On the Smell of Napalm in the Morning
It is ironic that the gun-enthusiast and tough-guy John Milius, one of the writers credited on Apocalypse Now, never served in Vietnam. Like his hero, Teddy Roosevelt, Milius suffers from asthma and this ailment disqualified from joining the Marines. Milius spent the war surfing off Long Beach and Malibu, a strenuous activity that his asthma apparently didn’t adversely affect. These biographical details motivate the curious sequence in Coppola’s war film in which Air Cavalry troops, commanded by the gung-ho Lieutenant Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall) are ordered to surf waves rolling toward a hostile village and enemy-occupied coastline. Reluctantly, the soldiers slip into the surf, mounting their boards as bombs burst around them. After, the area is secured as a consequence of a spectacular helicopter assault, Major Kilgore justifies the bloody sea-side engagement grunting laconically “Charley don’t surf.”
Although there is some scant historical evidence for escapades of this sort during the Vietnam war, this episode in Apocalypse Now is the outcome of a graft. In this case, the graft extends in two directions, a fantasy that fuses several disparate sources. The helicopter assault and the surfing scene culminate in a beach-party complete with bonfires and cases of beer airlifted to the festivities. The beach-party looks like an all-male version of similar celebrations populating American surfer films made in the early sixties, the kind of gathering that Annette Funicello might grace. Milius grafts together his fantasies of a utopian community of tough, strong, and handsome surfers with his thwarted dream of serving in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam war. The result is a cinematic fusion between two genres – the war movie and beach party comedy.
In an interview, Milius described the source for the episode as an anecdote in a memoir by an Israeli general, Ariel Sharon. After clearing a seaside village of Palestinian soldiers, the Israeli soldiers entertained themselves by fishing in the waters near the devastated burning town. The troops roasted their catch on the beach, the general announcing triumphantly “We blew the shit out of them and now we’re eating their fish.” This fish-fry, and the boast associated with it, are transformed in Apocalypse Now to the famous line: “Charley don’t surf.” The surfing scenes in Milius screenplay, accordingly, originate in a graft that fuses the writer’s guilt that he spent the Vietnam war surfing instead of fighting with a bellicose anecdote by an Israeli military leader – the connections extend inward toward personal fantasy and outward toward a historical anecdote.
The most famous dialogue in Apocalypse Now is arguably Lieutenant Kilgore’s napalm-revery, a contemplative soliloquy delivered on the same surf-girt beach. After a massive napalm strike on a treeline across the lagoon, Kilgore says:
Do you smell that? Napalm, son. Nothing else in the world smells like that. I love the smell of napalm in the morning. You know, once we had a hill bombed for 12 hours. When it was all over, I walked up. We didn’t find one of ‘em. Not one stinkin’ dink body. The smell, you know, that gasoline smell, the whole hill...Smelled like...victory.
(Despite it’s fame, there is some dispute about what Kilgore actually says in this speech. Some transcripts describe the assault as “hail bombing” – that is, “once we had hail-bombed for 12 hours.” Apparently, “hail bombing” is a term for “carpet bombing”. Most versions, however, quote the speech as above.)
Milius claims to have written these words in a flash, a sudden inspiration. I presume this is true. However, I have located a speech expressing a similar sentiment in an obscure German novel, Vergeltung by Gerd Ledig. Vergeltung, meaning “retribution,” was translated by Michael Hoffmann into English under the title Payback, but not until long after the release of Apocalypse Now. Ledig’s book, a harrowing account of the “hail bombing” of an unnamed German city, was first published in 1956. The book was initially praised in Germany, but, then, forgotten. Too ferocious and uncompromising for the German public, then, occupied with rebuilding their ravaged cities, the novel stirred horrific memories and was shunned. Not until the 1999 publication of W. G. Sebald’s account of Germany’s fire-bombing in World War II, Luftkrieg und Literatur (“Air War and Literature”) was the book revived. Since that time, Ledig’s Vergeltung has become a standard literary text taught in German Gymnasium and widely read. I have no evidence that Milius knew, or knows, of the book.
