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A Review of Chaos and Commitment

  • Jeremy Swanson,
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"I am beyond their timid, lying morality." These words from Apocalypse Now are an appropriate introduction to director Francis Ford Coppola's existential immersion into what he calls a "philosophic inquiry into the mythology of war." The re-release and fleshing-out of Apocalypse Now in Apocalypse Now Redux certainly has improved the flow of this experience and exploration. The question is, what are we experiencing, and why are we (that is, why is Coppola) exploring "the mythology of war" in this manner? What conclusions come from this "philosophic inquiry"?

An effective method used by Coppola in this film is the repeated presentation of contradiction. This repeated presentation of contradiction is intended to shed light on the lies and hypocrisy of the United States government during the Vietnam War. The first presentation of contradiction is seen in the internal contradiction within the main character, Captain Willard. In the first scene of the film, he comments that when he was in Vietnam he wanted to be in America, and when he finally made it back to America, after his first tour, all he could think of was Vietnam. This contradiction ended in a divorce from his wife. And now he was back in Vietnam, waiting to be given a mission, rotting in a hotel room, in inactivity worrying about getting weaker every day while "Charlie" got stronger. After a week in his confined existential agony, laying on his bed, smoking cigarettes, getting drunk, punching and shattering a mirror at the zenith of his desire to overcome Charlie and the tyrant within, Willard is called upon to perform a very special task. His task is to track down and assassinate an Army colonel whose methods have become "unsound," according to the higher ups in the Department of Defense. In his interaction with an Army general and near-silent CIA man, we see another contradiction, that is, the fact that he must lie about the assassinations he has completed even in his associations with some of the highest-ranking government officials, who in his plain sight hold the file that contains all the details of his macabre, but apparently necessary, missions. A further presentation of contradiction is found later in the movie when the Navy patrol-boat Willard is on stops to investigate a Vietnamese boat for possible weapons smuggling. In a disturbing scene of unnecessary and confused carnage, the innocent Vietnamese natives are mowed down in a hail of machinegun fire. Afterward, while continuing up-river, coming closer to the confrontation of the culmination of his commanded assassination of a United States Army officer, reflecting on the fact that he had just executed the last person in the Vietnamese boat with a point-blank pistol shot so that his mission would not be delayed by bringing her to a hospital, Willard comments on the hypocrisy of the officials he is serving: "We cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a band-aid…I am beyond their timid, lying morality."

The more Willard considers the target of his mission, Colonel Kurtz, the more he admires the man. Kurtz used to be an army officer with a perfect record, being cultivated for one of the highest positions in the Department of Defense. All he had to do was to play the game, to be conventional, to maintain his perfect record of legitimacy, of hypocrisy, that is, the hypocrisy made manifest in the command to fighter pilots who dropped skin and organ-melting napalm on women and children that painting expletives on their planes was unacceptable. But this contradiction, this hypocrisy made winning the war impossible. Something consistent "beyond their timid, lying morality" was needed. And Kurtz dwelt on this consistent something "beyond their timid, lying morality." But what was this consistent something? This consistent something, this elimination of lies, hypocrisy, contradiction, was absolute commitment. Absolute commitment was supposed to overcome the contradiction of not being able to paint an expletive on a plane, but allowing that plane to drop lung-melting napalm on women and children. In light of this realization, that is, the experience that man is a rope over an abyss, Kurtz began to conduct operations without official clearance. These unconventional, unauthorized operations, though phenomenally successful, were considered "unsound" because they contradicted convention, restraint, moral judgment. Kurtz's successful operations were "beyond their timid, lying morality" because he did whatever it took (he became radically amoral, "beyond good and evil," if necessary cultivating devilry of every kind, as Nietzsche would say) to defeat the enemy. And he faced the horror of it with a clear mind. Willard admired Kurtz for his consistency, he admired him for promoting that which was necessary for victory, he admired him for not lying. And yet, Captain Willard was being sent on a mission to assassinate Colonel Kurtz. This contradiction made Willard unsure of what he would do when he was finally face to face with Kurtz.

