‘Charlie Don’t Surf!’ McNamara, Kurtz, and the Only Real Freedom

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It’s a quiet time now, as we wait for the transition  to happen and our new President to let us know what duties and obligations we citizens have in terms of helping out. A good time for some intellectual recreation with some things other than the day’s  political news for a change. Hope you enjoy …

What was Indochina? What did it mean? And what visual images suggest themselves? For me, I have never been able to shake the image in Coppola’s film “Apocalypse Now” of the American Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) who tells his staff that a seaside village with wonderful surfing conditions is to be bombed flat  so that he and his staff can get a bit of surfing in before dinner. When one of his offers warns him that Charlie controls that village, Kilgore screams: “Charlie don’t surf!” It is self-evident and rational that he has a RIGHT to that beach because he can make better use of it. Kilgore’s proclamation is the paradigmatic image of one type of rationality, the type of rationality that manufactures sensible alibis for horrific acts. The rationale he manufactures to justify his right to a particular stretch of beach is really no more or less dubious than the alibis that our first protagonist, Robert McNamara, offered during the American misadventure in Indochina. Our other protagonist, Coppola’s fictional Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, faces the same conditions as does McNamara, but Kurtz’s refusal to tolerate what he calls “the stench of lies” drives him insane and then kills him.

We are offered the visual images of two men who represent the best and the brightest that America had to offer. McNamara: the cold fish, the emotionless cipher, the utterly practical go-to guy. Kurtz, one of the best officers the Army ever produced; also, “a good man, a moral man, a man of gentle wit and humor,” a man of compelling decency who embodies the best of American values.

In Indochina, each man faces a confrontation with absolute freedom in the face of moral Horror, and each man faces the decision to make or not to make an absolute choice. Each man is revealed to us visually: McNamara in the documentary “The Fog of War,” and Kurtz, of course,  in “Apocalypse Now.”

In McNamara, we have a man who, without knowing it, is a leading actor in the death throes of American Reason, a death played out during the long, inevitable catastrophe in Indochina. We understand McNamara as a typical believer in Reason’s ability to explain everything, a believer in the deployment of a muscular sense of racial and class superiority in a world that is fundamentally rational. Kurtz begins as the same type of man, and begins his first tour of duty in Indochina viewing the world through the same lens. However, Kurtz’s encounter with the reality of moral Horror pushes him beyond the “timid, lying morality” that he brought with him from America, and pushes him into what Heidegger called the “sunlit clearing” of absolute freedom that waits on the other side of Reason.

McNamara and Kurtz both start out by fighting to defend the reality and efficacy – and hence the MORALITY – of America’s unique form of Reason and America’s unique faith in modernity as such. Both men – at least in the beginning – embrace the article of faith that Reason and American “know-how” (savoir-faire) can solve ANY problem. Starting at the same place, McNamara and Kurtz arrive, finally, at very different ends.

We have these two men who, like Virgil in Hades,  take us on two very different tours of the death of American Reason. How do the moviemakers present them to us?

McNamara is given to us as “an IBM machine with legs.” He combines a self-assured egotism with a cold, internally consistent logic.  Serving under General Curtis Lemay in WWII, McNamara absorbed Lemay’s credo of Total War. He enthusiastically committed himself to mastering the “statistical control of war.”

Now, McNamara was no fool. He understood the statistics and he could crunch the numbers better than anyone (often in his head). He knew where the American project in Indochina was going. As early as  1963, he was telling Kennedy “we need a way to get out of Vietnam.” Yet he continued to serve, and he continued to follow orders with maximum efficiency. In order to justify this to himself, he constructed an elaborate superstructure of moral imperatives and rational analysis. The struggle to reconcile these alibis transforms the aged McNamara into a man obsessed with the issue of JUDGMENT. He asks the rhetorical question: “What is morally appropriate in time of war?” He keeps coming back to this question, picking at it like a scab. He finds himself pinned by his own musings. For example, when discussing Agent Orange with his on-screen interlocutor, McNamara suggests that the best method for deriving a moral judgment about this poison is to “look at the law.” He explains – emphatically, as if trying to convince HIMSELF – that there were no clear-cut legal restrictions on the use of Agent Orange in a war zone. Had there been a legal restriction, then he would not have done it, because THEN it would have been immoral. His understanding of morality is limited to the idea of LEGALITY. Legal=moral. In effect, the same defense used by the top Nazis at Nuremberg. McNamara does not recognize that he did anything immoral in Indochina. McNamara deploys the alibi that we’ve heard so many times, TOO many times, in recent years in America: it was simply an “error of judgment.” As if the entire catastrophe in Indochina could be explained away simply as a MISTAKE. He says, “I truly believe that we made an error not of values and intentions but of judgment.” In other words, our intentions were good but we screwed up. The eventual outcome – the defeat of America by what McNamara described as “a nation of peasants with bicycles” — was simply incomprehensible to McNamara. His rational universe had no framework to  understand exactly what had gone wrong.

