience. Apocalypse Now is the story of his desire for victory in Vietnam and therefore the attraction exerted on him by Col. Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando in his last great performance.

Willard is tasked with Kurtz’s assassination, but the more he learns about Kurtz and the more he sees about America’s war in Vietnam, the more he thinks the man might be right. He begins to be divided against himself. Willard gets his sense of dignity by serving his country. He’s only at home at war now; his wife divorced him and he barely noticed. He genuinely believes in America’s cause, when by contrast, the military and political authorities refuse to admit defeat while also denying it can be won.

The film presents Kurtz as the model American officer, a martial aristocrat that succeeded in every institution of military education and volunteered for every dangerous and therefore noble assignment. He is the best of us fighting for the rest of us, but he went insane because his superiors wanted war without victory. Kurtz viewed victory as preferable to obedience and started committing war crimes. He has become the savagery he saw. America made him an enemy to the North Vietnamese Communists, and he in turn became an enemy to all mankind.

To reach Kurtz, Willard endures many great hardships. Ultimately, he confronts the danger that victory means the same thing as brutality. Along the way, Willard meets another superb American soldier, Col. Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall as a combination of Romantic Southern warrior, again recalling aristocracy, and California surfer, recalling a natural pleasure in strife. This man is willing to brave any danger and at the same time turns war into an exercise in American nostalgia—an experience for his men complete with bonfires, guitars, steaks, and surfing. He differs from Kurtz in that he’s found another crazy idea, war as a playground. He, too, has no hope that American authorities have any idea what they’re doing, and fears the war’s end.

The spectacular operational success of Kilgore combined with his obvious love for his men is enough to persuade Willard that war demands far more shocking measures than Kilgore’s. Willard views Kilgore’s war as unserious, because its objectives are frivolities like securing beaches for surfing, not a victory that will return America to peace. They seem fully American only at war, since only there is America defined against an enemy, the Communism of the North Vietnamese. Everywhere else, Americans necessarily disagree and then quarrel politically and in extreme cases even treat each other as enemies.

More, America is civilized, unlike the savage enemy who will do anything, including turning women and children into human sacrifices. Willard witnesses suicide attacks and hears about horrors that show the Communists would rather die fighting than live with defeat. Americans do not know how to fight such an enemy, and the nation went to war in Vietnam without any awareness that the struggle could become total, denying any common humanity.

If American leaders ask their soldiers to fight a just war without the hope of victory, they may conclude that justice is weak or that there is no justice, only deceptions. This is a terrifying position to put soldiers in. Kurtz’s madness is therefore a consequence of his full patriotism. He has no reservations about America and sees that America is now facing total war, not some kind of minor negotiation of positions, territories, advantages, or interests; therefore, he will do anything to win.

But this leads Kurtz to admire the most savage enemies he encounters, since they, too, will do anything to win. He learns to prefer horror to morality, but this separates him from his American family, from the son he can never again hold and who can never learn from him how to be a man and a patriot. Suicide is the only path left open to Kurtz, since he can no longer have the clarity of either victory or defeat.

Willard shares neither the intense personal morality of Kurtz nor the lifelong habits of war—this seems to be why the more democratic man is able to survive this catastrophe when the more aristocratic man is not. Kurtz really is a hero, and America really does produce Pattonesque men who seem supernaturally able to wage war, on whom the rest of us in certain ways depend. But for that reason, such men bear a moral burden the rest of us do not. They have to define themselves as enemies of our enemies without actually being allowed to prefer enmity and martial violence to peace. Americans often love their warriors, but don’t want to believe they could love war itself.

The difficulty of this task is hard to exaggerate. We go to war because of the belief in justice that we live by in peace—but war then demands that we change, that we learn new beliefs, or else we cannot have victory. The more Kurtz sees how savage his enemies are, the more savage he wishes to become as well. He begins to admire, strangely, their commitment, since it is fearless and dedicated, just as he is. Neither will accept defeat. So he sees his chance encounter with the North Vietnamese as a personal destiny—it is his burden to prove that American morality wins eventually.

Apocalypse Now presents us with shocking alternatives. In Coppola’s telling, the American way of war tends toward either incompetence or brutality. We can administer either a bureaucratic war, politically acceptable but strategically doomed, or wage a savage war, guaranteed to win but politically unacceptable. We have faced these alternatives again and again, and generally fail to wage our wars prudently. The question of how to match sanity and victory can be restated as how to be civilized without treating the uncivilized as though they were merely beasts.

