"I've seen horrors... horrors that you've seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that... but you have no right to judge me. It's impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror... Horror has a face... and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces... seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn't see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember... I... I... I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn't know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it... I never want to forget. And then I realized... like I was shot... like I was shot with a diamond... a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God... the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men... trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love... but they had the strength... the strength... to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral... and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling... without passion... without judgment... without judgment! Because it's judgment that defeats us." - Marlon Brando portraying Colonel Walter E. Kurtz in Apocalypse Now
Colonel Kurtz was once considered a model officer, on track to become a general. The military brass concluded that Kurtz had gone insane. He had gone rogue. He commanded his own troops of natives deep in the jungles of Cambodia. They worshipped him like a god. The military brass dispatch Captain Benjamin Willard to terminate Kurtz' command, with extreme prejudice. Kurtz was a symbol of American imperialism. American leaders decided the way to stop communism was to dispatch 553,000 American men to a godforsaken hell on earth in order to spread democracy. This pointless effort cost American families over 58,000 dead boys and another 150,000 wounded. Kurtz was right. The North Vietnamese lost 1.2 million dead and 600,000 wounded, but their willingness to do anything to drive out the imperialist invader led to ultimate victory. Colonel Kurtz understood that severe brutality and lack of moral qualms is the only way to confront an enemy defending its homeland. Reason, humanity, and morality would insure defeat.
Francis Ford Coppola's epic Vietnam War film Apocalypse Now is a parable of imperialism, evil, madness and human darkness. Coppola's script was based upon Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness. The book and the movie follow a world weary, skeptical, cynical character in his search for the truth about Kurtz, an evil genius. A long slow boat ride through dangerous dark jungles represents a path from civilization to madness. The book explores European colonial imperialism in the Congo, while the movie explores U.S. interventionist imperialism in Vietnam. The themes of hypocrisy, imperialism, evil, and human madness were pertinent in the 1800s, the 1960s, and today. In the book, the main characters work for a Belgian trading company who conquer the "savages" of Africa to "harvest" ivory and rubber for sale in "civilized" Europe. Native laborers who failed to meet rubber collection quotas were often punished by having their hands cut off by their Belgian saviors. In the movie, the main characters work for the U.S. military, who conquer the "savages" of Vietnam to "save" them from communism and "civilize" the jungles by napalming them. Today, the neo-cons who have captured the foreign policy of the U.S. are conquering the "savages" of the Middle East in order to secure oil while making their countries "safe" for democracy. The book is considered a masterpiece. The movie is considered a near masterpiece. The lessons from both are applicable today.
The Hypocrisy of Imperialism
"The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness." Joseph Conrad
"In fourteen years Leopold has deliberately destroyed more lives than have suffered death on all the battlefields of this planet for the past thousand years. In this vast statement I am well within the mark, several millions of lives with the mark. It is curious that the most advanced and most enlightened century of all the centuries the sun has looked upon should have the ghastly distinction of having produced this moldy and peity-mouthing hypocrite, this bloody monster whose mate is not findable in human history anywhere, and whose personality will surely shame hell itself when he arrives there--which will be soon, let us hope and trust." Mark Twain
"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty." John F. Kennedy
"It is an enduring American principle that this duty obligates the government to anticipate and counter threats, using all elements of national power, before the threats can do grave damage. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively in exercising our inherent right of self-defense." George W. Bush
The rhetoric used in the 1800s to justify imperialism was inherently racist. In Conrad's novel, the men who work for the Company describe what they do as "trade," and their treatment of native Africans is part of a benevolent project of "civilization". The hypocrisy of the "civilized" Europeans is clear from their acts of torture, cruelty, and near-slavery inflicted upon the natives in the name of enlightening them. Heart of Darkness opens with Marlow on a boat on the Thames River in London as the day turns from dusk to darkness, telling the story of his adventure up the Congo River in search of the mysterious Kurtz. He begins by comparing how the Roman Empire must have treated the uncivilized British savages in ancient times exactly like the Belgians were treating the uncivilized African savages in the Congo. Imperialistic extension of power by emperors, kings, presidents, and generals has been a policy extending across centuries. As he winds his way up the Congo River on his steamship, Marlow witnesses native inhabitants of the territory being compelled into the Company's service, and they experience unbearable ill treatment at the hands of the Company's agents. The cruelty and squalor of imperial enterprise contrasts harshly with the impassive and magnificent jungle that engulfs the white man's colonies, making them appear to be small islands amid an immense darkness.
