Afghanistan and the Colonel Kurtz Effect


This is another entry in the new WOTR series, Art of War. To submit to Art of War, email with “SUBMISSION” in the subject line.

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (W. W. Norton & Company, 1899; 2005).

Ann Scott Tyson, American Spartan: the Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant (William Morrow, 2014).


Like many of us national security geeks, I found American Spartan (reviewed here at WOTR by Joseph Collins) deeply fascinating, and not a little disturbing. Its pages recount the adventures of Washington Post reporter Ann Scott Tyson and her beloved, Major Jim Gant, as they waged counterinsurgency deep in the wilds of eastern Afghanistan. If nothing else, it is an honest, heartfelt account of their personal and professional struggles. And it is a tragic story, although the reasons for believing so probably differ depending upon one’s views of the Afghan campaign.

In the end, Major Gant wins the “hearts and minds” of the local Afghans; however, in so doing he “goes native” in ways that were, and are, deeply uncomfortable, particularly to his chain of command. He embraces the Spartan ethic: he believes in the Greek warrior-gods tattooed on his shoulders, and ritually lets his blood around a campfire while remembering his fallen soldiers (for some fascinating insights into Gant’s character by people who know him, read the comments section of Collins’ review).  And his future wife lived with him illegally in a war zone, which is a pretty significant faux pas, to put it lightly.

Whatever you may think about the particulars of their exploits — whether you think him a hero or traitor — there is a somewhat overlooked aspect of their story. Namely, the casual (and somewhat disturbing) comparisons, made by Tyson and others, between Major Gant and Colonel Kurtz of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Indeed, Gant himself seems to feel a particular affinity to the character. Tyson describes a scene where Gant places his friend Dan’s Special Forces tab above a framed photo of Marlon Brando as a spear-bald Colonel Kurtz; Gant subsequently shaves his head. Perhaps this affinity is due to the way Colonel Kurtz meets his end; he is, after all, assassinated under the orders of the very leaders who sent him into the jungles in the first place. But then again, perhaps not.

Apocalypse Now is, of course, loosely based on Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness. The film adapts Conrad’s work into a powerful statement of deep unease with the Vietnam conflict. Coppola was able to do so because Heart of Darkness (much like other great works of literature) is both timely and timeless. Which, of course, brings us to the subject of this week’s Art of War column: Heart of Darkness, and how it illuminates the Afghanistan campaign.

Heart of Darkness

The novella itself is a semi-autobiographical account of Conrad’s travels up the Congo during the period of brutal Belgian colonial rule. The narrator, Charles Marlow is a seaman who becomes enamored with the mystery presented by a map of Africa, and in particular, the winding snake that is the Congo River. He departs Europe and takes up a commission on a steamboat servicing the ivory trade, departing from Kinshasa and heading northwards. As he makes his way to the African continent and up the Congo River, he is confronted by increasingly gruesome scenes of brutality and waste: chain gangs of dying slaves, Europeans shelling the bush for no particular purpose, and his helmsman being slain by a javelin to the chest, to name a few. Marlow observes all of this with a horrified passivity. Rather than take action, he retreats into performing the task at hand: repair, and eventually pilot, his steamboat.

Yet as he does so, he becomes aware of an enigmatic figure residing deep in the jungle:  Mr. Kurtz. All who know him, or know of him, agree that he is a rising star within the colonial trading company. By their descriptions, Kurtz is the very picture of enlightenment. He is an artist, author, leader, and inspiring figure, sent on a mission by his superiors to civilize the natives and (most importantly) extract their ivory. However, when Marlow eventually meets Kurtz, he finds a sickly man, both in body and spirit, who has embraced his demi-god status with the local tribesmen.  Kurtz’s soul has gone mad; heads on pikes surround his living quarters, yet he raves about his big plans to accomplish “great things.”  In the end, Marlow decides to return Kurtz to the care of colonial medical professionals, despite Kurtz’s own ambivalence about leaving the jungle.  As they steam back down the river and towards civilization, Kurtz finally confronts the savage acts to which he had hedonistically descended.  His last words on his death bed are: “The horror! The horror!”

Post 9/11 Afghanistan

Of course, comparing the American-led intervention in Afghanistan to Belgian colonialism is like comparing apples and Audis. The indiscriminate viciousness, greed, and exploitation that Conrad depicts were largely absent from the International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF) conduct. The Belgian colonial powers of Conrad’s era did not care about winning the support of the local population or empowering local governance. They cared about ivory, full stop. Still, Conrad’s work is rich with insights that can be usefully teased out. For me, some of the themes that resonate include:

  • the importance of measures of effectiveness and their oversight; and
  • the difficulties of redeployment.

Measures of Effectiveness

When kicking around military circles, it doesn’t take terribly long before someone mentions “metrics,” i.e., largely quantitative measures designed to communicate (among other things) campaign progress. With respect to Afghanistan, this was always a rather tricky thing. How does one objectively measure the degree to which ISAF and the Afghan government have won local hearts and minds, particularly when many of those Afghans are reluctant to communicate truth to their foreign interlocutors? Furthermore, as Ben Connable over at RAND wonders, is information derived from locally oriented measures of effectiveness into a theater-wide picture of campaign success or failure?

Metrics, for better or worse, serve another purpose: communicating to subordinates a campaign commander’s true priorities. Much like high school kids trying to figure out how to cram for an exam, deployed service members and civilians will often note the measures of effectiveness they are required to report on, and design their plans and activities around them. As Kilcullen puts it, “organizations manage what they measure, and they measure what their leaders tell them to report on.” Thus, the question of “how many shuras (local tribal meetings) did your unit conduct this week” becomes a not-so-subtle indication to tactical operators that they probably ought to conduct more shuras.

