(Posting my notes explaining the gist of the thing at Ken’s request. I’d like to flesh it out with references, pictures, etc. but he asked very nicely that I post this stuff immediately.)
The thesis of Apocalypse Now is that borrowing authority from an institution is like being stuck between a hammer and an anvil. On the one hand, you have to bring your own initiative, exercise individual judgment in pursuit of the mission, and get blamed for every failure that happens under your command. On the other hand, you have to carry out nonsensical missions to achieve contradictory strategic goals and follow arbitrary rules of engagement (written by people with no understanding or sense of responsibility) that prevent your success. This leads to the paradox that is tearing apart Colonel Kurtz’s soul. (Since I’ve been analyzing the movie as Captain Willard’s psychological journey back from becoming a monster, it’s actually Captain Willard’s soul that’s being torn apart.)
Kurtz is, as mentioned, archetype spiraling into the perfect soldier. He wants a clear mission so he can bend everything in his power to its accomplishment, like a paperclip maximizer for winning wars. The trouble arises once he takes responsibility for winning the war outside of the authority vested in him by the degenerate American generals. He becomes lost in a postmodern chaos where definitions like “what would winning this war even look like?” become too complex to be approximated by propositional declarations. He didn’t sign up to be a philosopher, he signed up to be a warrior! But of course signing up to follow orders and then abandoning his orders was the contradiction. It is categorically either true or not true that a person is under orders to fulfill missions handed to them by the institutional authority.
So in the end he followed his fantasy of being a god of war, defining his own morality, but also be perfectly pragmatic and therefore unbothered by “why” questions. You can’t be half a gangster, and if you want to own the successes of being a gangster you have to own the decision to become a gangster. Incidentally, this is why black societies rarely amount to much- most blacks want responsibility for the good but not the bad, but if you blame other people for the bad you’re admitting you were powerless to stop them (which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy). If you claim you sold drugs and hip-hop to survive because you had no other options but now you’re showing off the cars and house you bought with the money, you’re being a pussy. If you’re gonna own the good you have to own the bad or you’re admitting it was never your choice to make and you’re basically a beneficiary of fate. Captain Willard owns his decisions at the end, and owns up to what he had to become to survive and thrive in Vietnam, hence the catharsis. “I made this, therefore it’s mine to unmake if I want.”