Vergeltung is disturbing because of its lack of any moral center. Initially, the reader expects the novel to depict sympathetically the sufferings of a German civilian population decimated by incendiary bombing. This impression is fostered by the book’s appalling first chapter. The unburied corpses of dead children, killed in a raid on the preceding day, are stacked in a cemetery. The concussion of the first bomb falling on the city hurls the dead bodies against the cemetery wall. The small corpses of the children, suffocated in the cellar, were awaiting burial – the childrens’ father is described as fighting on the Eastern Front and rescue-parties are searching for their mother. The father is missing-in-action. The mother is found zerquetscht unter der Truemmern – “crushed under the rubble.” Two women see the children smashed against the wall. But, a moment later, they “burn like torches” when the asphalt street is ignited by a fire-bomb.
From this prologue, the reader anticipates an account of hapless German civilians slaughtered by aerial assault. And, indeed, much of the book has this tenor. But the disturbing aspect of the novel is that Ledig presents the massacre of innocents as justified, a kind of legitimate retribution. And, further, the fire-bombing doesn’t force the city’s population into acts of generosity and kindness – a fantasy typical to post-9-11 America. Our press and writers assure us that terrorist attacks backfire because they inspire their victims to become heroic, self-sacrificing, and generous to one another. Of course, this is a nauseatingly pious fiction. Ledig is far more realistic and unsparing. In his novel, the attack on the city causes its inhabitants to become greedy, vicious, half-mad with fear and selfishness. The collapse of law and order in the aftermath of the bombing licenses people to commit all sorts of terrible acts. Instead of becoming noble, self-sacrificing heroes, the inhabitants of Ledig’s burning city becomes criminals, bullying one another and committing crimes of opportunity such as rape. Suffering doesn’t ennoble. Instead, misery transforms ordinary law-abiding Germans into mobs of crazed murderers. The book is relentlessly cynical, cruel, and nasty – everyone is starving covered with filth and abscessed boils; when the bombs fall and start dismembering the boy flak-gunners, most of the soldiers shit their pants. The whole thing is a nightmare and it is easy to see why the novel was read, admired, and, then, immediately banished to a part of the imagination that’s not activated except in the dismal melancholy of pre-dawn insomnia.
The passage in Vergeltung that echoes Kilgore’s famous lines in Apocalypse Now occurs in the book’s final chapter. Just before the novel’s epilogue, two of Ledig’s unpleasant characters, the “Faehnrich” (“Ensign”) and a military doctor, meet in a field dressing station buried beneath a fortified bunker. To understand their encounter it’s necessary to know a little of the action preceeding their dialogue.
The novel is constructed as a series of 12 interlocked narratives all taking place within the course of a 69 minute bombing raid that occurs between 1:01 and 2:10 pm. The Ensign has the command of a half-dozen soldiers, apparently ordered to prevent looting in a mercantile quarter of the city. With his men, the Ensign has been defending a liquor store and, of course, everyone gets riotously drunk. A civilian who is trying to make his way to the railway station to meet his family is accused of looting and bullied mercilessly by the drunken soldiers. Later, the Ensign and his men venture through the streets buzzing with shrapnel and deadly with collapsing buildings. They shelter for a time in a bakery where a Russian prisoner of war, emaciated from forced labor is also hiding. The Ensign shoots the Russian and continues his aimless progress through the city, losing the rest of troops in the chaos of the aerial assault. Meanwhile, the doctor is bullying shell-shocked boys carried from the roof of the “Hochbunker” where he is stationed. To the horror of his nurse, the doctor, Egon Michael, orders the terrified teenage boys back to the roof of the bunker where they are ineffectually manning flak cannons. An American airman, shot down over the city, staggers into the doctor’s cellar under the bunker. The American’s clothing has been ripped off in the course of his escape from the burning airplane and he is naked. Despite the protests of the nurse, the doctor beats the American with a poker, wraps a little apron around the wounded man’s waist to humiliate him, and, then, expels him into an adjacent bombshelter. A mob of civilians gathers around the American and tears him to pieces.