It is for this reason that metrics are critically important, as is their oversight. For Kurtz, the standard by which his success was measured was how much ivory he extracted from the jungle and sent down the river. And of all the ivory agents posted in the wilds of Africa, Kurtz was by far and away the most successful. Jim Gant had a similarly successful track record. Gant’s task was to roll back the anti-coalition forces, and he certainly appears to have delivered, at least in his local area. Gant was able to win the confidence and support of local Afghans, ultimately becoming such an important figure in eastern Afghanistan that he ended up on Al Qaeda’s targeting lists.  Thus, Tyson asks a key question as she details their exploits: Were Gant’s means justified by his ability to make progress against the metrics he was given? Did the ends justify the means?

Which brings us back to Conrad. When Kurtz’s manager finally learns the truth of the situation, he is horrified — although, admittedly less because of the impact Kurtz has had on the locals, and more because the local ivory trade will suffer as a result of Kurtz’s activities.  Did the ends justify Kurtz’s means?  In the final analysis, for Conrad the answer is no. For Conrad, it appears to be the latter. After months of separation, Kurtz’s manager believes that, ultimately, the ends did not justify the means.

The Challenges of Redeployment

Before Marlow sets off for Africa, he finds himself in a doctor’s office for a medical examination. To his surprise, towards the end of the exam the doctor pulls out a set of calipers and proceeds to carefully measure Marlow’s head. Upon asking why, the doctor quietly remarks that doing so is “in the interests of science,” but that “moreover, the changes take place inside.” Marlow finds himself recalling that exchange several times over the course of the novella.

Because Marlow’s experience in Africa changes him, much as it irrevocably altered Kurtz. Indeed, Kurtz is so profoundly changed that he finds it difficult to contemplate returning to civilization. Kurtz even attempts to escape, dragging his sickly body through the darkness — an escape only prevented by Marlow’s intervention. Further, Marlow discovers that Kurtz ordered his tribe to attack the steamer as it made its way towards his camp.

But brutality aside, Kurtz’s ambivalence about leaving the Congo is reminiscent of the predicament of contemporary veterans experiencing nostalgia for their Iraq and Afghanistan experiences. To an outsider, this nostalgia may appear mystifying. However, Kurtz tells us that it can be deeply painful to leave those battlefields where so much was sacrificed, so much was gained.

In the end, Kurtz decides to return to civilization, albeit too late to benefit from its medicine. He does so while hoping he will be greeted by kings and other luminaries upon his arrival on the European continent. Why wouldn’t he be greeted with fanfare, after having lived on the edge of the world for so long for the benefit of king and country? Marlow rightly implies that on that score, his dreams of greatness would not likely be satisfied; and that instead, Kurtz would more likely have felt the way Marlow did upon returning to Europe:

I found myself back in the sepulchral city resenting the sight of people hurrying through the streets to filch a little money from each other, to devour their infamous cookery, to gulp their unwholesome beer, to dream their insignificant and silly dreams… they were intruders whose knowledge of life to me was an irritating pretense, because I felt so sure they could not possibly know the things I knew.

In the end, Kurtz dies before discovering this painful, heartbreaking truth. Yet Conrad is reminding us of the difficulties of redeployment: service members and civilians have been deeply altered by their experiences — changes that their compatriots back home probably do not fully comprehend or appreciate. What are the disconnects between their expectations of their return, and the realities they actually face upon their arrival at home? And what are the overall impacts of these disconnects?

Ann Scott Tyson depicts Major Gant on the verge of suicide. Veteran suicides are on the rise. Important questions indeed.

Where is the Heart of Darkness?

As Mr. Kurtz took up his ivory posting in Africa, European social activists impressed upon him the need to “civilize the locals” (it is worth noting that Marlow finds the local cannibals more civilized than his European brethren). The intentions of the “civilizers” may have been well-meaning, but the actions of the Belgian colonizers were anything but civil.  However, as long as colonial masters perceived to be running smoothly — as long as the ivory kept being shipped — Marlow implies it would be unlikely that anyone back in Europe would really care about those profound and disturbing disconnects.

Indeed, this may, in part, have driven Marlow – and others – to conceal the depths of Kurtz’s depravity. After all, at least Kurtz was honest in his hedonism, and said as much on his death bed; in Europe, the pretense of civility was betrayed by the distant brutality through which wealth was gained. Conrad seems to bristle against the “sepulchral city’s” amnesia regarding their own forward-based citizens and all the unintended consequences arising as a result. At the end of the day, Conrad’s heart of darkness seems to be found less in Africa, and more on the European continent.

Regardless of whether you feel the campaign in Afghanistan was justified, it is hard to argue against the notion that ISAF’s actions on the ground were, at times, ham-fisted.  Of course, it is too early to tell how the unintended consequences of our intervention in Afghanistan will play out.  But it is worth noting that despite our laudable intentions to spread democracy and empower the Afghan government, instead we may have accidentally empowered local warlords and corrupt government officials.  It’s easy to blame the Jim Gants of the world for these errors.  But reflecting on Conrad’s themes, one wonders whether some of these tactical and operational mistakes were also a result of insufficient attention from Washington and other Allied capitals.  And if this is the case, then it behooves us to explore whether this particular aspect of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is something we should be shining a spotlight on.

Now, over to you.  Conrad’s work is rich, and I’ve only been able to scratch the surface on this one.  What do you think?  What resonated most with you?  Oh, and I’m taking requests for the next piece, as well as submissions if you’d like to try your hand at this.  Email me at


Kathleen J. McInnis is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Research Consultant at Chatham House. She served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006-2009. She is the editor of the new WOTR series, Art of War. The views expressed are her own.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army