WILLARD: How many people had I already killed? There were those six that I knew about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time, it was an American and an officer. That wasn't supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. S***...charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do?
The officers want Kurtz dead because he represents a threat to their vision of the war. He exposes that the essence of the war is pure brutality, and dispenses with all their illusions of ideals and humanitarianism. He's way beyond their control at this point.
CIVILIAN: Terminate with extreme prejudice.
This high-ranking government civilian—whoever he is—has one line in the whole movie. It's a menacing line, expressing a command from on high that's suspicious and mysterious. Scenarios like this feed into a belief that lots of people have, that a malevolent government is doing things behind our backs and manipulating us in ways that we can't even imagine.
WILLARD: No wonder Kurtz put a weed up Command's ass. The war was being run by a bunch of four star clowns who were gonna end up giving the whole circus away.
The "four star clowns" aren't really committed to winning the war the way Kurtz is. Kurtz is willing to kill at all costs in order to attain victory, whereas the commanding officers just want to create the appearance that they're winning without actually doing it. Even by 1969 it was clear that the war wasn't going exactly the way the U.S. hoped.
KILGORE: If I say it's safe to surf this beach, Captain, then it's safe to surf this beach! I mean, I'm not afraid to surf this place, I'll surf this whole f***ing place!
Kilgore is so high on the power he wields that he's wildly confident. He's the only major character whose sense of control isn't totally shattered by the war.
KURTZ: I expected someone like you. What did you expect? Are you an assassin?
WILLARD: I'm a soldier.
KURTZ: You're neither. You're an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.
Kurtz expresses his contempt for the commanders in charge of Willard. He doesn't think they're serious about winning the war; they're just trying to settle accounts with Kurtz, who really does want to win. Kurtz has long since quit being controlled by what his commanding officers think he should be doing.
KURTZ: And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it...I never want to forget. And then I realized...like I was shot...like I was shot with a diamond...a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God.. the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men...trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love...but they had the strength...the strength...to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly.
Kurtz knows that if he had soldiers ruthless enough to chop off the inoculated arms of children, he would be able to win the war easily. In a flash of insight, he recognizes the simple effectiveness of raw power. He doesn't see this as a moral issue at all.
WILLARD: On the river, I thought that the minute I looked at him, I'd know what to do, but it didn't happen. I was in there with him for days, not under guard; I was free, but he knew I wasn't going anywhere. He knew more about what I was going to do than I did. If the generals back in Nha Trang could see what I saw, would they still want me to kill him? More than ever, probably. And what would his people back home want if they ever learned just how far from them he'd really gone? He broke from them, and then he broke from himself. I'd never seen a man so broken up and ripped apart.
Kurtz couldn't have achieved the power he has without haven't gone off the psychological deep end. Even in war, Willard believes there's some limit to how you use your power.
KURTZ: Have you ever considered any real freedoms? Freedoms from the opinion of others...even the opinions of yourself?
Kurtz feels like he's beyond judgment, and that gives him the power to do what he wants. For most normal people, the judgment of others is what reins us in. And, oh yeah, our sense of right and wrong.