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Apocalypse Now & Gaza

Over recent weeks at Tuesday night conversations, group members have chosen movies to share, notably Searching for Sugar Man, The Life of Brian, and more recently, Apocalypse Now. Some excellent.discussion has ensued.

Issues and questions from watching Apocalypse Now have remained with me.

The movie is set during the Vietnam War and narrates a journey upriver by US soldier, Capt. Willard. Willard has been ordered to assassinate Col Kurtz, an American commander who has ‘gone mad,’ and who employs ‘unsound methods.’

The orders that Willard receives paint a picture of American command in Vietnam seeking to eliminate an evil force. This plays to a theme beloved of movies, the battle between good and evil, and good’s eventual triumph.

However, the distinction between good and evil quickly blurs in Apocalypse Now.

Clearing the river on which Willard and his men will travel, an American cavalry regiment attacks a village using napalm bombs. They employ excessive force and kill numerous civilians, including children.

The commander of the Cavalry Regiment, Lt. Col. Kilgore, is unusual if not a little mad himself. Following the airstrike, he announces, ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’

How can the ‘good guys’ remain good while embodying the very attitudes and behaviours they seek to eliminate?

As Willard progresses further up the river, this question becomes sharper. When Willard eventually locates and executes Kurtz, he does so in a manner that is brutal and extreme, the behaviour of the ‘enemy.’

In eliminating Kurtz, the viewer can’t help wondering if Willard has not succumbed to the very evil he was ordered to destroy.

This movie raises significant questions about the brutalizing effect of war and the viability of distinctions we commonly draw between good and evil.

The movie also urges viewers to think again about the link between desired ends and permissible means.

How do we know when we have ‘crossed a line in the sand?'

My mind turns to the recent killings on the border between Gaza and Israel. Last Monday, the day the US opened its new embassy in Jerusalem, the Israeli army killed 60 Palestinian protesters, and injured hundreds of others.

Casualties among the Israeli army were minimal. (This fact raises questions about the level of force and the danger the Palestinian protesters actually represented.)

Israel argued that that the protesters posed a threat to their border and therefore the use of lethal force was justified. Here we witness an illustration of the common view that the ends, maintaining Israel’s territorial integrity, justified the means, killing protestors
Personally, I find this argument disturbing; it speaks more of the terrifying world of Apocalypse Now than a reasoned view about how best to deal with protests. (To examine this argument further I recommend

When people are deeply committed to a particular outcome, questionable means are frequently justified.

Of course, the ends that we, and all those on our side, desire are nearly always ‘good,’ whereas the ends that others desire are not.

What has happened recently in Israel/ Gaza reminds us all of the need to stand back from our plans and hopes, however briefly, critique them, and then consider what means are genuinely justified.