"It was no accident that I got to be the caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz's memory, any more than being back in Saigon was an accident. There is no way to tell his story without telling my own. And if his story is really a confession, then so is mine"
This statement and the fact that most of the voiceover is in the past tense indicates that the events of Apocalypse Now are illustrative of Willard's recollections. This sets the tone for the film, because Coppola gives his audience the expectation of a transformative journey, but also, we know that Willard is going to survive and Kurtz is going to die. By calling himself the 'caretaker of Kurtz's memory,' Willard foreshadows the decision he makes at the end of the film. When Willard first arrives at Kurtz's compound, it seems as though Kurtz only keeps Willard alive because he wants to give him all the knowledge and guilt so he can take Kurtz's place. Once Kurtz has accepted that his time has come, he entrusts Willard with a mission that will take him back out of the jungle. Kurtz wants Willard to share his story, all of it, with his own son. Therefore, even though Kurtz deserves to perish for all his moral violations, Willard understands why he snapped, and can hopefully, use Kurtz's story to prevent another Vietnam.
"There's a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, a dark side overcomes what Lincoln called, 'the better angels of our nature.' Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have them. Walter Kurtz has reached his, and very obviously, he has gone insane."
The irony in this statement is that although General Corman is explaining to Willard what has happened to Kurtz, he cannot see the same darkness that he has a hand in perpetrating. Kurtz has reached his breaking point, certainly, but he knows it. He is entirely aware that the Americans are out to get him, but he does not respect his own country's army enough to follow their rules anymore. General Corman is a symbol of many military leaders in Vietnam who held onto the traditional values of war and cavalry. He does not question his own purpose in Vietnam, but can isolate Kurtz in a box of "insanity," without understanding how he got there. Like Kilgore, it is not Corman's job to question. It is his goal to explain the reason for the problem and "terminate" it.
"Do you smell that? Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, one time we had a hail bomb for 12 hours and when it was all over, I walked up. We didn't find one of them, not one stinking Dink body. But the smell, like that gasoline smell. The whole hill. Smelled like...victory. Someday this war's gonna end."
Kilgore is an over-the-top character, completely absurd and in line with Coppola's dark sense of humor. Napalm is not a smell to be loved - in 1980, the United Nations declared that the use of it on concentrations of civilians constituted a war crime. Kilgore, though, as Willard describes, thinks of himself as invincible. He does not get bogged down with ideological questioning, but rather, he knows how to make the act of war satisfying for himself. Even if that means bombing an entire village for the purpose of catching a 6-foot wave, he will do it. He does, however, display loyalty to his own men, hurrying injured troops to the hospital. Peter Cowie cites John Milius, who once said, "war is unspeakably attractive. People enjoy intensity. The human animal seems drawn to it like a moth to a flame". When the war ends, Kilgore won't be lamenting the lives he's taken. He will be a hero in his own mind, and live on to fight - and revel in - the next one.
"Someday, this war's gonna end. That'd be just fine with the boys on the boat. They weren't looking for anything more than a way home. Trouble is, I'd been back there and I knew that it just didn't exist anymore."
This quote captures the divide between Willard and the crew on the PBR. Many of the young men who went to Vietnam, like the PBR crew, did not really understand why they were there. Vietnam ended up being the most unpopular war in American history, and many soldiers were just desperate to finish their tours and get home. They did not realize how the war would live with them; the psychological repercussions of brutality lingered at home. Willard is on his second tour voluntarily. He went home and was haunted by the things he had seen and done in Vietnam. Therefore, his journey up the Nung River is a mission to kill Kurtz, but it is also a way for him to address his own demons - this is the only way for him to ever learn to live with himself. The other crew members, though, just want to complete the mission and get home, not knowing that (if they survive), they will be as hardened and damaged as Willard.
"They lost him. He was gone. Nothing but rumors and random intelligence, mostly from captured V.C. The V.C. knew his name by now, and they were scared of him. He and his men were playing hit-and-run all the way into Cambodia."
Kurtz is terrifying to the American military because they no longer have control over him. Kilgore, on the other hand, harbors dangerous delusions of grandeur, but he is firmly on the American side. Were Kurtz employing his "unsound methods" on Charlie within the confines of Vietnam, he'd likely be a hero. Kurtz beheading his Montagnard followers in fits of madness is not so far off from Kilgore napalming a village so that one PBR can pass through. Kurtz, however, is playing by his own rules, which is terrifying to both sides. He seems to have some kind of power that neither the USA or the VC seem to understand, and instead of trying to figure him out, they'd rather eliminate him. With extreme prejudice.