As Willard's existential odyssey continues, we are constantly confronted not only with contradiction and hypocrisy, but also with the incomprehensible chaos of warfare that Coppola presents. Much of the chaos is due to the lack of absolute commitment of the American troops. Instead of being Nietzschean ubermensches, they are Nietzschean lastmen, lacking absolute commitment, being only concerned with beer, bar-b-cues, playboy bunnies, and surfing, not with overcoming the enemy through any means necessary. The chaos of this movie is mind-boggling, indeed, it is a hallmark of the film. From the internal contradiction of Captain Willard (that at times makes him wander around as if in a haze), to the hypocrisy of the policies of the United States Army Generals, to the lastmanish, insignificantly-committed preoccupation of a Colonel of the United States Air Cavalry with surfing over and above the necessary horror of machine-gunning and napalming entire Vietcong villages (which he does every day, almost absentmindedly, while calling them "f…ing savages"), to the chaos of a never-ending midnight battle and the complete insanity of the soldiers at the gateway between Vietnam and Cambodia, one is inexorably drawn into the experience of the "philosophic inquiry into the mythology of war" that Coppola provides. The chaos we experience when immersed in this "inquiry," is due, we are told by a French officer, to the fact that America is fighting for "the biggest nothing in history"; but America could win this "biggest nothing" with absolute commitment. The "timid, lying morality" of the Americans keeps them from absolute commitment, and hence from victory. The French officer (deprived of military victory in Cambodia because of the political hypocrisy of his own government) finds personal justification in the stubborn preservation of his plantation because he has created something from nothing (his plantation), while the Americans are fighting (we assume) for the nothing of some abstract, universal principle. In this (newly added) French plantation scene, we are given "the truth" by a widowed French woman who seduces Captain Willard. The truth has nothing to do with abstract principle, but with personal existence. She says this to him: "You are alive, Captain, that is the truth."

Before we discuss some interesting issues raised by the French widow, let us first explore the ultimate encounter between Colonel Kurtz and Captain Willard. In their ultimate encounter, we find that Kurtz "likes" Willard. Kurtz's appreciation of Willard even allows the latter to complete his mission and kill Kurtz. Willard would not have been able to kill Kurtz unless Kurtz had allowed him to do so, made manifest in the fact that Kurtz kept Willard a weakened prisoner for days, and, more than that, in Willard's words, knew "better what I would do than I knew." But why did Kurtz like Willard? He liked him because the latter came close to possessing the ability to be "moral" and also the ability to face up to "the horror," that is, he possessed the ability to suspend moral judgment and make "moral terror" and "horror" his friend, not being forced to surrender to them as to omnipotent enemies, but able to overcome them and use them through his absolute commitment. Ironically, here lies the greatest contradiction in this movie yet, that is, the contradiction within Kurtz that demands absolute commitment in order to attain victory and overcome the contradiction of a "timid, lying morality." This contradiction is well stated by Dennis Hopper's pot-smoking reporter character who reveres Colonel Kurtz, saying "his mind is clear, but his soul is mad." Somehow, even when one absolutely commits oneself to something beyond a "timid, lying morality,"that is, to whatever means necessitate the victory demanded by that absolute commitment, one is in absolute contradiction. And this absolute contradiction ends in more madness and chaos and death, demonstrated in the death and demonic kingdom of Colonel Kurtz that we see at the end of the film.

What is this absolute contradiction? This absolute contradiction, from man's perspective, is the contradiction between man's natural will and God's will of moral command. Speaking in terms of absolute commitment is speaking in terms of pure human will. The human will flows from the human heart, and the ugliness therein is universal and unfathomable.

In the words of Jeremiah 17:9:

"The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?"

In the words of Romans 3:10-18:

"There is none righteous, no, not one; There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; They have together become unprofitable; There is none who does good, no, not one. Their throat is an open tomb; With their tongues they have practiced deceit; The poison of asps is under their lips; Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; Destruction and misery are in their ways; And the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes."

The human heart hates God, the human heart exalts the human will as the ultimate standard, whether that will is made manifest in a universal system of abstract principles or in an act of existential, nihilistic, self-creation. What is the most fundamental distinction in this life? The most fundamental distinction is submission to or rebellion against God. As David says in Psalm 34, God hears those who draw near to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit. The problem (the problem of the human race!) is that the natural inclination of the human heart is not to submit to God but, rather, to exalt itself in blasphemous pride. The visceral, deceitful nature of this innate, blasphemous pride is demonstrated in the fact that it can exist both in systems of universal principle and in non-universal "systems" of personal commitment. This is why the statement of that widowed French woman to Captain Willard was so thought provoking. We are naked individuals before God, unable to hide in the crowd or in a universal system, unable to somehow slip through the cracks. We are personally accountable. But there does also exist a universal moral law, not dependent on the individual, but dependent on God's will, on the Word of His power.

The problem of humanity is not so much a problem of rational or irrational, universal or particular, as much as it is a problem of the human heart, that is, of simple submission and obedience. Just as the horrific, consistent, Nietzschean, nihilistic absolute commitment of Colonel Kurtz is not humble before God, so the "timid, lying morality" of the United States Army generals and even the humanistic restraint of Coppola's anti-war worldview are not humble before God. Kurtz's absolute commitment is not humble before God because absolute commitment is unabashedly focused solely on the human will, a focus that seeks to overcome "timid, lying morality," a focus that seeks to liberate itself from all moral restraint when this moral restraint contradicts the object of one's commitment. This commitment of Kurtz is more consistent than the "timid, lying morality" of the Army generals, but because it is more consistent, it is that much more contradictory, for the ubermenschean effort to overcome all restraints on the path to the object of one's absolute commitment pits man against God in the most vivid, unblushing manner. In the case of Colonel Kurtz, the first thing to go was God's moral law. While overcoming the lie of timid morality and hypocrisy, Kurtz fell prey to the tyrant within, to the native lie that man is autonomous and all that is needed is absolute commitment. This is the most consistent representation of what (the contradiction that) occurred within man in the Fall and has been driving him ever since.

