I watched Apocalypse Now recently. It stood the test of time. If anything, this epic of cinematic poetry was all too relevant.
Like any great poem it contained heightened moments of insight - even exaggeration - yet the spine was always clear: we did not belong in Vietnam. Line by line Coppola’s ode to dislocation, dementia and destruction highlighted our effect on Vietnam and, unfortunately, Vietnam’s lack of effect on us.
One of the most incongruous images is the blown-out wall of an old French cathedral etched against the tropical sky. Who blew it up – Christian American B-52’s or Marxist atheist Vietcong? It hardly matters.
This image, strangely, brought to mind the shattered gothic wall that remained standing in the pit after the collapse of the Trades on 9/11.
For me Apocalypse Now is always twinned with Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American. I’ve never seen the movie version, though I’m told it’s very good. There’s little need for it, however, as Greene’s graphic story unreels like a film, chilling in its warning of what happens when cultures and moralities clash, and prophetic in its vision of the effect of intrusive do-gooders on ancient societies.
The jungles have all but swallowed up the hulks of armored vehicles and unexploded bombs, the last vestiges of our influence in Vietnam. Still, all is not lost; the marines of commerce are already stealthily infiltrating Ho Chi Minh City. It’s a lot easier - and more profitable - to peddle cell phones and hamburgers than to prop up corrupt governments.
And what effect did Vietnam, Greene or Coppola have on the DC politicians and West Point generals who dictate American foreign policy? Very little, it would appear.
It’s been one war after another, some justified, the rest as unnecessary as Vietnam. The DC pols and military brass have adapted though. They figured out that demobilizing legions of damaged draftees back into the heartland wasn’t such a good idea.
Better off isolate the whole thing – get a volunteer army to bear the brunt of the fighting; hey, they joined up - it’s their war.
And get someone else to pay for it – preferably, the next generation. Don’t raise taxes – does anyone doubt that these foreign adventures would be over by Monday if we had to pony up for them.
Each war is different but our enemies are bolstered by two principles – patriotism and ideology/religion. In Vietnam, it was the desire of the Vietnamese people to finally end colonialism and unite the country; there was Marxism at play too but as ever Karl’s theories take a back seat to nationalism.
Let’s not even deal with the disaster of Iraq – just declare victory and get the hell out. Shell has nailed down the big petroleum fields around Basra, and the Kurds will eventually deliver oil rich Kirkuk. Shiite nationalists will deal with any remnants of Al Qaeda. What’s there to hang around for?
But the rocky slopes of Afghanistan are a whole different ballgame. Again we’re dealing with nationalism, but it’s less a nationwide deal, more like – I’ll run my valley, you run yours.
These Sunni Pashtun tribesmen want no truck with foreign ideology. They already outlasted the Soviet Army. They’ve got God on their side, and we don’t.
Will General McChrystal’s surge work? Sure, it will – for as long as we can afford it. Our old allies the Mujahadeen know to wait. They’ll bleed our last dollar spent supporting our military and the vast infrastructure of private security and aid firms we employ. Hamid Karzai and his posse will take the rest.
Getting involved in other people’s civil wars is never a good idea. When the smoke and money has cleared, a coalition of warlords will take on the Taliban, much the same as happened when the Soviets cut their losses and went home.
Oddly enough, we seem to have no Graham Greene or Francis Ford Coppola to chronicle the present state of our affairs. Such talents, no doubt, now aspire to the new cultural apotheosis – the reality show.
A pity about that, since we have need of them to make sense of the tragic reality the politicians and generals have created in god forbidding places we have no business lingering.