Coppola shows us that the Communist North Vietnamese really were a savage enemy. No amount of liberal idealism can dispel that. It is also true that no amount of conservative patriotism can dispel the inner dangers of war—of moving from justice to brutality. As a country, we have survived with our wits because we are rather like Willard, willing to take defeat, willing to make moral claims that aren’t absolute, and willing to admit that chance and the limits of human nature are real. Willard in a way does honor to Kurtz, once he’s dead. He was one of us, and noble, and Willard’s claim seems to be that we ought to learn from his descent into madness.

The unusual criticism of Apocalypse Now is that America wasn’t ready for war. For all the power and all the moral confidence, the tragedy of war, where justice and brutality can become indistinguishable, was not something our elites could contemplate. So Coppola instead appealed to the people—if we can see ourselves, maybe we can accept the limits of patriotism as well as of moral idealism.

In looking to the American people, there may be a way to achieve victory in the future. Coppola and his writer, John Milius, tell us to learn at least from our suffering: They want to honor the soldiers and their cause, and in so doing also understand the dark paths our own hearts might take.

Editor’s Note: Readers interested in a longer discussion of the movie can listen to the author’s podcast on the film.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on November 22, 2019 at 09:43:20 am

Brilliant in every way.

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Douglas Hardee
on November 22, 2019 at 10:24:58 am

Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson should have known better than to get us involved in an Asian land war. We can be thankful that Nixon got us out of the mess quickly and honorably/

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Jacob Shepherd
on November 22, 2019 at 10:51:56 am

The single truest statement on war was Sherman's: War is cruelty and you cannot refine it. A full century before Vietnam and 25 years before Conrad's novel, Sherman had come to the same understanding as Brando's Kurtz had when seeing the pile of little arms. What were the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan or the fire-bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, if not instantiations of this truth? Public opinion in the North in 1864 and in the US in 1944 sustained the necessary practices of cruelty; that of 1969 and 2004 did not.

But the problem with using Heart of Darkness as the template for Coppola's story on Vietnam is that in the novel Kurtz was not a military commander but an agent of a business seeking ivory. The context of Conrad's story was the commercial civilization of Europe encountering the jungles of Africa, and in that context Kurtz could be said to have become immoral and insane. Not so with Brando's Kurtz. Despite General Corman's characterization of him using Conrad's same words, the audience knows that Kurtz in fact is neither insane nor particularly immoral. Commercial exploits can rightly be expected to refine cruelty out of its methods; not so war. You can huff "war crimes" all you like; it is just another band-aid, just another way we have of living with ourselves.

Cruelty in war can be defended as a means of ending the war, and therefore the cruelty itself, in the shortest time possible. Brando's Kurtz spoke the truth when he observed that if he had had 10 divisions of those men, our troubles there would have been over very quickly.

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on November 22, 2019 at 11:38:12 am

Quickly? Hardly. Nixon did an FDR, doubling down on Johnson's feckless policy. Peace with honor was pretty hollow from the South's perspective...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on November 22, 2019 at 12:03:18 pm

--It is also true that no amount of conservative patriotism can dispel the inner dangers of war—of moving from justice to brutality. As a country, we have survived with our wits because we are rather like Willard, willing to take defeat, willing to make moral claims that aren’t absolute, and willing to admit that chance and the limits of human nature are real.--

A morally serious person knows this instinctively from childhood; that sometimes playground etiquette has to be set aside in favor of whatever means are necessary to deal with bullies. The morally serious person, and nation, also knows that employing brutality to as quickly and mercifully destroy an enemy as possible is a necessary evil that does not make one a brute.
Nor have we survived because of those niceties described. In the only two existential wars we have fought we engaged in barbarity because we had to. It is only in brushfire and elective wars like Viet Nam and the Middle East where we are advancing or protecting our interests, not fighting for survival, that we can afford the luxury of morality plays and "taking defeat".
And it is precisely that unseriousness, of the stakes and consequently how we wage war, that makes war truly immoral and barbarous and threatens to make us barbarians. With the exception of treason; fighting a war without the serious intention of winning it, regardless of whatever pious motives are employed, might just be the most immoral and cruel thing a leader of a free nation and the free nation itself can do; both to itself and to its enemies.

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on November 22, 2019 at 18:06:03 pm

I have NEVER understood that movie. But this essay sure describes an interesting movie. Maybe, with the benefit of these insights, I might give it another try.

Thank you.

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on November 23, 2019 at 02:00:51 am

"It is a remarkable testament to our Founders and to our national character that we have not turned our entire way of life over to war like the Romans did. "

You can't be serious... but I'm afraid you do believe this. Which is a testament to the extent of which Americans are kept in a perpetual state of ignorance as to the level of violence perpetrated in their name and with their absconded treasure (and lives and limbs) on nearly every continent on the planet.