Absolute commitment, the innate drive to exalt the human will over any timid, lying morality, that is, to exalt the human will over God's will, is a frightening manifestation of a fundamental motivation of humanity. But living this most consistent contradiction for long is impossible. Even Colonel Kurtz, while having a "clear mind," had a "mad soul" (a parallel argument could be made concerning Nietzsche, whose ubermensche Kurtz more than resembles; the only problem is that at the end of his life, Nietzsche's mind was obviously as mad as his soul. Instead of insanely, tormentedly declaring he was the Son of God, Kurtz killed one last victim before essentially killing himself. This still seems more "clear" than claiming to be the One whom one has so vehemently and explicitly denied for a lifetime. Clarity of mind and immorality are not the same thing, for the fundamental source of wickedness is the heart and not the mind as such). Kurtz's absolute commitment, his will to look "the horror" in the face, his will to make moral terror and horror his friend, his desire to overcome judgment with absolute commitment results in the chaotic, gruesome, surreal, unnecessary slaughtering of hundreds of people, and in Kurtz's eventual will to death. The absolute commitment of Kurtz culminates in "consistent" nihilism, just as the partial, timid, lying, hypocritical commitment of the U. S. Army bred chaos and hypocrisy, best demonstrated in the lies of the generals and the neurotic, petty, detached, incomprehensible actions of that insane Colonel of the Air Cavalry.

Coppola's conclusion is pacifism. The "timid, lying morality" of the U. S. Army generals is unacceptable, because, if they were honest and consistent, they would all be like Colonel Kurtz, absolutely committed to an endeavor that looked horror in the face unflinchingly. But this is humanistically unacceptable and apparently impossible to sustain amidst the chaos and carnage that it breeds, so Coppola chooses the opposite of what Kurtz chose, that is, a position that is totally anti-war. But is Coppola's position really the opposite of Kurtz's? Or is his position based on human will? Is Coppola in submission to God? Kurtz absolutely committed himself to military victory. Is Coppola absolutely committing himself to pacifism? If all this comes down to is commitment (human will), then there is no difference between Coppola and Kurtz, and the most amazing contradiction is found within Coppola himself. Indeed, the absolute commitment to pacifism can be even more wicked and deceitful before God's sight, for if it convinces itself that God stands in the way of its humanistic ideal, then it will (and does, because of the wickedness of the human heart) immediately nullify that hindrance. Additionally, this absolute commitment to pacifism is even more wicked and deceitful because it professes the false humanistic dichotomy between "human" and "inhuman," that is, it declares that goodness and morality come from man (as if the "inhuman" carnage of humanity presented by Coppola in his very own movie is not enough to refute this lie!). But if this distinction is based on human will, and not on divine law (love for God), then it is merely a more powerful and subversive self-deceit, used to convince ourselves that we are autonomous, that we are gods. The fundamental self-deceit, contradiction, hypocrisy, here is that the human will is or can be the source of good. But this is a lie! Human will, flowing from the human heart, is evil. In the context of eternity, it matters not if this will manifests itself in a more benign, "rational" manner, or in a more extreme, nihilistic manner. Human will is in rebellion against God. Human will hates God. How clever and ridiculous it is for Coppola to contrast the absolute commitment of Kurtz with his (absolutely committed) pacifism! There is no contrast if they are both based on human will. One commitment is a commitment to winning a war at all costs, while the other commitment is a commitment to preventing war at all costs. If both are based on human will, both hate God, despite their apparently opposite outcomes. One simply prefers the commitment to the preservation of human life at all costs, that is, the belief that this preservation is more conducive to human deification. Ultimately, there is no distinction between human wills besides the distinction of submission or rebellion. And submission is not commitment. Submission is made possible by grace alone, not by any measure of human striving, no matter how "rational" or "irrational." It seems that we are in an age of even greater rebellion than the rebellion of a Colonel Kurtz, for instead of explicitly rejecting His moral law, we are declaring that certain useful elements of His moral law come from us. And yet, this current rebellion is not essentially different from the rebellions of the past, for it is still based on commitment, or human will, which excludes the possibility of submission to God, no matter what vocabulary is used to describe it. And why submit to Him? We are constantly finding better ways to convince ourselves of what that old serpent told Adam and Eve so long ago: "You shall be as God…."

  • Jeremy Swanson

Jeremy Swanson holds a B.A. in political science from Hillsdale College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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