Defending ‘American Sniper’

American Sniper

With the recent controversy surrounding this movie, I would like to say that those who criticize it for glorifying war are missing the point. The internal struggles represented in this movie are highly reflective of what many Veterans face in the transition to civilian life. Rather than taking this an an opportunity to criticize the war by demonizing those who fought in it, we should learn from the intimate perspective it offers into life in combat and the tragic consequences military service has on Veterans and their families. As Bradley Cooper stated: “’American Sniper’ is meant to be a character study, not a political statement on war.”

Despite this fact, I actually believe the movie is highly political, but not in the sense many are criticizing it for. Rather than a commentary on broader geopolitics, this movie has political implications in the sense that it demonstrates the nuanced reality of coming back from war. It is political in the sense that it illustrates the impact of war on those who fought it, therefore shedding light on the necessity of having adequate services to address these complex psychological issues. It also accurately depicts the moral dilemmas underlying the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

As stated in my post on missing combat, many Veterans miss life on deployment. This does not mean they are blood-thirsty killers, nor does it mean they like being shot at; rather, they miss the sense of collective purpose that comes with it. In his war memoir, Through Our Eyes, Jessie Odom states:

“the most devastating perpetual trauma I had to overcome was civilian transition… I know the changes I see in myself are not a result of the war in Iraq. Even though those memories are still there and are traumatic, it goes much deeper than that. The changes are the result of a man who wishes he was at war.”

This same sentiment is also seen in a book titled On War by Sebastian Junger where he reports an account of an Army airborne platoon in the Korengel valley of Afghanistan. He writes:

Collective defense can be so compelling — so addictive, in fact — that eventually it becomes the rationale for why the group exists in the first place. I think almost every man at Restrepo [the combat outpost] secretly hoped the enemy would make a serious try at overrunning the place before the deployment came to an end. It was everyone’s worst nightmare but also the thing they hoped for most, some ultimate demonstration of the bond and fighting ability of the men. For sure there were guys who re-upped because something like that hadn’t happened yet. After the men got back to Vicenza, I asked Bobby Wilson if he missed Restrepo at all. “I’d take a helicopter there tomorrow,” he said. Then, leaning in, a little softer: “Most of us would.”

He goes on to say:

…throughout history, men… [at war] have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives… they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.

O’Byrne, a marine at Restrepo, states:

“It’s as if I’m self-destructive, trying to find the hardest thing possible to make me feel accomplished…”

For these men, combat provides a heightened sense of meaning in collective action. In addition, they miss being in a world were “everything mattered”. After witnessing the profound tragedy of war, a veteran’s sense of what matters in life may be uprooted. In the memoir, Unspoken Abandonment, Bryan Wood writes the following lines regarding the conversations of his civilian co-workers:

“I couldn’t believe the kind of silly bullshit these people thought mattered in life… I couldn’t believe I once thought these same things were important.”

Upon sharing some of my earlier writing on this topic on r/veterans, exgiexpcv responded:

“…you’re used to doing things that mattered, and suddenly your life is simply digesting bullshit and consuming instead…”

As Victor Frankl states in Man’s Search for Meaning, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” Civilian life often fails to provide combat veterans with a ‘why’. After witnessing the profound tragedy of life in Afghanistan and experiencing a high degree of purpose-driven action, our way of life in the West can seem frivolous and dull. This is why we not only need programs for psychological traumas such as PTSD, but for reintegration traumas and moral injuries as well.

American Sniper addresses the reality faced by many Veterans. Chris Kyle’s main concern was the heightened sense of justice he derived from witnessing moral atrocities in combat. After coming home, Chris’ main concern was getting back to Iraq so that he could eliminate the people who he witnessed brutally murdering and sacrificing young children, and to protect the troops who were still over there. These concerns vividly replayed in his mind, causing him to become disconnected from civilian life and emotionally withdrawn from his family, as well as hyper-vigilant to perceived threats.

Chris Kyle’s moral fixation on returning to Iraq was loosened after he began engaging with fellow veterans, helping them recover from psychological issues of their own. His sense of purpose was rekindled and he regained intimacy with his family. American Sniper does not glorify war; rather, it emphasizes its brutality and sheds light on the moral struggles faced by the people who fight them.


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46 thoughts on “Defending ‘American Sniper’

  1. Reblogged this on Progressing Through Life and commented:
    Couldn’t have said it better myself. After seeing the first trailer, remembering his death, and hearing about the controversies of his life in the service, I wanted to clear the air and find what was the truth about things he said and did. After reading and studying his autobiography, I can honestly tell you that without diving into it, all accusations I heard against him were either completely false, or missing a huge explanation or point as to why.