I would not blame the Founders, however, whose better intentions have been completely subverted by the venal war mongers who followed.

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on November 23, 2019 at 14:27:23 pm

I was a crew chief on a UH 1 in an assault helicopter company in Vietnam in 1967-8 and I hated Apocalypse Now. I hated almost every scene and almost every line of dialogue. The film’s reality quotient was zero.

Of course AFVN fm was always on one of the channels we monitored through the headset and once it did happen to be playing the Fifth Dimensions “Up, Up and Away in My Beautiful Balloon” as we lifted out of a warmish LZ. But that was as close as it got.

I guess you had to NOT be there to catch the significance of this film.

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on November 24, 2019 at 11:57:09 am

Yup! Luvv'd the last line.

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on November 25, 2019 at 11:28:37 am

“For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.” Ephesians 6:12


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on November 25, 2019 at 13:46:16 pm

In fairness, the movie was not intended as a historically accurate or truthful depiction of the actual Vietnam War. The war was merely a backdrop for the (partial) re-telling of Conrad's tale. Its general condemnatory stance toward the US was certainly in keeping with the prevailing views of our cultural elites, so naturally it takes the place of fact in their brains. I absolutely love the movie though not as a source of facts or an example of realism (it is deliberately surreal, after all). I also love We Were Soldiers (and I read Moore's book), and I believe that many Vietnam vets consider it to be a much more realistic portrayal of that war.

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on November 25, 2019 at 17:39:18 pm

I think it incommensurable to discuss the merit of what purports to be surrealistic art ("Apocalypse Now") by debating the morality of the war (Vietnam) that produced the artist's moral vision (however factually inaccurate the artist's history.) One would not judge the literary merit of Conrad's Heart of Darkness by judging the excremental behavior of King Leopold toward the Congo or of Lord Jim by the accuracy of Conrad's description of colonialism.

But if discussion of art devolves into a debate on the morality of war as surrogate for the merits of art, we should distinguish morally justifiable wars from "bad" wars. As to the former the US has engaged in only 3: the Revolution to ("make America great",) the Civil War (to "make America great again",) and WWII (to keep America great.) I would include in that list of the "good" wars our initial foray to kick Al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan but for the sad fact that, at the time of success, we failed to declare victory and leave. All other wars, most conspicuously those of LBJ and G W Bush, were but IED's on the road to perdition.

As for artistic portrayals of what violence does to man Apocalypse might best be compared to Aguirre, the Wrath of God. As for artistry in portrait of the horror (and heroism) of the Vietnam War I share the opinion of "We Were Soldiers," the book and the film.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on November 26, 2019 at 09:41:01 am

You're back!?!

What did you learn from your time in the wilderness?

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on November 26, 2019 at 13:06:51 pm

QET says: You’re back!?!
What did you learn from your time in the wilderness?

I am not "back," I'm still in the wilderness (a wilderness experience can last from 40 days to 40 years,) and I have learned that life offers us all a wilderness experience, the gift of escape from captivity of the mind and soul, wherein, with God's grace, one must find his own way to the promised land.

Like Joseph, I wish I could blame my jealous brothers, but in fact I sold myself into slavery. My bondage began in early 2018 when I innocently stumbled into L&L's land of intellectual group think. Entering the realm of crypto-Left restraints, I became enthralled by L&L's unique version of "pietas beneficius," one of modern liberalism's pagan idols. My wilderness experience began when I provoked L&L into banishing me from its Empire of the Mind by criticizing the typically-frivolous web post of one of its typically-frivolous senior editors, whereupon, lacking a Moses and any followers, I led an exodus of one toward the promised land.

My reappearance on this site yesterday was fortuitous. I was looking for the extensive (and useful) archives of L&L's Impeachment articles (for obvious reasons) when I hit upon the commentary about "Apocalypse Now,'' one of my favorite surreal films. Like a recovering alcoholic in a bar, a recovering politician with an audience and a recovering lawyer with an argument, I was overcome by my old, bad L&L habit of replying.

La guerre est finie. No more, never. Promise.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on November 26, 2019 at 13:31:41 pm

Don't be so precious. You got past the L&L guards yesterday, so please continue until they stop you again. You're a born polemicist (in the best sense of that word) and we face a dire shortage of good polemicists today. Don't make me send gabe or nobody.really to fetch you.

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on November 26, 2019 at 18:43:04 pm

HaHa your use of the word "precious.'' Not even Tyranus Ex before she became my ex would have called me that. But I get your point, and I want not to be coy. There's not world enough and time for that.