The Ensign enters the field hospital under the bunker and, at first, almost shoots the doctor. But the two men know one another. They decide to celebrate the events of the day with a few more drinks:
“The doctor went to he wall, opened a little cupboard, removed a bottle with two glasses. He handed one of them to the Ensign.
The doctor laughed: “My house-wine.”
He poured. A dueling scar ran across his cheek.
“If only you knew --” the Ensign said.
“How much I’ve already guzzled down today.”
The doctor replied merrily: “Hair of the dog that bit you. So what are we drinking to?”
“To the safe return of old comrades!”
The doctor picked up his glass and prepared to drain it.
“Prost!” He drank the wine as if it were water.
“Prost!” The Ensign swallowed, wiped his mouth and laughed. He said: “you haven’t changed.”
“Me?” The doctor poured another glass. “I don’t ever change.” A little wine splashed on the ground.
“So what are we drinking to now?” asked the Ensign.
“To the way a battlefield looks at dawn!”
The Ensign staggered a little. He screwed-up his eyes.
A blush climbed to his face. “That’s shit.”
“No.” The doctor emptied his glass and seemed happy.
“So you’ve already seen a thing like that?”
“On the contrary,” the Ensign said. “But I don’t see the dawn just the battlefield.” He slurped from his glass and, then, began to tremble.
“Prost!” Since he didn’t think he could toast the doctor, the Ensign clicked his finger against his glass.
“For me,” the doctor shouted, holding his glass up against the light,” war is the father of a
Again, he poured until his glass was full.
“War crystalizes my values. For me, it is both validation and authentic experience. Politics by another means, necessity arising from the circumstances. Courage overcomes my fear. I find the sight of a battlefield at dawn inspiring.”
The German phrase cognate to Kilgore’s “the smell of napalm in the morning” is Anblick
eines Schlachtfeldes im Morgengrauen!” “Anblick” means “appearance” or “look” –the
way something looks to the eye, a “sight.” A “Schlachtfeld” is a battlefield, but with
more macabre and sinister overtones – “Schlacht” is a word known in English as
“slaughter” and the doctor’s toast proposes that the field of combat is something like an
abbatoir, a “killing field.” “Morgengrauen” means literally “the grey of morning” – that
is, not exactly dawn but “pre-dawn”. Dawn itself in German is “Morgenroete” - that is,
“rosy morning”. The doctor’s toast, accordingly, is to the way thata battlefield, identified as a place where human’s are butchered, looks just before the sun
rises. Like Kilgore’s “napalm in the morning,” the toast is insanely “gung-ho” – and
ironically so, since the doctor has spent the entire novel cringing in
his burrow while the boy-soldiers overhead are ripped to shreds by the falling bombs. Indeed, the implications of the doctor’s toast to the “battlefield at dawn” are worse than Kilgore’s olfactory reverie – Kilgore is quick to mention the fact that the napalm strike doesn’t seem to have killed any “dinks” or, in the alternative, has vaporized them to extent that the smell of charred flesh doesn’t interfere with the purity of the “smell of gasoline.” By contrast, the doctor’s toast seems to require the presences of slaughtered bodies, corpses, on the battlefield. Notice, as well, that both Kilgore and Dr. Egon Michael are philosophical – Kilgore is a figure derived from a perverse misreading of Nietzsche; Michael cites Heraclitus for the proposition that War is the father of all things.