In Kurtz’s Indochina, by contrast, Reason is already dead. Rationality has no place. Modernity has not been invented yet. Even the war doesn’t really exist here. None of the projects conceived by the generals in Saigon and the politicians in Washington exists in Kurtz’s Indochina. In the words of the narrator, Captain Willard, Kurtz “broke from them … and then he broke from himself.”

Unlike McNamara, Kurtz understands himself as what Heidegger would have called a “thrown” man, thrown into the middle of the Horror, where he realizes that Reason cannot help him. Thrown back on himself, in the midst of unreason, Kurtz does the only thing left to do. He pushes through. He pushes BEYOND, into madness, and into authenticity. Kurtz’s madness cannot be understood as a mere “backlash” against Reason. To the contrary. In a war that could never be WON but from which it was impossible to WALK AWAY, perhaps Kurtz’s decision was quite rational. Perhaps he is as much an Enlightenment man as McNamara. Perhaps his response, his DECISION, was, in those circumstances, COMPLETELY rational.

Kurtz, in his situation, offers no alibis. As the insane combat photographer tells us, “He’s a great man. He’s fighting the war.” It’s that simple: he is fighting the war. He is killing and killing and killing, “pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army,” without alibis or aspirations and most importantly, WITHOUT JUDGMENT. Because, as Kurtz emphasizes, “it’s judgment that defeats us.”

“The Fog of War” is structured around what are called “Lessons from the life of Robert McNamara.” These are lessons that McNamara claims to have learned from his long and eventful life, especially lessons regarding the conduct of war in general and the war in Indochina in particular. Some of them are mindless, simple pieties, the sort of things one might see on a greeting card or on a pillow crocheted by your maiden aunt. But several of them are enlightening. I want to take a few minutes to explore a few of these “lessons,” look at how they contradict McNamara’s actual behavior, and highlight what our other protagonist, Colonel Kurtz, has to say on the subject.

Lesson: empathize with your enemy. McNamara had no real understanding of his enemy, and was constantly baffled by their irrational refusal to throw down their weapons and surrender. He tells us, significantly, “we empathized with the Soviet Union. But we were never able to empathize with the Vietnamese. We just didn’t know enough about THOSE PEOPLE to understand what kind of war THEY were fighting compared to the kind of war WE were fighting.” Kurtz, on the other hand, gives us a story that reveals his deep, perhaps TOO deep, understanding of his enemy. He describes going into a village and inoculating the children against cholera. After they leave, his team is called back by a weeping old man. When they arrive back at the village, they discover that the Viet Cong had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were, stacked in the village square, a pile of little white arms. He immediately understands the soul of his enemy, and immediately understands why America is doomed to fail in Indochina: “These were not monsters, these were men with families, these were men whose hearts were filled with love. And yet they had the strength – THE STRENGTH – to do that.”

Lesson: rationality will not save us. An important lesson, to be sure, but if he knew this then why did McNamara continue to apply instrumental reason to the problem of Indochina long after most sane observers realized that the adventure in Indochina was OVER? The lack of comprehension in McNamara’s voice on-camera is telling. Kurtz understands the actual truth of this lesson, as he describes the men who cut off all those arms as men who were able to unleash their primordial instinct to kill and keep on killing, but WITHOUT JUDGMENT. In a world were Reason has no place, judgment can NEVER have a place.