The fact is that FOR ME L&L is of de minimis intellectual significance, politically irrelevant and unduly censorious (censorship constitutes philosophical hypocrisy for them, and I reject it on moral principle.) While it sometimes provides exposure to excellent writers (I could name a half dozen,) L&L never? gives voice to original thinking and only occasionally serves the important online purpose of disseminating purposeful material of high political or cultural quality. L&L is all but devoid of religious content, a literary irony given the essential role of religious faith in the success of Western Civilization and the Founding of American law and liberty. L&L strikes me as politically diffident of offending its clerisy of 19th century classical liberal ideologues; it seems terrified of committing dogmatic heresy by printing, even tolerating, approval of the popular conservatism that now reigns on the American right as reflected in the Trump presidency and constituency.

And FOR ME L&L's commenters are of the same sad stripe, for the most part. You and three or four others remain outstanding intellectual and (to repeat your word) polemical exceptions to that assertion. Your lonely (stoical?) persistence reminds me of what Harvey Mansfield said when asked about being the only conservative on Harvard's Political Science faculty, "Oh, everyone's nice to me; they just don't pay any attention to what I say."

I've got better things to do.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on November 27, 2019 at 12:27:23 pm

QET, I failed to express my gratitude for your kind words. Thank you.

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Pukka Luftmensch
on November 29, 2019 at 11:24:22 am

2d reply to QET:
Everything I said is true about my being booted off this site and my reasons to stay away.
But I reconsidered over Thanksgiving and decided to take your advice, having "got past the L&L guards," to continue until they stop me.

As the retired John Riggins said when he chose to return to the Washington Redskins, "I'm bored, I'm broke, and I'm back."

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Pukka Luftmensch
on December 01, 2019 at 14:17:39 pm

And speaking of the Heart of Darkness (no, not Hillary or Barack,) Adam Schiff has now handed his "Conrad/ Colonel Kurtz/Get Shorty/The Joker" script to Jerry Nadler for further editing (from parody in the Committee on UnIntelligence to buffoonery in UnJudiciary.) Chairman Nadler, having publicly declared his intention to impeach Trump as early as November 2018 (when he also said he was "all in" on the Russia Collusion Conspiracy hoax,) has scheduled for next week a focus-group-tested, talking-points-scripted, Democrat-staff-rehearsed panel of Leftist LawProf's (they're everywhere, they're everywhere!) to enlighten the nation on the constitutional bases for impeachment and the founders' intention in using the terms "high crimes and misdemeanors." Does anyone doubt the platitudinous lines of that soap opera?

L&L's archive on the matter might be thought useful background reading in preparation for next week's travelling road show. Consider that the most valuable portion of the L&L archive is Keith Wittington's cautionary note. Otherwise the relevant portion of the archive is comprised largely of Professor Paulsen's myriad articles offering an exhausting veneer of scholarship in defense of a very broad conclusion (more or less) that the House may impeach and the Senate convict a ham sandwich and that putative matters of defense (like let the people at the voting booth decide) are of no avail to the sandwich.

I consider as more useful than Paulsen's guidance Hamilton's words, the legal precedents of the impeachments of Warren Hastings and Bill Clinton, and Raoul Berger's book.

Those matters are the historical events most contemporaneous with the founding or most pertinent to today's impeachment deliberations and, thus, should constitute the most important factors in today's application of the constitution's original meaning as to impeachable offense.

Uppermost among the matters and motivation of Burke’s years’ long investigation of and speeches against Hastings and the legal grounds for Burke’s articles of impeachment against Hastings are natural law concepts of injustice and legal concepts of public morality, including maladministration of the public’s affairs, abuse of the public’s trust, subversion of the system of government, oppression of the ruled by their rulers and unjust self-enrichment.

Berger's book on impeachment concludes that while the constitution does not require an indictable crime for impeachment and while “high crimes and misdemeanors” is much more than mere misconduct, the grounds for presidential impeachment, nevertheless, are limited: misapplication of funds, abuse of official power, neglect of duty, encroachment on legislative prerogatives and corruption.

BTW: Raoul Berger's extraordinary works are ignored these days to our peril. Stephen Presser implied as much in his Liberty Classics paean to the man wherein he described Berger as "... the most important and daring voice in favor of an originalist approach to the Interpretation of the Constitution in the last third of the twentieth century." https://www.lawliberty.org/liberty-classic/the-coming-resurrection-of-raoul-berger-a-remembrance-of-government-by-judiciary/

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Pukka Luftmensch
on May 26, 2020 at 04:30:00 am

[…] like Coppola could see that progressive liberalism was beginning to crack. He ended the decade with Apocalypse Now, where the liberal way of war appears as insane. Something more is needed than institutions that […]

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