Note: This piece is a little late to the conversation about “American Sniper.” I submitted it to a large website two weeks ago in hopes that its reach and readership could broaden the conversation about our military. Instead, the site decided it wasn’t balanced enough so they refused it. I still believe it’s a valid conversation, and I hope you’ll be part of it.
I can’t generalize about the audiences who are watching “American Sniper.” I don’t know the demographics, or the impressions they are left with once the movie is over. Arguably, no one else can either, although some continue to try.
I do, however, feel minimally qualified to offer an opinion about the movie’s content, because I have spent more than 20 years in the midst of our country’s greatest warriors. I served four years as an Army journalist, and an additional 20 as the wife of a Special Forces soldier. Many of the lessons I’ve learned over the years were present in the movie, and they ring true whether we choose to believe them or not.
One: America’s all-volunteer military willingly serves our nation so that others are not forced to do so. Very often, our service members are tasked with missions that are gut-wrenching, but they are never given the option to choose whether they will comply.
When American troops were assigned to Africa to assist with the spread of the Ebola virus, many families I know struggled with the notion that a family member would be exposed to the potentially deadly virus. But the soldiers went.
And if you find yourself tempted to accuse those families of being self-involved or indifferent to the plight of others, I would ask you to imagine that your family member was being sent. Anyone who is capable of being intellectually honest will understand what I mean.
Two: Many service members who have seen combat have witnessed things that the average person cannot process. In many cases, they are not at liberty to share what they know, which results in impossible second- and third-order effects: they cannot share their experiences with those they love most, and they necessarily become distant from those same people.
Their attempts to compartmentalize their lives cause them to feel like outsiders in their own homes. When they return to find that dinner-table discussions center around American Idol and deflated footballs, they struggle to understand our fascination with the trivial to the exclusion of the horrors occurring around the world.
Every single American should understand that there are atrocities being committed by those on the other side of this war that will likely never be made public. I don’t know if that is because our military isn’t releasing the details or because the details aren’t being sought by those who could report them. Either way, the lack of reporting doesn’t change the reality.
Three: The burden of service to this great nation (and yes, I said great) falls on a very small percentage of our citizens. During World War II, an estimated 16 million Americans served in uniform. Not included in that number are the civilians who worked for the government, and the countless individuals and communities that conserved and rationed items in support of our military efforts.
Today, the Department of Defense reports that 2.5 million members of the military have deployed in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it absolutely makes a difference that such a small part of our population carries the burden of combat now.
Don’t believe me? A group of students from our on-post high school recently participated in the Kentucky Youth Assembly, a simulation of Kentucky’s democratic process. As part of the effort, they were assigned to draft a bill that would be presented for consideration by the mock assembly.
Our students drafted a bill that proposed free college tuition to children of disabled veterans in the state of Kentucky. Our students were shocked when a group of off-post students disputed the notion that veterans had done anything to earn such preferential treatment; when another student questioned who the term “veteran” referred to, our team was left speechless.
Four: Many Americans are still unabashedly patriotic. We understand that the American people have done great things during the course of our nation’s history. We aren’t so naive as to believe that our nation has never “gotten it wrong.”
Rather, we understand that, just as you might do with a child, you can love America in spite of the less-than-perfect parts of our history. Just as you might do with a child, you can celebrate the good things and try to correct the bad. But just as you might with a child, you should realize that it is punitive and narrow-minded to focus on the bad to the exclusion of the good.
If you’re among the crowd that finds the concept of patriotism offensive, I absolutely respect your right to feel that way. But I maintain that it is ok to be patriotic. It is ok to question our nation’s decisions and actions. And it’s ok to love her because of, and in spite of, those decisions.
Five: It cannot be repeated too often, or too loudly, that our service members protect our right to offer an opinion about anything and everything.
“It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press.
It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech.
It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate.
It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protestor to burn the flag.”
Father Denis Edward O‘Brien, United States Marine Corps
Six: The movie has initiated a dialogue that our country needs to have. A dialogue about war, and about those who fight it. About those who are affected by it, and those who live it. And about the fallout of war.
My daughter’s junior English class recently debated the issue of romanticizing combat, and whether Hollywood should be allowed to do it. (She attends high school on a military base with students who have endured multiple combat deployments by the adults in their lives.)
On one side of the issue, a student argued that we’ve killed innocent people during the course of the wars we have fought. On the other side, a student suggested that there is something inexplicably beautiful about the fact that there are those who will lay down their lives for their country.
The debate stirred emotions that have likely been buried for many years; emotions that have built up over the course of numerous combat deployments. But I am thankful for educators who understand the value of dialogue and debate, and who encourage our students to engage in both.
I am grateful for our teachers who have close ties to the military, and who understand the difficulties inherent in our communities. I am especially grateful for those who aren’t afraid of disagreement: it is to be expected among people with varied experiences and different backgrounds.
Seven: “American Sniper” has become the top grossing war film of all time, passing “Saving Private Ryan” and “Pearl Harbor.” Perhaps audiences are spending their hard-earned money to see what all the controversy is about. Perhaps audiences are angry, as Howard Dean said, and this movie is a reflection of that anger.
Or perhaps Americans are hungry for stories that remind us that our nation is inherently good, even if she isn’t always perfect. Perhaps audiences yearn for stories about heroes, and those whose lives are devoted to some greater purpose. If the popularity of life coaches is any indication, people are hungry for a return to meaningful work and meaningful lives.
Perhaps you, too, are tired of this entire conversation. Certainly no one could blame you for feeling that way, least of all military families who have lived this struggle for 14 years. They understand that seeing a young child on the receiving end of a sniper rifle is beyond difficult.
But they also personally know people who died fighting the War on Terror, so when critics who are angry at the origins of the war lash out at Chris Kyle and those he served with, it feels very personal.
My point is not to argue the merits of this movie, but to celebrate the fact that we are finally discussing the gut-wrenching decisions faced by our military during times of combat. Perhaps the movie isn’t perfect. Perhaps it’s heavy-handed at times. Perhaps it included a distracting prop or it over-simplified a complex issue.
It also included several worthwhile messages about those who wear the uniform of our nation. It shed light on the internal and external struggles our nation’s warriors are waging. It gave a brief, perhaps flawed, glimpse into the lives of our military men and women.
The most important thing we can do is continue the conversation: the good and the bad. We should separate our ambivalence for the war from our feelings for our military. Reach out to a friend who served in the military and ask what he thought. Or reach out to someone currently serving and do the same.
Let’s educate ourselves about world events, not through the skewed eyes of a 24-hour news channel, but rather from unbiased, first-hand accounts. Let’s refuse to be led mindlessly down any path by those with a personal agenda.
As a student of history, I have often wondered what issue might unite us again, and cause us to stand together as a nation of people with a common set of beliefs. Perhaps this is the one?