Imperialism enables a state or country to increase its sphere of influence by seizing control of foreign territories. The film Apocalypse Now, based on the story Heart of Darkness, was produced in 1979 during the Vietnam War era and explores the role imperialism played in US foreign policy. The film highlights the drawbacks of imperialism by revealing the atrocities committed by the US Military, allegedly, in the name of freedom. The most tragic aspect of the Vietnam War was the huge numbers of civilian casualties, including women and children. Indeed, the chemical warfare exercised by American troops in the form of deploying Agent Orange (napalm) for deforesting the region is a major disaster for the local population. As a result of contamination of these heavy toxins, a whole generation of children was born with deformities and genetic mutations. Hence those who are apologists for imperialism are on the side of the unjust.
Military intervention in Vietnam was a part of a wider strategy forged by the Kennedy administration that sought to prevent the spread of communism throughout South-East Asia. Know as the “domino theory”, the common belief at the time was that if one state in a particular region fell to communism several others would follow suit. As a result, the US military implemented an aggressive means of occupation which included extensive ground and air offensives. Ultimately, the military was naive in believing they could conquer Vietnam quickly. They undervalued the Vietcong and were not prepared to fight a guerrilla war in the jungles. In the film, Captain Willard’s mission to kill Colonel Kurtz is symbolic of US imperialism and naivety because it demonstrates just how out of touch the US military was in fighting in Vietnam. Not only do they lose track of an entire unit of soldiers, but they also impulsively commit resources to kill one of their own highest-ranking officers. This is surprising when we study the nature of imperialism’s history. As George Orwell so wittily and movingly articulated in his numerous essays, it is the oppressor who ends up looking the weaker and foolish than the oppressed. It is the same with Captain Willard’s poorly conceived and poorly executed military mission we witness in the film. When one is pursuing their greed for wealth or lust for power, the moral force will be lost. That is the reason why the imperialists failed in meeting their objectives in the film.
Similar to that of early European colonists in Africa, the US military’s approach to control in Vietnam was inherently racist due to unjust treatment of the indigenous population. Despite the fact that the American troops were strangers in a foreign land, they lacked respect for Vietnamese and often killed innocent civilians. Francis Coppola, the films director, vividly depicts the senseless destruction and death caused by US armed forces. Analogous to that of the US military, Kurtz is respected in Vietnam because he effectively asserts authority over people. In addition, his subordinates are forced to act in a manner that further empowers his authority. This includes forcing people to gather resources for him. Kurtz’s actions clearly represent imperialism because resources always flow from the poor to the rich. In addition, Kurtz represents imperialism when he advocates for the killing of innocent people in order to give him even more power and control. Consequently, many people who live around the temple die. Events like these make us question the causes and consequences of imperialism. Those who perpetrate it and control political power should re-examine the legitimacy of the means and their ends. If legitimacy itself is dubious, then questions of ethics are even more difficult to answer. As the film shows in various angles, the experience of the subjects of imperialism has no relation to what the imperial propaganda machinery spews out.
To conclude, imperialism, despite all the euphemistic intentions that are offered in its justification, is the greatest social malaise of the modern historical era. It combines a whole lot of evils within its package. The most obvious is economic oppression, where the conquered subjects were treated as outright slaves or indentured laborers or wage-earning manual laborers. Then there is the issue of racism, where the whole complexity, richness and culture of a civilization is measured by the skin tone of its people. This is grossly unfair and the idea of racial imperialism has, fortunately, become less common these days. The imperialism witnessed during the Vietnam war also manifest retrograde sexist attitudes. If the whole civilization of the subjects were deemed inferior, then the lot of their women occupied the bottom position. The cases of rapes, abductions and captive exploitation of Vietnamese women during the war is too numerous to keep a count. Then there is collateral damage in terms of damage to hospital buildings, schools and even the natural environment. Hence imperialism witness during the Vietnam war, and most vividly re-enacted in Apocalypse Now, is a decidedly malefic geo-political phenomenon. The sooner we do away with it and bring in its place civil deliberation and solidarity, the better the chances of the survival of our species. Otherwise, the human race will descend into a spiral of self-destruction in a span of decades. It is up to us to thwart or expedite the forewarned apocalypse, now.