Is General McChrystal Colonel Kurtz?

This morning on Morning Joe Niall Ferguson compared General McChrystal to Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, a character uniquely immortalized by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s film (inspired by the novel) Apocalypse Now. McChrystal’s comments to a Rolling Stone reporter, in which he openly criticizes various Administration leaders, is shocking for its breach of protocol, for the breach’s brazenness, and for the forum: this was not where this nature of news was expected to break. What does it mean?


Kurtz, having lived too long among them, with no rule or distraction, becomes a kind of God among the "natives" (in the novel, in Congo; in the film, in Vietnam). He is a standard symbol for someone in power "going rogue." Conrad’s novel was an excellent selection as metaphor for America’s Vietnam story; in the film, the further Kurtz’s designated assassin travels towards him up the river, the farther back Coppola’s camera takes us into French Indo-Chinese history. And the further we go into that history, the deeper we see into the "heart of darkness:" one man’s mind. When the film reaches Kurtz, he is clearly insane. His madness has made him a liability, as it prevents him from hewing to the military code of honor, honesty, and fierce adherence to rank.

Coppola’s/Brando’s Kurtz’s insanity, best documented in Eleanor Coppola’s film about the making of the film, Hearts of Darkness, has roots: an illogical war; the unique narcissism of power; existential dread. With all the complexities of Afghanistan—often compared to Vietnam for just this reason—the emergence of a Kurtz-like figure would not be surprising, and later novelists likely will provide us with one. But today is not that.

Today is only another chapter in one larger story of this war: the failure of various constituents to communicate. The evidence for and against McChrystal is up: the Rolling Stone piece is here; Les Gelb’s wise analysis is here. Gelb’s perspective on the relationship between our military and the Democrats may be the real story—and the really revelatory idea—to emerge from this crisis. Gelb calls for honest conversations, not guillotines. Colonel Kurtz could not be brought back. General McChrystal is not Colonol Kurtz.

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