Apocalypse Now: Jus In Bello

Apocalypse Now: Jus In Bello

Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Optimum Releasing 

Release date: May 27th 2011
Certificate (UK): 18
Running time: 153 minutes

Year of production: 1979

Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: John Milius & Francis Ford Coppola

Narrated by: Michael Herr

Cast: Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford, Laurence Fishburne & Dennis Hopper

War, for all that it is, has rules that it must abide by. Rules for just war (jus ad bellum) stipulate when nations should fight. There must first of all be just cause, only then can war be declared by a legitimate authority and the intentions for fighting must be good. Once you’re in a war though, there are a further set of rules for how it must be fought and they are known as ‘the law of war’ (jus in bello).

These rules seek to limit the destruction of war, put a restraint on what kind of weapons can be used and protect the innocent.

Apocalypse Now

In Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, based on Joseph Conrad’s story Heart of Darkness (1902) and drawing on elements from Michael Herr’s memoirs, Dispatches (1977), we see a total disregard for these rules and as a result it helps us understand something of the nature of war. It is as William Tecumseh Sherman once said, “War is hell!”

Set in 1968, it tells the story of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) who is sent on a mission to Cambodia to assassinate Green Beret, Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) during the Vietnam War. Kurtz has gone insane and has barricaded himself in a remote outpost, setting himself up as a God among a local tribe and committing atrocious acts of butchery, enslavement and torture.


Soldiers fighting war must be able to discriminate against those who are innocent and those who are non-innocents. The innocent are women, children, the sick, the dying, the wounded and those suffering from mental conditions while the non-innocents are those engaging in combat.

Also ties in with the use of minimum force. In war you must be able to calculate if the kind of force you are using is proportionate to the kind of force that is necessary for the outcome you want.

A soldier who puts down his weapons and surrenders must then be treated as a non-combatant and therefore cannot be killed or harmed. If they become prisoners of war, they are entitled to basic humane treatment and cannot be attacked, tortured or intimidated in any way.

Kurtz’s tactics were at first approved by the MACV (Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) who saw no problem with him killing women and children as he raised an army in and around the Vietnamese–Cambodian border to take down the Viet Cong and N.V.A. (Vietnam People’s Army). This soon changed when Kurtz allowed images of his atrocities to be revealed to the world and then refused to step down after orders from the MACV.

Willard joins the crew of a Navy Patrol Boat and they venture deep into the jungle to make their way to Kurtz’s base. The visions of war, suffering and the stench of death they see along the way is nothing compared to the apocalypse Kurtz will bestow onto them once they arrive…if they survive.

Apocalypse Now

Kurtz throws out the rules in war in favour of his own just war theories; he shows no discrimination between the innocent and non-innocents, he uses maximum force and takes away the rights of soldiers, including Willard’s as he breaks him down. Kurtz firmly believes that his actions are justified if they are to prevail in this war.

The disregard for the rules in war is not limited to him though. We see it throughout the movie; Willard shows it when they stop to inspect a sampan, Kilgore shows it when he launches an attack on the beach to the sound of Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, after which he comments to Willard “I love the smell of napalm in the morning… The smell, you know that gasoline smell… Smells like … victory”, recalling a battle where hill was bombarded with napalm for over twelve hours.

Apocalypse Now’s magnitude of madness, pain and violence is visualised in such frightening poetry; its beauty and barbarism is like one bloody hand clasping another.

Apocalypse Now

For all its horrors and contradictions, war, it seems is part of our evolution and culture. Despite the fact that no one wants it, we always seem to be at war and even 32 years after its initial release, Apocalypse Now tells a story that could be happening anywhere in the world today, but it’s Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC) who has so far given us the best explanation as to why we are always at war:

“No one chooses to be at war or provokes war for the sake of war…We make war that we may live at peace”

While Apocalypse Now highlights many aspects of war, there are some questions which should also be asked. What is morally permissible to bring about a speedy end to war? Should we condemn soldiers for their conduct in war if they believed their actions would have the best possible outcome? Anything in war would then be permissible if the soldiers reasoned that it’s about winning – just war theory, as a result, would collapse in the face of total war if we took Kurtz’s way.

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