Kilgore: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore delivers this line to Captain Willard on the beach after ordering a destructive helicopter strike on a Vietcong-controlled coastal village. Kilgore delivers the line in an uncharacteristic, matter-of-fact tone, but characteristically he doesn’t flinch when a bomb explodes loudly behind him. This chilling quotation adds to the uncanny and invulnerable quality of Kilgore’s character while signifying the far-reaching effect war has had on his mentality. The quote also speaks to the idiosyncrasies of war by describing and even celebrating the unique smell of napalm. Kilgore also says the smell is like “victory.” In typically absurd fashion, the havoc-wreaking Kilgore follows up his napalm-glorifying remark by leaving the film on a bright note. However, since we are aware that the Vietnam War did eventually end but that it is known historically as a great failure for the United States, the optimistic tone and the use of the word victory are ironic.
General Corman: “In this war, things get confused out there—power, ideals, the old morality, and practical military necessity . . . because there’s a conflict in every human heart between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph.”
Over lunch in the intelligence compound at Nha Trang, General Corman explains Kurtz’s descent into insanity as he briefs Willard on his mission to terminate Kurtz. The quotation delineates the basic premise of the film by aligning war with madness. Willard’s journey thus becomes both an actual journey upriver and a metaphorical journey through philosophical terrain. Corman relates the confusion inherent in war to the adoption of an irrational and ultimately evil path. According to Corman, participation in war requires a certain readjustment of morality, and sometimes that readjustment swells until morality is completely skewed. The human heart deals with moral conflicts every day, but war, with its haunting atrocities, exaggerates such conflicts until they easily overwhelm the heart to the point of intense confusion—and sometimes madness. Kurtz, Corman says, has allowed himself to go the way of madness.
The quotation foreshadows the rest of the film, forecasting the dark and difficult choice that Willard will have to make when he reaches Kurtz. Corman’s words resonate throughout the film, as Willard sees the conflicts described played out before him, within himself, and within the other soldiers. Willard struggles with his own internal conflict between good and evil, rationality and irrationality. In Kurtz, his double of sorts, Willard can understand what happens when evil triumphs over goodness and morality. While he relates to Kurtz and even goes so far as to admire and respect him, he must decide his own path. In the end, he chooses the path of rationality, and in doing so he implies that the outcome is indeed a choice—a difficult one but one that every soldier must make. Perhaps good doesn’t always triumph, but evil can win only if one lets it.
Willard: “It was the way we had over here of living with ourselves. We’d cut them in half with a machine gun and give them a Band-Aid. It was a lie—and the more I saw of them, the more I hated lies.”
Willard narrates these words after fatally shooting the Vietnamese peasant woman on the sampan. With this act, he makes himself complicit in the atrocities of war and aligns himself more closely with Kurtz. In his narration, Willard details the hypocrisy of the U.S. military: just before Willard shoots the woman, Clean senselessly and without provocation opens fire on Vietnamese peasants. Although Clean kills several innocent civilians with no consequences, Chief makes no mention of it but instead makes a big deal of following orders by trying to take the woman to a nearby hospital. Willard shoots her, because he does not want to waste more time and because he reasons that she likely would have died before receiving medical attention anyway. After all, the other peasants have been killed, so why spare this woman’s life when it interferes with his mission? Willard’s action and subsequent reflection upon it possess a disturbing logic that makes sense only in the morally skewed frame of war. Yet, although his crew members are also complicit in the atrocity, they see him differently after the shooting. Whether or not U.S. military protocol makes sense, it’s the only way they know how to live. Willard, on the other hand, has breached the code, and the other soldiers cannot condone such a breach. Willard’s Kurtzlike transformation accelerates as a result of this incident.
Kurtz: “It’s judgment that defeats us.”
Here, Kurtz, in his quarters, attempts to indoctrinate Willard with his ideas. Willard, freed from the tiger cage and allowed to roam throughout the compound, internalizes Kurtz’s philosophy. This quotation is part of a longer monologue in which Kurtz compares the Vietcong’s combat methods to those of U.S. troops, explaining why the Vietcong will inevitably win the war. Their victory is sealed because they use their primordial instincts to murder without emotion or judgment. Kurtz believes that moral judgment is out of place in war and serves only to thwart victory. Accordingly, only the ruthless can win. With this quotation and its encompassing monologue, Kurtz also explains to Willard why he himself chose to give in to the temptations of the jungle, to deify himself among the Montagnard tribe, and to practice behavior devoid of moral constraints. His justification for this lifestyle is that judgment “defeats us.” It prevents soldiers from winning the war, and it prevents humans from realizing their full potential to live as one with the primitive nature both outside and within them.
Kurtz: “The horror, the horror.”
These are Kurtz’s last words, uttered after Willard brutally slaughters him with a machete and repeated as the film fades to black at its end. The words revisit a monologue Kurtz delivers to Willard earlier in the film, intimating that if horror is not made to be one’s friend, it becomes “an enemy to be feared.” Kurtz’s last words—also spoken by Kurtz at the end of Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness—are enigmatic and can be taken to indicate several different outcomes. Critics generally agree, however, that these words signify Kurtz’s final acceptance of the horrors in which he has participated through the Vietnam War, as well as the horrors he has produced independently of the U.S. military machine. He dies a broken, conflicted, tormented man, ready to give his life away. His last moments become moments of clarity, and his tone is one of shock: while he acknowledges his actions, he is appalled by the atrocities he has committed. With these final utterances, Kurtz at last accepts the evil present in his soul and welcomes the promise of some semblance of peace in death.