No rational claim can be made that Milius knew this passage from Vergeltung when he wrote Apocalypse Now. The novel was unknown even to German audiences in the early seventies and there’s no evidence that Milius could read German, although he has expressed, from time to time, an affinity for Nietzsche. The connection that I fuse between Ledig’s book and Milius’ famous lines in Coppola’s Hollywood movie is based on similarity alone, not influence. My grafting of these two linguistic events is arbitrary, I suppose, probably, nothing more than happenstance. But I think it is curious, and, even, illuminating that two writers would independently create texts that seem to echo one another on the same general subject. Why does this occur? It seems that there is something about the structure of our viewpoint on battle, some sort of semi-ironic, yet celebratory, perspective on war that is intrinsic to the subject. In this context, I must point out that unlike Milius, whose only experience with napalm was on the location of the movie, Ledig knew in his marrow what he was writing about. Having survived the Eastern Front with severe wounds, Ledig was repatriated to work in factories in Leipzig and Munich. In those places, he endured repeated and deadly bombing attacks.
Another kind of graft is visible in Ledig’s book. This is the appropriation of words from a foreign language to express realities incommensurate with the tenor of the host language. Several interesting examples can be cited in Vergeltung, locations in the writing where English (even American) words are embedded like splinters in the prose. Hitler’s Germany was based on notions of tribal purity. But language is inherently impure, always a compound of invasive foreign words grafted to native diction.
A mob of boys and shell-shocked young soldiers surrounds the doomed American airman, Strenehan, in the bomb-shelter. Someone shouts “Schlaegt den Gangster tot!” – that is, “Beat the gangster to death!” The word “gangster” is loaned to the Germans to be applied by the homicidal mob. Presumably, the people kicking and thrashing Strenehan to death have seen American crime films from the thirties – pictures like Scarface and Public Enemy. In this context, it seems that “gangster” is a term applied to those committing crimes against German civilians – that is, the American pilots and their crews dropping incendiary bombs on the city. It is curious that the rabble is roused against an American by a word that seems intrinsically American – a term that we would apply to the tough-talking, nattily dressed mobsters populating cinema screens in the Depression.
Earlier, the Germans huddled in the bomb-shelter use another loan-word to describe how they feel about the Americans dropping fire onto their homes. An explosion has just rocked the bunker and caused the metal flaps on the ventilation system to snap hard against the air-slits. One of the flaps has been blown off and falls to the ground alarming the people in the shelter.
“The concussion tore the flap off. That’s all,” (The young man) shook his head. The ventilators hummed. The people were embarrassed and looked at the floor. Everyone was silent, then a man cried: “The damned Americans are responsible for this!”
A woman rasped: “You’re right!”
“Lynching,” a voice from the corner assured them: “Every terrorist who is shot down must be lynched.”
The German is interesting: “Lynchen,” versicherte aus der Ecke eine Stimme, “Jeder abgeschossene Terrorflieger muss gelyncht werden.” Every “terror-flier” shot down “muss gelyncht werden” – “will have to be lynched.” The verb lynched has been assimilated to German and equipped with a prefix “ge-lyncht” (and a final “t”) – that is, the German past participle of an imagined German verb “lynchen”. The “ge-“ suffix signifies completed action and, originally, may have also conveyed subtle “aspectual” features of the thing that has happened. But, of course, linguistic analysis is beside the point in this application – the German speakers in the bombshelters have appropriated to their use an American word and grammatically transformed it into a German verb.
Presumably, the Germans thought of America, with its troubled race relations, as the locus classicus of lynching. An irony lurks in the application of the word to a white Texan, the stranded airman Strenehan. We know that an African-American was on Strenehan’s plane when it was shot down over the city. This man is named Sam Ohm and his corpse makes a cameo appearance on the last page of Ledig’s novel:
Sam Ohm was found later, in the afternoon. In his case, they maintained that his skin had been charred. Someone saw the rosy palms on the inside of his hands and designated the man as a nigger. A young man with pimples on his chin put his foot on the corpse’s head.
Normally, people like Sam Ohm are lynched, not the middle-class white Texan, Strenehan. The inferno, it seems, eliminates racial distinctions that would otherwise be significant.