    Thank you, Steve Rose for this great post.

    Thank you to men and women like CPO Kyle who have served and defended this country, its foundations, and the people alongside of them and the citizens like us.

  2. This is spot-on, Steve. I’ve actually avoided seeing this movie, as I avoid all other contemporary war movies. It’s not that they ‘bother’ me, I don’t have PTSD, but watching them gives me a feeling that is best described as a sort of twisted “home-sickness”. I’m not sure why, and I know a lot of guys that I’ve deployed with who love these movies (this one in particular), but I can’t bring myself to watch them. It’s like feeling that I’m “missing out”. Or maybe that I bear some sort of guilt for “not being there” at that particular time or moment. Anyhow, really insightful post. I look forward to reading some of your other work! – TLD

  3. The movie “American Sniper” really is one of perception. Everyone wishes to view it through their own prism. Unfortunately, the real pawns in this are the individual GIs–the soldiers and marines who actually fight the fight, risking life and limb.

    Now, I do not know about our Canadian friends, north of the border; but, in the U.S, we haven’t had a Military Draft–universal conscription–since Vietnam was winding down in 1973. So, nowadays, barely one percent of Americans even have any skin–Sons, Daughters or even friends–In Harm’s Way.

    Multiple re-deployments of the same war-weary troops just increases the probability of long-lasting medical and/or psychological wounds–if not outright death. Accordingly, I would suggest that America–its Government and its People–might just be complicit in the case of Eddie Ray Routh, who killed “Sniper” Chris Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield, two years ago, at a rifle range in Texas.

    Our Government created the atmosphere for this to happen, and just left the medical and psychological care for the sick Vets to a significantly underfunded Veterans’ Administration to care for the returnees. And then, Congress dallied when it came to providing a mere pittance, by Congressional standards, to upgrade a VA Suicide-Prevention Program, which was losing 2,000 Veterans even single day. Despicable!

  4. wow- i so agree with that review; the movie to me was more about the challanges like PTSD that veterens are faced after returning home from war, the war scenes made me very anxious, but they had to be included just to show the audience the severity of the trauma that soldiers experience and the pure shallowness that the people around them at home are caught up in. I felt this same way upon returning to high school after a near death car accident. Although I cannot begin to imagine what returning home from war must be like. The tale of what happened with Chris Kyle is deeply sad; but I’m glad that others do recognize the what the movie was actually intended to portray.

  5. This post really hit me, Steve. Haven’t served in military, but it rang of truth that I’ve seen in less intense settings–work in third world, substance abuse treatment, end of life counseling, etc.–where life is more stripped to essentials and our interdependence exposed. Can only imagine what our vets experience and then long to retrieve in terms of meaning and purpose. As a teaching pastor, I used excerpts in my message Sunday. Had several people tell me how much the material impacted them, and one who had served in combat said you nailed it. Wanted you to know your material has legs and is reaching down here in southern CA. Thanks for your work.

    1. Wow! Glad to hear it is ringing true for those in your congregation! Thank you for sharing it! I’m interested in learning more about your non-religious Christian spirituality. I am planning on doing a post on the movement toward people identifying as “spiritual but not religions,” and the problems that can come about when that causes individuals to neglect community and place an over-emphasis on a continually dissatisfying pursuit of ‘self-discovery’. Good to see you’ve found a suitable faith community.

    1. It seems to me that most of the criticism is coming from people who didn’t see it. I felt it was a very good micro-level analysis of one man’s battle. It illustrates the deep tragedy of war and the moral forces that plague those who are sent to fight them, which in turn alienate them from civilian life upon return. His desire to constantly return to Iraq was well represented and is in line with what I’ve researched on moral injury. Even though I completely do not support the way the war was handled from Washington, and think the geopolitics of it all is a huge mess, this movie is not about that. I agree that the movie is for sure one sided, but that’s the point, since it’s based on his personal war memoir. The movie does a good job illustrating his perspective which is similar to the perspective of many others who were in similar situations.

  6. Thank you for writing about this. I’ve never quite understood why someone would choose deployment again after having witnessed so much. However, I understand the bond that develops among the men and their having the mindset of, everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. Chris Kyle felt he needed to go back and help finish the job .

  7. Thank you for sharing this more nuanced perspective, Steve. It’s a much more complicated issue and conversation than the media coverage and sound bites allow, for sure. I’ve not read the multitude of articles sparked by the movie in depth, but the criticism I have seen seems to be focused on Kyle’s comments that he ‘loved’ killing and thought it was fun, which would pretty understandably strike most people as a cause for concern.