King Leopold II of Belgium systematically raped and pillaged the Congo, stealing their rubber and ivory in the late 1800s. In 1891, Leopold issued a decree giving him absolute power over the rubber and ivory trade. The decree imposed a tax on Leopold's Congo subjects requiring local chiefs to supply men to gather rubber. It obliged inhabitants to supply these products without compensation. The genocide scholar Adam Jones comments that "the result was one of the most brutal and all-encompassing corvee institutions the world has known...Male rubber tappers and porters were mercilessly exploited and driven to death." Leopold's agents held the wives and children of these men hostage until they returned with their rubber quota. Those who refused or failed to supply enough rubber had their villages burned down, children murdered, and hands cut off. Conrad notes the hypocrisy of this brutality by portraying the Company men describing their task as benevolence towards the natives. In truth, the Africans were just objects to be used by Europeans in their quest for booty. The novel essentially dehumanizes a whole race, treating them as less significant than the white man
Francis Ford Coppola captured the essence of Conrad's novel and also encapsulated the spirit of the country in 1979. The movie was filmed at the very end of the 2nd Turning Awakening period as the enthusiasm of the 1960s had waned and had left the old cultural regime fully discredited, internal enemies identified, comity shattered, and institutions delegitimized. The Vietnam War was being reassessed with a dose of brutal realism as other anti-war films like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home were released in 1978. The movie opens with Captain Willard (the Marlow character) being dispatched by the Army brass up the Nung River to find Colonel Kurtz and terminate his command. The American military had dispatched over 500,000 young men into the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia in their game of communist containment with the Soviet Union and Communist China. Making the world safe for Democracy was the cause employed to rationalize slaughtering millions of inhabitants in Southeast Asia. The war to liberate Southeast Asia from communism resulted in the deaths of 3.5 million Vietnamese, 2 million Laotians & Cambodians, and 58,000 Americans. Rather than raping and pillaging the lands for its resources, the American military napalmed its jungles, carpet bombed its cities, defoliated the jungles with 20 million gallons of herbicides (including Agent Orange) and slaughtered women and children (My Lai Massacre). It was easy to rationalize these acts when referring to the inhabitants as gooks, dinks, tunnel rats, and Uncle Ben's boys. Racism makes it easy to treat human beings as objects and dehumanize your acts of horror. Coppola's movie addresses the absurdity of the war by highlighting that ordinary everyday life of the United States, symbolized by the picnic settings in a war zone and surfing in the midst of a battle, is incongruous with the atrocities that the war creates.
The current imperialistic ventures of the U.S. Empire are centered in the Middle East. The rationale for the current occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, used to sell the American public, is the war on terror. We are making the Middle East safe for Democracy, just like Vietnam. The accurate nature of the conflict revolves around oil, the lifeblood of American suburban sprawl culture. The truth is that the imperial rulers of the empire have ignored America's imminent energy crisis for decades and must now secure the precious barrels of lifeblood from the Middle East. While "liberating" the Iraqi people with cruise missiles, tanks, and B1 bombers they have managed to kill at least 250,000 Iraqi natives in their own country. The neo-cons who launched this war of choice view dead Iraqi women and children as collateral damage in their imperial quest to secure their black gold. This is easy to do when you treat those you are liberating in a racist manner. When you refer to people as dirty Arabs, box-cutters, terrorists and sand niggers, it is effortless to dehumanize them. The hypocrisy of spreading democracy by invading a sovereign country under false pretenses seems to not bother a vast swath of the American public.