‘Apocalypse Now’ and The Green Beret as Saint and Sinner

I harbor little love or respect for Hollywood or it’s spawn, but I can still appreciate movies as an art form and how they often point to literary works, pieces of history and culture, that are worth remembering. Take “Apocalypse Now,” for example. Through that one film—lauded as one of cinema’s best, yet tiresome and full of itself—are signposts to pivotal U.S. and Southeast Asian military history and our more Godly written heritage.

If this is not the first time you’ve seen a recent reference to “Apocalypse Now,” welcome to our new collective consciousness. I just saw a Chris Muir Day By Day cartoon that plays on a Colonel Kilgore (get it? kill-gore) line, and let’s face it—he got all the good lines. If you aren’t familiar with Muir, he visited Iraq and was embedded in Mosul for five days. The strip is conservative-libertarian, but definitely not safe for work or little ones, especially during fundraising time when pitches for donations go up and cartoon clothes come off.

20th Special Operations Squadron Green Hornets on alert at Ban Don, South Vietnam, July 1970.
U.S. Air Force UH-1P Huey helicopters from 20th Special Operations Squadron Green Hornets on alert at Ban Don, South Vietnam in July, 1970. The aircraft were used to covertly insert reconnaissance teams, including indigenous people such as the Hmong, to points along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and Cambodia. Credit: (U.S. Air Force photo, public domain)


Back to “Apocalypse Now.” Let’s first dispel with a few cursory problems with this acid trip of a movie. Yes, drugs were a problem for many soldiers during Vietnam, but not every soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine was baked out of his gourd or tripping, and not every officer was MIA. Not every young man behind a gun was incapable of following even the simplest of orders; apparently self-discipline isn’t instilled at La-La-Land basic training. Hollywood only ever snaps a chin strap to imply a soldier is wound too tight. In addition to some psychedelic classics, mostly by The Doors, the music in “Apocalypse Now,” as in many other movies about the Vietnam war, is annoyingly half-Asian, half-horror. At over three hours long, the Final Cut version, which is director Francis Ford Coppola’s favorite, is long and self-indulgent. That said, it’s still worth a reviewing in light of today’s events.

Essentially, we have a MACV-SOG operative, Captain Willard, with post-traumatic stress disorder played by an alcoholic Martin Sheen, who had a real-life breakdown and heart attack during filming. Sheen punches a real mirror in the early part of the film and then proceeds to smear blood on himself. The scene, perhaps unintentionally, echoes Doors frontman Jim Morrison’s drug-fueled cutting sessions during sex and foreshadows animal sacrifices later in the film. Coppola knew Morrison, who died long before filming began in 1977. And hey, did you know that Morrison was the son of an…wait for it…intelligence officer, as was Frank Zappa and a host of others? Hmmm. Regardless, it’s an opening that’s fittingly insane for the movie’s themes.

Willard cleans up well and is given an assignment to assassinate a rogue Green Beret colonel named Kurtz, who has gone mad and whose methods have become “unsound.” Note a young Harrison Ford giving Willard his orders, and the CIA agent only punctuating the conversation with “terminate with extreme prejudice.” The best parts of the movie, in my opinion, consist of Willard reading the Kurtz dossier as he makes his way up river in a Navy river patrol boat and how his thought pattern evolves as he learns each new piece of information about Kurtz. But that’s what made Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” so intriguing, too, the intermingling of opinions of those who thought the mysterious Mr. Kurtz crazy or a genius. Coppola based his movie on “Heart of Darkness” and was livid when Marlon Brando showed up on set without having read the novella.

Brando hardly resembled a Green Beret who’d been living with natives for any period of time. He was as physically unprepared for the role as he was with lines or source material. He was so overweight that he was only filmed from afar—in incongruous foot gear, I might add—or in dark shadow. The first assassin sent by regular Army to kill Col. Kurtz was Lieutenant Colby, who ended up joining Kurtz’s band. I didn’t recognize Scott Glenn as Colby, but he was certainly fit enough to to pull it off, and mercifully all his heavy-handed dialog was deleted from The Final Cut. Unfortunately, Coppola’s true feelings about Special Forces is less-than-subtly revealed by the blood on Colby’s hand. Colby, as in former CIA director William Colby? Sort of like Bill Colby has blood on his hands for the Phoenix Project’s rape, torture, and murder of civilians? What if the civilians supported the enemy? What if an electromagnetic version of that program is being executed against conservative Americans today?

When the RPB, its crew, and Willard arrive at Kurtz’s compound, it looks like a cross between the native set in every King Kong movie and every painting inspired by the seven layers of hell, plus purgatory, in Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy.” In fact, the ash-covered natives that part their canoes to let the RPB through are reminiscent of the souls on the shores of Mount Pergatorio who were excommunicated or repented late in life without receiving last rites. As Martin Luther made crystal clear, purgatory is not in the bible and no church has the right to charge people exorbitant fees on the grounds that prayers with a donation will get their family members out of purgatory more quickly. That whole racket is called usury and is why Luther’s Protestant Reformation and return to the bible was so successful and lasting. That being said, it’s clear that Willard and the RPB crew are entering a dangerous place for their souls.

