Rationalizing the Fear Within
Both The Things They Carried and Apocalypse Now explore the trauma of the Vietnam War and its influence on soldiers’ fears. Similar characters appear in both works, their identities crafted to represent different aspects of human nature. The protagonists, Captain Willard and Tim O’Brien, tell frame stories through their own points of view, giving the audience windows to the guilt and hollowness, death and savagery rife in war-torn Vietnam. Each finds himself suffocated by guilt, choking at an explanation for the endless, meaningless death and violence. Similarly, Chef, the private on Willard’s boat, and Curt Lemon of O’Brien’s platoon mirror each other with their immaturity, their carefree rambunctious behavior and their gruesome, avoidable deaths. With the protagonist of each story as its guide, the audience examines the degree to which fear and primal instincts consume the soldiers in the jungle. Fear in the hearts of men grows unhindered in each work, as both Willard and O’Brien strive to tell their stories as much as to placate their own fear of guilt and responsibility as to comment on the fear of others. The two works spin strikingly similar stories of insanity, guilt, and trauma, albeit through different media.
Initially, the methods of storytelling employed by each protagonist seem to be completely dissimilar: Willard’s moves with the action, a first person account of the happenings as they take place, while O’Brien’s jumps around from being with the action to reflecting upon it twenty years later. However, taken from a different angle, Willard’s narration shows as much reflection on events and personal emotion as O’Brien’s. Both narrators are jaded by the action they have seen, displayed by the way each can instantly discern what sorts of people make his company. O’Brien analyzes each of his characters through descriptions of their belongings and habits, ultimately crafting a telling portrait of each man. Likewise, Willard introduces the crew of his ship by painting their identities with a broad brush: Lance, the young surfer, Chef, the down south saucier, etc. As they move from soldier to soldier, Willard and O’Brien create indelible images in the mind of the audience, colorful personas that command pity, sympathy, and loathing.
Both Willard and O’Brien have difficulty understanding the enemy. When reading the dossier on Kurtz, Willard’s voiceover reveals his thoughts and emotions about Kurtz’s life and sudden, erratic decisions; in “Ambush,” O’Brien does the same when talking about the man he killed. O’Brien tries to imagine what the man’s life would have been like were it not for the grenade, and even gives an objective point of view and he hypothetically tells the story to his daughter. The blend of surmise and objectivity of O’Brien’s account in “Ambush” bears resemblance to Willard’s interactions with Kurtz. Like O’Brien, Willard attempts to put himself in Kurtz’s shoes, wondering if the thirst for action could turn him native and savage, as it did the colonel. Yet in each case, the protagonist falters when attempting to understand his enemy, and essentially makes the title “enemy” a misnomer. Illuminating one of the problems with the concept of war, both Willard and O’Brien sympathize with the men they are orders to kill and add difficulty to a simple task. The struggle to rationalize the act of killing is hardest for O’Brien, as the Vietnamese man was an innocent compared to the monster of Colonel Kurtz. Willard, on the other hand, sympathizes with Kurtz because he has taken the same path as his enemy, and feels the same potential for evil inside of himself. In both works, the frame story structure reveals the attempts of the protagonist to rationalize the horror around them.
Fear, the impetus of survival, has a pronounced role in both Apocalypse Now and The Things They Carried. Their machismo makes soldiers attempt to mask their fear, thereby allowing it to grow within them. Attempting to deny their fear makes soldiers act illogically, almost turning them “savage” in the end. As O’Brien describes in “The Dentist”, Curt Lemon insists on having a perfectly good tooth pulled because he fears ridicule by his peers and superiors so deeply. He had shamed himself by fainting during a routine military checkup and needed to reclaim his toughness by showing that he could withstand the pulling of a tooth, regardless of whether or not he needed that tooth to be pulled. Similarly, Lemon’s last action – playing catch with a hand grenade – illustrates the juxtaposition of war and camaraderie, the morbid fun in which the soldiers engage to sustain an illusion of safety.
Just as Lemon’s inherent fear causes him to behave in insane ways, so does that of Chef, the saucier onboard Willard’s boat. Chef’s death at the hands of Kurtz’s savages takes place off screen, leading to a scene depicting his mangled corpse. Like Lemon’s death, Chef’s is brief and gruesome, and overshadows the rest of his life. Prior to his gruesome exit, Chef loses touch with reality on the river when he decides to look for fruit in the jungle. As Chef and Willard run off into enemy territory, risking their lives only to look for mangoes, they too submit their will to the illogical judgment of fear. The fear inside them, stoked by the savage passions of the jungle and the war around them, instills and Chef and Willard the desire for safety, the need to revert to familiar surroundings to assuage the trauma of Vietnam. The jungle’s wildness consumes them on this fruitless quest, and the two soldiers flee from a tiger. The tiger, like the grenade, presents a force of reckoning to the men. It destroys the illusion of safety created by temporary peace, the lull between bouts of combat. The tiger throws Chef and Willard back into ugly reality, and the men forget their mangoes back on the Me-Kong. Their fears, and those of all soldiers, eventually come down to one thing – the fear of death.
As their fears deepen in the forests of Vietnam, all the man become less human. In O’Brien’s stories, ignorant actions reveal the savage nature some of the men have developed. Kiley blows his own toe off to get out of action, for instance, and Lee Strunk begs Jensen to spare his life regardless of their pact. Apocalypse Now delves much further into the evolution of fear, as Kurtz represents an embodiment of fear itself. Once an eloquent, highly respected war hero, Colonel Kurtz devolves into a mind irreparably twisted and contorted by fear and evil. Kurtz’s evil forces Willard to consider whether he himself has the capacity for the same. Though O’Brien’s stories posses nothing as cohesive as the fear consolidated in Kurtz, many of their characters embody similar traits. Azar, for example, exudes wholly mercenary qualities throughout much of his time, showing blatant disregard for the value of life before showing deference to Kiowa’s memory.
In the end, both mental and physical survival depends on soldiers’ ability to sort out his fears. O’Brien does this via his writing, feeling that preserving the memories of fallen friends can alleviate his guilt. Willard, however, submits to his fears, fulfilling his duty and slaying the evil Kurtz. Exiting the colonel’s temple shirtless and sweating, chest heaving in the heat of the jungle and wild eyes flashing upon legions of native people, he resembles an idol. As he mutters the same last words Kurtz did – “The horror” – Willard shows how the experience has changed him. While O’Brien exorcized his fears by writing about them, Willard’s clearly remain.
The war itself deserves credit for any similarities between these two works. War, as an institution, commands men to act against their nature. Men are not supposed to kill each other for reasons unknown, blow off their own toes to escape confrontation, or rip out their own good teeth. They are not supposed to mount severed human heads on posts or decimate a village so one man can surf. War makes them do these things. Apocalypse Now and The Things They Carried look closely at how war contorts the mind of a soldier, amplifying his fears into insanity. Using similar characters and techniques, each work produces a unique image of what war did to soldiers in Vietnam.
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