A short history of incomprehensible wars.
Surrounded by a little semi-circle of auditors on the Thames, Marlow, the narrator in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, recounts a scene he had witnessed during his time working on another river, the Congo. A French frigate, he remembers, had been ‘firing incomprehensibly into the continent’. The reader might understand this to mean that Marlow cannot fully understand why the French vessel would fire shells randomly into the jungle. What possible enemy or ‘phantom’ might be the object of such a vigorous demonstration of force? But perhaps the incomprehension is the frigate’s (or the Captain’s). After all, lobbing shells into a whole continent must seem an absurd task for any naval officer to perform. This absurdity is the subject of Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s recapitulation of Conrad, where weapons are discharged towards invisible enemies. The point is the firing. Meanwhile, in non-fictive Vietnam, the jungle itself comes under attack when, in Operation Ranch Hand (a program of herbicide use authorised by JFK), seventy-five million litres of Agent Orange are deposited on the land, with devastating consequences for the human population and the Vietnamese ecosystem.
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