It’s the N’awlins saucier who has some of the some of the most prescient lines in the movie, most notably: “Never get out of the boat.” When he sees all the dead bodies strewn about and hanging from limbs, and decapitated heads scattered hither and yon, he doesn’t hesitate to pronounce Kurtz crazy, and wisely suggests they go back to the boat. Graciously, although you sense Willard wants to continue on, he agrees to go back to the boat for a while. Chef, played by Frederic Forest, aka Blue Duck in “Lonesome Dove,” declares that what they just witnessed was straight-up pagan idolatry. He’s not afraid of skulls and alters, he says, but he’s afraid of dying someplace where his soul can’t make it to heaven.

There’s just one pesky problem with the presentation of this movie: history. “Heart of Darkness” is about a Londoner who secures a position with a company that trades in ivory and lesser goods in the Congo Free State. The best ivory trader of them all is Kurtz, who mans the last station at the end of the Congo River. Throughout the story, the narrator, Marlow, learns more and more about Kurtz as he travels the river deeper and deeper into the jungle. He is supposed to rescue Kurtz, who is ailing, and who the boss would like to undermine with removal. Kurtz has established himself as a demigod among the locals.

Willard is a on a similar journey up a river, farther and farther into a jungle, not to rescue, but to kill a man who has set himself up as a demigod among the natives. No wonder the Army would not lend equipment to this movie; sanctioning even a film depiction of killing a colonel is a bit much even for regular Army with is jealousy of Special Forces. Though it wasn’t above setting up SF officers as patsies. The truth of the matter is that Green Berets and CIA operatives practically fought the Vietnam war singlehandedly, and I do not say that lightly. In 1962, when politicians agreed not to enter “neutral” Laos or Cambodia, the North Vietnamese had been running supplies via the Ho Chi Minh trail for 5 years—5 years! By 1968, another 6 years later, let’s just say they had the kinks worked out, with multiple trails into Vietnam to resupply the NVA and Vietcong so they could continue to slaughter our men. They also had Chinese and Russian backing. We were in a proxy war with China and Russia. Our own government put our men into a meat grinder and then told them they weren’t allowed to fight the war to win.

Thank God that the CIA and SF ran missions into Laos and Cambodia, because if they hadn’t we would have lost even more men. Let’s face it, MACV-SOG guys were gods, at least to those of us who understood what they sacrificed and why, or have since come to research what they did. They suffered an over 100 percent casualty rate. They often stopped paperwork for Purple Hearts because, if they lived, they were often repeatedly wounded and it became embarrassing. They knew they were compromised, and nobody would do a dang thing about it—until someone did something about it. Green Beret Colonel Robert Rheault took command of 5th Special Forces Group in May 1969 and was charged with finding and stopping the leaks. The short version is that a South Vietnamese double agent was executed and Rheault and six of his SF officers were charged with murder. The public knew they were being scapegoated, and the Army’s case fizzled, though the officers’ careers were dead-ended.

Espionage is dangerous work in wartime, and being a double agent is even more dangerous. It’s easy to point to the Geneva Convention and the proper handling of prisoners of war. Kurtz’s story parallels Rheault’s, and Willard says it best when he learns that the leaks stopped: “I guess he got the right guys.” But the truth is never enough for Hollywood. If Rheault had one spy killed, Kurtz terminated four. If ears were severed to prove body counts and to run psychological operations on an enemy who believed he couldn’t get to heaven if he didn’t die with all of his body parts, then Hollywood went with Green Berets torturing the living and mutilating the dead indiscriminately. If the Hmong were happy to help MACV-SOG because they were rabidly anti-communist and just wanted the NVA to leave them alone, then Hollywood must imply that the natives were taken advantage of by megalomaniacs. Coppola, as part of the New Hollywood, had to knock the John Wayne image of the Green Berets off its pedestal. But the men involved in Vietnam’s secret war in Laos and Cambodia knew that if South Vietnam fell to communism, all of Southeast Asia would also fall under China’s direct control. They were actually brave enough to try to do something about it.

When Willard finally meets Kurtz, there’s a nod to spycraft hiding openly in a conversation about where Willard is from that I found rather sweet. Then there’s the not-so-sweet psyop that Kurtz runs on Willard using both physical and psychological torture, followed by days of poetry-reading kindness that will compel Willard to tell the world the truth about Kurtz and thereby men like him. Kurtz wants to be killed so he can go out like a soldier instead of as a renegade. Cue the simultaneous animal sacrifice and assassination. Kurtz is right, but by being right he’s caught up in going too far and must be sacrificed to save us all. Can’t we skip the reoccurring Christ-figure references and just stop the wars long enough to dry up funding to the military industrial complex so good men aren’t turned into monsters in the course of fighting evil?

When Willard faces the same temptation that undid Kurtz, namely the worship of the people, he lays down his weapon and walks away. And perhaps in the the most tender moment in the movie, he finds the surfer, the one who rides the waves of the ocean’s surface, never going too deep, and pulls him out of the crowd, leading him back to the boat by the hand. If a brother does too many drugs and goes native, you still don’t leave him behind with the idolaters.