Lesson: maximize efficiency. McNamara was able to apply this lesson indiscriminately in any context, from burning Tokyo to the ground to turning around the Ford Motor Company to attempting to hammer the Vietnamese into submission. It’s just a “managerial technique.” With no hint of shame, and even a bit of pride in his voice, McNamara describes how “in one night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese in a bombing run on Tokyo. I analyzed bombing runs to make them more efficient.” To a bomber pilot lamenting the loss of one of his friends, McNamara offers this assessment, “You lost your wingman but we were able to destroy Tokyo.” McNamara puts many of his alibis in the mouth of General Lemay, but he argues with a passion that tells us he EMBRACES these alibis, and that he acknowledges them AS alibis. “Lemay said if we lost the war, we’d be prosecuted as war criminals.” McNamara asks, rhetorically: “what makes it immoral if you lose, but not if you win?” But we need to realize that McNamara is incapable of experiencing this as a GENUINE question, as a PHILOSOPHICAL question. As, perhaps, THE ONLY remaining Philosophical question. “What makes it immoral if you lose, but not if you win?” As far as McNamara is concerned, he is simply ‘playing with concepts’ He is simply ‘brainstorming the question,’ confident that Reason will provide the only sensible answer.

Kurtz’s efficiency is of a simpler and more intimate kind. His efficient killing is something that takes place on the ground, surrounded by blood, but he will do it anyway. He tells us that “we must kill them, we must exterminate them, pig after pig, cow after cow, village after village, army after army.” His efficiency is more intimate because it is something one must do while LOOKING AT the people that one kills, informed by the realization that  “in a war there are many moments for ruthless action – what is often called ruthless – what may in many circumstances be only clarity, seeing clearly what there is to be done and doing it. Directly, quickly, awake … looking at it.”

One final lesson, possibly the most ironic of the many “lessons from the life of Robert McNamara”: in order to do good, you may have to engage in evil. McNamara sanctimoniously qualifies this lesson, saying, “you may have to engage in evil, but you MUST minimize it.” He repeats several times, like a desperate prayer, the claim that  “we were trying to save our nation.” He lets us know that this was “a difficult position for sensitive human beings to be in.” Please note that he most definitely includes himself in the ranks of those “sensitive human beings.” Kurtz doesn’t bother to slip a discreet tissue of lies over the evil that he is and that he does, he invites it in and claims it as a comrade. “It is impossible to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what ‘horror’ is. Horror has a face, and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If not then that are enemies to be feared, truly enemies.” For this pure, unequivocal truth-telling, the generals declared Kurtz insane and then sent men to kill him as Kurtz waited, squatting in the jungle and broadcasting his truth over short-wave radio out of Cambodia. In his last broadcast, his last duty, his last attempt at honorable amends for the consequences of his own madness, seconds before he freely embraces his death, Kurtz gives us this: “We train our young men to drop FIRE on people, but we won’t allow them to write the word FUCK on their airplanes, because it’s OBSCENE!” McNamara would see no contradiction here. For Kurtz, the contradiction is enough to drive him mad.

In the elegiac last minutes  of “The Fog of War,” the interlocutor asks McNamara, “After you left, why didn’t you speak out against the war?” McNamara evades the question, but finally responds, “These are the kinds of questions that get me in trouble. You have no idea how inflammatory my words can appear.” Asked if he feels any responsibility, any guilt, he states, “I don’t want to go any farther with this. It just adds more controversy. Anything I can possibly say will require too many qualifications.” The interlocutor offers McNamara an easy way out, asking: “Do you think it was a matter of damned if you do, damned if you don’t?” McNamara thinks about this and finally agrees: “Yeah. And I’d rather be damned if I don’t.” McNamara, at the end of his life, embraces this ultimate act of mauvais fois. The technocrat is invalidated by his refusal to accept that he acted FREELY. And his own cowardly conscience rots his soul from the inside out as his time grows short. Kurtz is worth quoting again, very much apropos of McNamara:  “It is judgment that betrays us.”

Kurtz, on the other hand, pushing out far beyond McNamara’s timid, lying morality into the very heart of The Horror, finally reaches a place where he can embrace his absolute freedom, “the only real freedom, freedom from the opinions of others, freedom even from our own opinions of ourselves.” And it is this freedom that drives him insane.

The seemingly opposite fates of Kurtz and McNamara reveal the ultimate moral failure of American Reason, of  the idea that one can go somewhere and kill someone, and justify it with the alibi that one is doing one’s pure moral duty as revealed by the application of clean, unsoiled rationality.  


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  1. Many lessons here.

    I have no love lost for McNamara. But it did seem that, at the end of his life, he opened himself up to the struggle over what he had done. In the end, he couldn’t really face it, but it seems alot more than many who have repeated his mistakes have been able to do.  


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