‘Apocalypse Now,’ and then, and yet again
Accomplished prominent American filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola has produced a third variation of his Vietnam War film. The appearance of “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut” marks the 40th anniversary of the original release in 1979.
The story focuses on U.S. Army Capt. Benjamin L. Willard, an intelligence officer who accepts a classified mission to assassinate Col. Walter Kurtz. The target is a renegade Special Forces officer who is an embarrassment to the U.S. high command because he is fighting the war his way, not by the book, and winning.
Special Forces are the legendary Green Berets, with their jaunty headgear in an era when the corporate-style U.S. Army discouraged distinctive dress. President John F. Kennedy made special operations a priority, and he created the Navy SEALS. The Green Berets date to the early 1950s and a Republican Party campaign pledge to create elite units to help “roll back” communism in Eastern Europe.
The Vietnam War did involve assassinations, on both sides, though of the enemy — not one of our own. The covert Phoenix program eliminated approximately 60,000 identified agents of the Viet Cong, the revolutionary movement in the South, officially titled the National Liberation Front.
After the war, Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh, a principal Viet Cong leader, confided to journalist Stanley Karnow that Phoenix was feared far more than conventional attacks by American and South Vietnamese divisions. She was explicit that crucial comrades were neutralized and important information compromised in consequence of the program. Other reliable sources have provided equally telling confirmation.
The Phoenix program was one part of the total military effort. The Tet Offensive early in 1968 destroyed American public support for the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson retired and field commander Gen. William Westmoreland was replaced by the more flexible, shrewd and effective Gen. Creighton Abrams.
The new administration of President Richard M. Nixon drastically changed Vietnam strategy. Steady reduction in U.S. force levels began, and large-scale conventional search and destroy operations were replaced with emphasis on small-unit actions and tactics.
That increased already severe stress on our troops in the field, but in conjunction with Phoenix dramatically improved the overall situation. For example, William Colby, of the CIA, reported that by the early 1970s he was able to travel safely through large parts of South Vietnam previously controlled by the enemy.
Coppola and screenwriter John Milius say Col. Robert Rheault, commander of Special Forces in Vietnam, helped to inspire the character Kurtz. Green Berets were crucial in gathering intelligence and killing the enemy in Cambodia and Laos, technically neutral territory but in fact vital to enemy infiltration and supply.
Working closely with the CIA, Green Berets developed strong evidence that interpreter Thai Khac Chuyen was a North Vietnamese double agent. They killed him. Rheault tried to protect his men, including participating in a misleading cover-up story.
In July 1969, the Army charged Rheault and others with murder.
“Apocalypse Now” accurately portrays the conflict between Special Forces and the conventional “straight leg” Army. Bureaucratic self-protection is a prime theme in the film, and was a terrible problem in Vietnam.
Since the Vietnam War, there have been positive changes in the organization and profile of the U.S. Army, appropriate to an age of unconventional armed conflicts in various parts of the world. Special Forces are no longer second-class citizens, and a soldier with that background can achieve top rank. Thanks to congressional action, Reserve and National Guard forces must be deployed if an armed conflict becomes relatively lengthy.
This Green Beret colonel, however, was not crazy, and was well-connected. A West Point graduate, he was from an influential New England family. A media storm commenced. In September 1969, the Army dropped all charges.
Rheault went on to lead an Outward Bound center in Maine, counsel troubled veterans and live a long positive life.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”