It’s annoying that Coppola, a lifelong Democrat, had to go so over the top in characterizing Kurtz. Although Willard’s reading of the dossier shows how superior Kurtz was as a Green Beret, the insanity Willard confronts cannot be countered by a reading aloud of “The Hollow Men” by T.S. Eliot, or showing the books that inspired the poet to write “The Wasteland.” “The Hollow Men” are men without souls and because of their lack of morally-driven action, they and the world ends with whimper and not a bang. In both “Apocalypse Now” and “Heart of Darkness” Kurtz’s end sentiment toward the indigenous people is to wipe them out. In The Final Cut, however, Willard shuts off the radio and the air strikes never come. While Conrad was commenting on the brutality and racism of the ivory trade and colonialism overall, Coppola is trying to apply the same sort of militaristic imperialism to Green Berets during the Vietnam war. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Everything I read and hear confirms that everyone involved in MACV-SOG had nothing but respect, admiration, and genuine love for the Montagnards and especially the Hmong. The CIA claims that it offered the Hmong the chance to move to the U.S., but that the mountain natives naively believed they would be able to return to their former lives. They have been sorely mistaken. You know who, as of 2010, was still fighting the communists in Laos? Yup, the Hmong. They were left with no choice but to either escape to Thailand or take to the hills with their CIA-supplied weapons from the war to continue fighting for their lives. Not only has the Laotian government hunted them down for eradication, but over 4,000 Hmong were forcibly returned to Laos from Thailand. When CIA veterans returned to Laos and tried to visit the Hmong, they were brought to other native tribes that were pro-communist during the war. These veterans will never be allowed to visit their Hmong brothers.

The Final Cut includes an overly long waylay at a French plantation. The French soldiers who work and defend the plantation fought at Dien Bien Phu and claim that the slaughter was a voluntary loss by the French. When they accessed their grenades, slips of paper would fall out saying that the people at home were for the Viets and the grenades would not work. I could not verify that, but it seems like France had communists at home to deal with as much as we did—and do. At one point, Willard is shown a plaque that lists the names of the fallen. It says that six Americans died at Dien Bien Phu. Willard is momentarily confused, and the French officer says it must be a mistake. Viewer: You have just learned that the CIA was active in an advisory role during the Indochine wars. Willard then spends the night with one of the French women, who feeds him a pipe of thuoc lao (drug of Laos), which she used to make for her now-dead soldier husband, “a morphine for what hurt his soul.” She’s heavy on the “man is both demon and god, killer and lover” talk for anyone who hasn’t already picked up on the good and bad inside us all. She tells Willard that all that matters is that he’s alive. You can’t fight if you’re dead, so I guess she has a point.

Since its inception, the CIA has been despised by presidents, manned by elites, and populated with people who understand the ground truth of war often better than the military itself. The intelligence community’s involvement in imposing our digital surveillance state is a human rights violation of the highest order. And yet, if there are any moral men left and they can walk away from the siren’s song of playing god, maybe, just maybe, they can guide us out of here, out of this technocratic tyranny we’re headed for and straight out of the jaws of communism and into the lifeblood of liberty.

“SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam” by John L. Plaster is essential reading, if not for mental tactics for use in today’s 5th generation war, for an understanding of mindset and ground truth. But even just searching on YouTube, you will find interviews and podcasts with commandos, and listening to their stories is well worth your time because courage is contagious. If we can absorb even some of their mental resilience against such overwhelming odds, we will be better for it.

In “Apocalypse Now” we know that Kurtz is married and has a son. He wants Willard to visit his family and explain to his boy what his father tried to accomplish in the war. Kurtz’s last words are of course, “The horror, the horror.” In “Heart of Darkness,” Kurtz’s last words are exactly the same, only when Marlow visit’s Kurtz’s fiancé, he tells her that Kurtz’s last words were a repetition of her name. She would have been crushed and would not have understood anything about “the horror,” so Marlow showed mercy to her by lying. The public, including many politicians, cannot fathom “the horror,” so we continue to sacrifice our men on the battlefield and at home. If we have any chance of surviving as a civilization, we’re going to need more of us to face the truth of the horrors and push back legally and peacefully against every trampling of our freedom. Staying alive, celebrating our heritage—including the men of MACV-SOG—and living a parallel life of freedom in a world of tyranny is the only way we’ll make it. If we ask them to stop lying to us, we better steal ourselves for the full horror of the truth.

Kurtz wrote to his commanders that as long as the war was being fought in one-year rotations, the Americans would be “dilettantes in war and tourists in Vietnam.” Charlie had only two options: win or die. A few men with that type of mentality would have won the war in Vietnam with far fewer troops and losses and in far less time. But our politicians and bureaucrats didn’t have the stomach for what needed to be done to secure victory. The French soldiers at the plantation said as much: You Americans could win this war. If more people understood the nature of the war we face today, and if enough were rowing in the same direction, then maybe this nation could be reborn on its founding principles of national liberty and individual freedom.

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