An interesting, if rather technical, essay might be written about the peregrinations of the verb “lynched,” particularly in German. We know that sophisticated German-speaking artists were very interested in American lynchings. The Viennese Fritz Lang’s first film made in Hollywood, Fury (1936) concerned mob violence and a lynching – somehow, a white man played by Spencer Tracy almost gets himself hanged by a crowd of vicious yokels. Brecht uses the phrase with relish in his entr’acte to Mann ist Mann (“A Man is a Man”), the short farce “The Elephant Calf”. In that playlet, a character declares: “Es handelt sich jetzt schon um Gelyncht-oder-Nicht-gelyncht werden, das ist hier die Frage, die Sache ist in ein ungeheuer ernstes Studium getreten.” Brecht motivates the use of verb forms for “lynching” by the fact that his characters are British soldiers – hence, the word would be native to them. Brecht’s soldiers have sold tickets to their comrades granting them admission to see an “elephant calf”. But, unfortunately, they don’t have an actual elephant calf, but only a man simulating such an animal. Fearful that the mob of ticketholders will take revenge on them for the fraud, one of the men says: “Lynched or not-to-be-lynched, that’s what concerns us now, that is the question, the matter has developed into a monstrously serious subject of study.” (Brecht is also toying with Shakespeare’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy – echoes of Shakespeare are always present in the German playwright’s dramaturgy.)
Indeed, the word “lynched” is a loan into English from British or British-American usage. Most etymologists think that the word derives from a proper name. History discloses an Irish jurist, James Lynch Fitzstephen from Galway who hanged his own son from a balcony after convicting him of murdering a Spanish visitor. In America during the revolutionary war, a Virginia plantation owner, Charles Lynch, presided over semi-judicial proceedings that resulted in the imprisonment of several of his neighbors suspected of being Loyalist sympathizers. Lynch was concerned that he would suffer reprisals due to these actions and so persuaded a local legislature to pass a law specifically exonerating him from any offenses committed in the course of the Revolutionary War. These enactments were called “Lynch Laws” and were thought to be extra-judicial and irregular in nature – hence, the term “to lynch” meant to insist upon measures designed to circumvent and evade existing laws. In its original application, “Lynch Laws” had nothing to do with race – in fact, Charles Lynch seems to have been sympathetic to the interests of plantation slaves that appeared before him.
Mutations of the verb “lynched” dramatize a point that I have earlier made: language is inherently impure and porous to outside influences. Like the notion of race, the concept of any specific language as a discrete, well-defined, and clearly bounded entity seems highly questionable. Languages are built from grafts. English is a hybrid of Norman French and Anglo-Saxon. German is a compound of Latin, Gothic, and Scandinavian languages. The genetics of every language contain the DNA of adjacent Sprache, the tongues spoken in contiguous territories or by populations embedded within the Muttersprache (the “Mother Tongue”). Ultimately, every language is a kind of Yiddish – that is, a dialect of several other languages that are, themselves, dialects of dialects. The structure of language mirrors discourse on the world wide web, the internet, at last, fashioning a vast system of correspondences, an engine of correlations, similarities, and associations. Before our current era, geographical space and historical time intervened between racial and ethnic groups and suggested an illusory separation of languages from one another. Computing machines have torn down the boundaries to communication although without, unfortunately, ameliorating old biases, hatreds, and suspicions. Nonetheless, the internet is an infinite series of bridges. But where do the bridges lead? The question is framed imprecisely, based upon a teleological assumption that the purpose for communication is the discovery of truth or the establishment of some utopian order. But this seems to me to be wrong. The bridges merely lead to other bridges. Communication is not necessarily proof of anything. Words are like people. People exist to breed more people. Words exist to breed more words. There is no end to communication and no ultimate objective, no final and decisive message. The links simply proliferate. In William Burroughs words, “language is a virus...” Originally, Burroughs claimed that the virus came from outer space. But such a statement presupposes that there is an inside and an outside to linguistic space. Perhaps, the definition of a linguistic space is that it is a terrain that is paradoxically all inside with nothing outside of it at all.