The movie, “American Sniper,” has certainly stirred up a whole lot of voices. That's good. And, like most of America, the opinions being expressed are both polarized and all over the map. But two general themes keep turning up: Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL and an Iraq War sniper portrayed in the film, was a " hero" or a "villain," a brave soldier or a cowardly sciopathic killer. And the movie was a pro-war Hoo-rah! screed or a powerful anti-war film.
These simple black and white designations always diminish and disguise the complicated reality of soldering and war. The propensity of calling anyone who did their duty a “hero” seems to be a recent outcome of a culture that gives out gold stars and trophies to kids who just showed up so as to not wound their tender sense of self-esteem.
And calling a soldier a villain blames the instrument for the policy and neatly sidesteps responsibility. If you hate the war and blame the soldier, that conveniently avoids the unpleasant truth that in a democracy the creator of the war, the architect of the policy, will be found smack dab in the middle of a mirror.
And calling a sniper or a combat soldier a sociopathic killer gravely misses one of the terrible truths about war. And that’s actor George C. Scott's "Patton-ish"speech from the movie, "Patton," the bitterly funny line, "I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country."
That awful truth is what made Michael Moore’s comment about snipers in general being viewed as “cowardly” so fatuous. In combat, while taking care to stay within the rules of engagement, how your enemy dies is immaterial. Sniper’s bullet, face-to-face firefights, rocket strikes, bombs, or a knife in the gut is immaterial. Dead is dead and a soldier’s job is to create sufficient dead enemy so that they stop shooting and quit the field of battle. Do that enough times and if you’re lucky, the war may end and you'll get to go home. Alive.
All of which gets very, very complicated in wars where the enemy is not in uniform all neatly turned out into organized battalions lined up on an open plain, flags flying. Asymetrical warfare, guerilla warfare, civilian combatants are ugly, nightmare complications that put extraordinary demands on soldiers. Misread a situation and in a split second a soldier can be dead, or headed for a court martial. And even if all goes well, bloody combat, by its very nature, is too often soul-wounding and puts hard baggage on the survivors. "After such knowledge," observed T.S. Elliot, "what forgiveness?"
In addition, our modern wars conducted by a small cadre of chronically overburdened professional soldiers puts extraordinary demands on those men and women and their families. Too often, we have carelessly and recklessly given them an impossible mission and when the mission fails, we turn our backs and walk away. Or call them cowards or heroes so we don’t have to look more deeply at the complexities behind those words.
“American Sniper” has started a “conversation,” which is good. I can only hope that that “conversation” yields some positive results, a better understanding, more honest evaluations and wiser choices going forward.
Before America slips into its typical default mode: The Great Forgetting.