“It just started out as a simple goodbye song,” James Douglas Morrison told reporter Jerry Hopkins. “Probably just to a girl, but I could see how it could be goodbye to a kind of childhood… I think it’s sufficiently complex and universal in its imagery that it could be almost anything you want it to be.”
To me, the song always was and always will be about the Vietnam War. If you know it — and you will the instant you hear the first notes and the shivering tambourine — you know it as “The End.” And if you know the man who sang that song, it’s probably not as James Douglas but simply Jim. What you may not know about the Doors’ lead singer is that his father, George Morrison, commanded the U.S. Naval fleet during the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, an event fraught with missteps, distortions, and deceptions that precipitated an escalation of the American War in Vietnam ultimately ending in millions of casualties and almost unimaginable suffering.
Jim Morrison’s father is not, however, the reason I think of the Vietnam War when I hear that song. I owe that instead to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film Apocalypse Now, which begins with “The End” and ends with it, too. When people write about it, they often remark on the naked Oedipal imagery — “Father? Yes son. I want to kill you. Mother? I want to…,” howls Morrison. But whoever selected “The End” as the theme music for Apocalypse Now must have heard what I heard. It begins like bad poetry, mutates into a furious, profanity-laced tirade, only to glide into a creamy, dream-like ending. A smattering of lyrics along the way seem to capture the nightmare atmosphere of the American War in Vietnam.
“This is the end, beautiful friend
This is the end, my only friend, the end
Of our elaborate plans, the end…”
Forged in the fading afterglow of World War II, America’s plans for a righteous nation to save a backward people were elaborate indeed. To Washington, the Vietnamese seemed to be
“Desperately in need of some stranger’s hand
In a desperate land…”
America’s moral superiority, its ingenuity, its technological know-how, its military might were unstoppable; with a requisite number of quislings in tow, the fall of those Southeast Asian dominos would be arrested, communism would be stopped, and a Cold War battle won.
“The West is the best, the West is the best
Get here, and we’ll do the rest…”
It turned out that the West wasn’t the best, that all those Pentagon computers and statistical analyses and bombs and artillery shells and napalm and tanks and airplanes and helicopters and rifles and Swift boats and the generals who, as younger men, had defeated Germany and Japan during World War II, and the boys of the milk-and-honey baby boom toting those rifles and driving those tanks and dropping that napalm couldn’t actually do “the rest.” It turned out that Americans never won over more than a minority of the Vietnamese and, despite years of some of the most destructive warfare the world had ever seen, could not defeat the majority of them.
“It hurts to set you free,
But you’ll never follow me,
The end of laughter and soft lies,
The end of nights we tried to die,
This is the end.”
America’s grand plans later revealed themselves to be bankrupt. Bombing millions into slums and refugee camps didn’t necessarily mean those people would follow you. Soft lies mouthed by the military at 5 p.m. each evening were no substitute for actual victories. Laughter and glad-handing and talk of easy triumph were repeatedly blown apart. By the time it was all over, by the time the end had come, the entire American effort had hemorrhaged and bled out in a million hamlets across South Vietnam.
Jim Morrison recorded “The End” in 1966, when the American project in Vietnam still had life in it. Unlike his father, who passed away in 2008, he never saw the end of the Vietnam War, though the writing was already on the wall. He died in France — the country whose war in Vietnam the Americans had bankrolled and then taken over — in 1971.
Today, as TomDispatch regular Christian Appy notes, the end of that war — a time of devastating defeat for the United States and relief, if not liberation, for most Vietnamese — has been rebranded to suit American tastes and so offers a hint of what may come when other ends arrive in our present crash-and-burn conflicts in the Greater Middle East. As in his magisterial new book, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, — rightly termed “required reading” by the Huffington Post — Appy examines the lasting impact of the Vietnam War on American foreign policy, culture, and national identity and draws attention to the lessons it offers for today and the many tomorrows to come.
In a 1969 interview, Jim Morrison said that he was once approached by an attractive young woman “on leave” from UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. She said “The End” was a favorite of the kids in her ward. The woman had puzzled over the lyrics, trying to divine the song’s meaning, trying to break it down and piece it together. “I didn’t realize people took songs so seriously and it made me wonder whether I ought to consider the consequences,” Morrison observed.
Not considering the consequences turns out to be a very American trait, as Appy explains today, and so does refashioning history to make up for it. When the end finally comes in Iraq and Afghanistan, soft lies, willful amnesia, and rampant revisionism are bound to follow fast and furious; where the truth will be found remains to be seen. Sadly enough, a song already almost 50 years old may be as good a place to start as any.