On inoculations

On inoculations – “Apocalypse Now”

There is a scene in the film Apocalypse Now where Kurtz (Brando) is telling Captain Willard (Sheen) of the incident where a South Vietnamese village’s children had been inoculated against smallpox by the US forces. In a vicious ideological hack job, we are told that when the marine medics had left the village, the Viet Minh returned and hacked off each inoculated arm. A pile of little limbs in a heap in the middle of the village. The ‘sheer genius’; of that, says Kurtz. ‘We will never defeat them’.

Remember that Kurtz, and Willard, are on a wholly western quest. Upriver, towards ‘the Horror’ (Conrad’s manual replaced by special ops documentation). What book does Kurtz throw at the spaced out photographer (Hopper) to silence him? An anthropology text – The Golden Bough – by the consummate armchair anthropologist, Sir James Frazer. Famed for never having gone on any quest, ‘heaven forbid’, Frazer is reputed to have said at the prospect of meeting the savages he wrote about. Something here stands for the futile arrogance of those questing inoculators who, surely, just want to help the other (to health, to democracy). To want to help in this way is the same complicity that anthropology always had as handmaiden of colonialism, only nowadays this is reconfigured so that the social sciences, and culture, is to be reworked in the service of globalisation.