Friday, June 1, 2012
(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2004)
Within a couple of days I read several articles which, in trying to grapple with the war in Iraq, cited either Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness or the movie it inspired, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Coppola’s film, a vastly complex and committed epic, seems a useful reference point to me as well in contemplating a war that, even more than any war, strains our frames of reference. As I write, it seems that almost nothing definitive can be said about it, whether about its past, present or future. As the uncertainty over its course remains profound, the official version of its genesis shifts – winding from weapons of mass destruction to a broader notion of freedom and stability which now itself seems to be defined in ever decreasing increments. The abuse of the Iraqi prisoners is officially an aberration, no matter the accumulation of evidence; but there seems to be little official interest in understanding the nature of the aberration, perhaps because of political expediency, or perhaps because it seems inherently beyond understanding.
Which indeed it is, if your view of America is that idealistic. For the rest of us, possessing even the faintest intuitive grasp of the arrogance of the conqueror, of the incendiary possibilities of boredom and hazy purpose backed up with official nods and winks, of the unquestioning sense of entitlement that seems to be replacing virtuous endeavour as the real American dream, the abuse may not seem quite so mysterious, not that this renders it less depressing. And I didn’t even mention simple racism.
For now, most people don’t think that Iraq is another Vietnam, which seems reasonable measured by geographic differences and by the simple point that the US can theoretically, for now, get out of Iraq faster than they ever thought they could in South east Asia. But each was an avoidable quagmire (of various kinds), prompted by stupidity, ideology, hubris, fear (take your pick) masquerading as policy. Personally, while acknowledging that the death toll and atrocities recorded in Vietnam far outweighed anything accumulated in Iraq so far, I find it easier (albeit with hindsight and based on no first hand knowledge) to accept the Vietnam war – at least the idea of it – as a consequence of its time. The nearness in time of World War Two and the Cuban missile crisis, in a Cold war environment, in a world not even that securely installed in the modern industrial age, let alone our own high-communication iteration of it, seems to me to have had better reasons for obsessing about geopolitical footholds.
With Iraq, none of that seems to apply. For every rationale handed out in a sound bite at one time or another, you can throw out a counterexample that merely underlines the arbitrariness of the project. Weapons of mass destruction – so why not North Korea? Mistreatment of Iraqi people – so why not Zimbabwe or a dozen others? And that doesn’t address the so-called policy goals that were hurt by the war (a stable economy; the broader imperatives of international cooperation) but for which the positives were meant to be so overwhelming as to sweep them aside.
Reading and watching about the Vietnam war, you get an impression of sprawling chaos in which individual pockets of soldiers constantly found themselves alone, abandoned in the jungle, lacking a strategic or perhaps even an actual compass. This doesn’t seem to be physically the case in Iraq (a problem with dismissing as an aberration anything that individual soldiers might do), but everything you read about it transmits a sense of rootlessness and confusion.
To return to where I began, and to the fact that this is a movie column after all, I watched Apocalypse Now again this week, in the expanded Redux version that came out a couple of years ago, and found that it took on even greater resonance in the light of current events. In its longer version, the film seems more digressive and confused and to sacrifice some focus, but I take that as a good thing to the extent that it better sets the stage for the famous confusion of the final stretch, where Martin Sheen’s Willard fulfills his mission to kill the errant colonel Kurtz, but while denying the film any true sense of resolution, even less of clarity.
The film’s most famous sequence remains that with Robert Duvall as the semi-crazed, surf-obsessed Kilgore, with his famous “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” line. Indeed that section of the movie, logistically brilliant and visually almost overwhelming, is a devastating depiction of war’s skewed perspectives and motivations. It’s one of the film’s most ambiguous stretches in that it would be easy to mentally relax and let the spectacle wash over you, losing the skepticism that the film so assiduously promotes elsewhere – presumably this temptation is part of Coppola’s method, and it’s hard to imagine he didn’t somewhat succumb to it himself. The sequence with the command-less soldiers on the bridge, spiraling into utter madness, is a more direct illustration of how the war degrades the warriors; other scenes, often perversely idiosyncratic (especially the ones that were cut from the original version) seem intended to create a near atlas of war’s irrational consequences.
And then there’s that ending, where Sheen finds Marlon Brando set up in the jungle with his own mini kingdom, having tapped some sort of magic that allows him to appear godlike both to the natives and to the few Americans who hang around there, seeing profundity in his every mumbled utterance. It’s too pat to say that Kurtz has renounced his past actions and American ideology – his uniform and medals are still on display, and his calculated grandeur exhibits some variation on imperialism. The ending seems rather like an exercise in complexity for its own sake – having traveled all the way up the river, exhausting the catalogue of atrocities and excesses, Sheen finds a new paradigm that dwarfs his understanding, so that he seems merely to sag, becoming an easy prisoner (his traveling companion Frederic Forrest denounces Brando’s kingdom as “pagan idolatry,” as though everything we’ve witnessed to that point were somehow righteously Christian).
Of course, Brando himself is central to the way this works. In the same week I watched Apocalypse Now, I also rewatched Last Tango in Paris, an even more starling example of how his acting exposes great trauma both personal and political. His role in Apocalypse Now doesn’t have quite that scope, but watching it now, it seems more apposite than ever. The most insulting aspect of the war is surely the refusal by Bush and his minions (other than an increasingly distanced Colin Powell) to admit the complexity that Coppola’s film embraces, not just in the basic sense of admitting mistakes were made, but in acknowledging any affinity for fault lines and implications that might not fit on a flowchart. Like the slightly sinister superiors who send Martin Sheen on his mission, they see war as a linear thing, where every bend can always be quickly ironed out, allowing the resumption of the straight line.