    Your insight about the sense of immediacy, purpose, clarity and meaning, though, are an important part of this conversation.

    And many people who’ve experienced life-and-death trauma (whether in the military or going about ‘daily life’) can understand how for those people, all of the ‘small stuff’ that many people create drama around seems ridiculous in comparison to the life-and-death and/or more traumatic experiences that are very clarifying in that sense.

    Thanks again. I appreciated the post (and your others as well).

    Jamie

  8. I haven’t seen it yet…. I’m really axioms to see it though. Anyone who has not served cannot possibly understand or conceptualize what it is like for any service member returning to their regular life. I can not speak for those who have served, but would it be accurate to say they do not want or wish others to understand, sympathize, or try to empathize with them, only respect and accept what they are dealing with is beyond others comprehension?
    They would only like to have the unknowing refrain from criticism or judgement.
    Would that be accurate ?

  9. Powerfully presented blog. It proves that humans are not meant to fight even though our urges lead us that way. Our psyche can’t handle the “transition” back to civilian life because it cannot process the violence or sort out the forced mental turbulence. Thanks.

  10. Fantastic analysis – I’ve yet to see the film, but have become increasingly irritated by the criticism it’s receiving. This is one man’s story told from his perspective, which is why many of the elements criticized have been misinterpreted.

    All of my combat vet friends have expressed similar sentiments – civilian life lacks purpose and makes very little sense after combat. It is a fundamentally defining experience that only those who have experienced it can properly understand and contextualize.

    I love that you quote Frankl as well – I love Man’s Search for Meaning.

  11. Glorify war? Is there such a thing?
    Hollywood tells a good story, just not necessarily the truth.
    If it did most films would be banned.

    The story may read good for the little people but not for them who lived it.
    As for the critics? I never actually saw them, EVER!
    How can you judge what you haven’t endured?

    Little makes the memories good for us who saw the sh#t.
    Except sharing with others who did.

  12. Reblogged this on Samuel Hall and commented:
    A reblog of Steve Rose’s discussion of “American Sniper.” He quotes Sebastian Junger, who says “they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life. It’s such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake themselves in war.

  13. Profound.

    As a Viet Nam era vet who was kept stateside, I can add little to your insights. Yet my various classified assignments deepened my appreciation for those who did go.

  14. Reblogged this on Shivrana's Blog and commented:
    A real problem of a soldier when he returns from counter insurgency operational environment: trauma of buddy being shot at and self being injured. The govt needs to pay special attention to help soldiers to overcome post traumatic stress disorder.

  15. This is an excellent Post and, I believe, it properly conveys the insanity of war. I like the fact that it is framed from the perspective of the individual soldier or marine: how they readjusted; do they have mental or physical scars; did they leave a part of themselves on that battlefield?

    In time, hopefully todays returning Vets will be able to look back and be like some of those 90 somethings, who travelled back to the 70th Anniversary of the Normandy Invasion. When the reporter asked a few why (their families say) they never talked about it, they said: they wouldn’t understand, they weren’t there.

  16. Reblogged this on Richard Matthews and commented:
    From Transitions:
    “it illustrates the impact of war on those who fought it, therefore shedding light on the necessity of having adequate services to address these complex psychological issues. It also accurately depicts the moral dilemmas underlying the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

    This is deeply relevant as we face, now, not only those returning home from “The War on Terror” but, now the new engagements with ISIS as well as the systemic culture of abuse and the issues that has brought upon the DVA system; a movie like this is poignant to show that we need more services dedicated to treat Veterans not axe them.

  17. From Transitions:
    “it illustrates the impact of war on those who fought it, therefore shedding light on the necessity of having adequate services to address these complex psychological issues. It also accurately depicts the moral dilemmas underlying the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

    This is deeply relevant as we face, now, not only those returning home from “The War on Terror” but, now the new engagements with ISIS as well as the systemic culture of abuse and the issues that has brought upon the DVA system; a movie like this is poignant to show that we need more services dedicated to treat Veterans not axe them.

  18. Reblogged this on deejverweyBlog and commented:
    Great perspective on the film and the variety of psychological impacts that war has on individuals after leaving service and attempting to reintegrate back within society. Thoroughly agree with this post!

  19. You have expressed the core of this movie and of men and women like Chris. Most of us go to war for a reason and I believe that reason was fully stated by the movie. Someone once said, seeing me in uniform, “Freedom is free.” I pointed out that because of Americans in uniform he had the right to believe and say that. But it was still wrong.

  20. i’ve never been in war, but i could imagine it is like war all over again only the surroundings and people have changed, that’s how my nightmare is on a good day…

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