"It was a way we had over here of living with ourselves. We'd cut 'em in half with a machine gun and give 'em a band-aid. It was a lie. And the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies."
At this point in the journey, Willard is dealing with his guilt of "participating in the excesses of war" (Cowie 142). He understands that the atrocities the Americans are committing in Vietnam highly outweigh the benefits. This quote invokes the dichotomy that many Vietnam vets, like Willard, experienced during their service (and a common sentiment in veterans of the Iraq War many decades later) - that while they are supposedly fighting for a noble cause, their actions on the ground feel more like unbridled brutality. Coppola's aim in making Apocalypse Now was to show Vietnam as it was for the men who fought there - the mysterious, elusive enemy, the lack of leadership, the confusion, the alienation, the guilt - far beyond what the media portrayed. The fictional camera crew in the film is only interested in capturing images of soldiers in battle as heroes even though that is only a tiny part of the real situation.
I used to think that if I died in an evil place, than my soul wouldn't be able to make it to heaven. But now, fuck. I mean, I don't care where it goes as long as it ain't here."
The main dichotomy at the core of Apocalypse Now is the fight between good and evil that, like General Corman says when giving Willard his mission, exists inside every man. Chef is especially sensitive to the horrors he has witnessed during his duty. He has a number of outbursts throughout the film, and in this quote, he seems to have accepted his fate. He knows he is not an innocent anymore, but the darkness that Kurtz represents is simply too much for him to bear. Unlike Willard, Chef has no desire to hear what Kurtz has to say or understand why the Colonel has snapped. He is ready to decimate the place and try to forget it forever, which is why Kurtz cannot let him survive. Kurtz knows his time has come to an end, but he needs to pass on his guilt and anoint a messenger - Willard.
"Are you an assassin?"
"I'm a soldier."
"You're neither. You're an errand boy. Sent by grocery clerks. To collect the bill"
By this point in the film, Coppola has made it clear that there is no real divide between an assassin and a soldier, in his point of view. Kurtz draws Willard's (and the audience's) attention to the lack of agency that Willard and his fellow soldiers have in determining their actions. Ultimately, Willard has been both a soldier and an assassin, but Kurtz is drawing attention to the fact that the separation is in name alone. Willard has come to assassinate Kurtz as part of his duty as a soldier, because he is beholden to the army. Without the umbrella of an official mission, men like Willard and Kilgore are simply assassins. Meanwhile, just because Kurtz is operating outside of the Army's jurisdiction, he has crossed the line from soldier to assassin, although the Army is committing much greater atrocities than Kurtz is.
"If the generals back in the Trang could see what I saw. Would they still want me to kill him? More than ever, probably. Then what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he'd really gone? He broke from them, and then he broke from himself. I'd never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart."
When Willard first encounters Kurtz, he is intimidated by him - a man who was once on such an elite track, has now gone completely awry. In this quote, Willard (reflecting back on this experience, since his voiceover is all in the past tense) explains the ideological core of his journey into the jungle. Kurtz is a liability to "his people back home," which is why Gen. Corman and his superiors want him dead. However, Kurtz did not just wake up one day and decide to go rogue - he unraveled over time, as Willard discovers as he examines Kurtz's dossier. As a result of his participation in this war, Kurtz lost trust in the leaders he had been loyal to his whole life and ended up questioning the whole essence of his being. Therein lies the hypocrisy of the American presence in Vietnam; instead of trying to understand and alleviate the circumstances that would drive such a great man to such extreme lengths, they would rather conceal his existence with even more lies.
"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 judgement."
Kurtz describes witnessing the VC chop off the arms of a group of Vietnamese children whom the Americans had recently inoculated. In this particular quote, Kurtz professes his admiration of his opponents and their ability to turn off the disgust and programmed morality that Kurtz himself has succumbed to. In a broader sense, Coppola is pointing out that the American military lacked any unity or purpose. These 19-year old "rock-n-rollers" were not at all emotionally prepared for what they were going to experience in Vietnam, and that is why they were essentially "cannon fodder." The VC, on the other hand, were so committed to their cause that they could embrace, and even use, the terror that has burdened Willard and Kurtz with deep-seated guilt and doom.
Apocalypse Now Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Apocalypse Now is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.