American Sniper and the American Psyche

Now that the Academy Awards are over and American Sniper was shot down in the best picture category by Birdman, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the movie -- not in terms of its quality, but in terms of what its overwhelming box office popularity says about us as Americans.

American Sniper grossed $90 million in the states in its January 16 opening weekend of wide distribution. This was accomplished in what is normally a very slow month for movie attendance. By the time the Awards rolled around, American Sniper had taken in approximately $320 million from nearly 40 million viewers in the domestic market in just about five weeks.

The question is why did so many Americans venture out to see this film -- especially given the frigid temperatures across much of the nation? There is no one single answer.

Some of the moviegoers went because they like "war" movies. Others went because they heard this was a complex story about the conflict between what goes on in the battlefront for soldiers versus what happens on the home front. Others went because they like to be entertained.

There are undoubtedly a diverse set of other reasons that brought folks to the movie theater. There is one defining factor, however, that, in the main, unites all of these moviegoers and speaks volumes about the American psyche today. That is we are becoming a spectator nation.

This is true on many fronts from social media, political participation, sporting events, to the way in which we communicate with one another.

In this electronic era of streaming, Facebook, selfies, Instagrams and Snapchats, virtual reality is becoming the new reality. Flesh and blood is being supplanted by pixels and soundbytes.

This shift is troublesome in all areas because it minimizes personal interaction and reduces the human connection. It is especially problematic when it impacts the manner in which we think about and look at military service, war and warriors.

In prior periods -- World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War -- military service or some form of service to country was a fact of life for many and in some way impacted the lives of most American families. Today, the vast majority of Americans have no such experience or exposure.

This changes the concept of service to someone else's duty or business. It creates a group that does not have to grapple directly with the consequences and casualties of war. It converts patriotism to a passive act of flag waving, saying thanks for your service and board the plane first.

As James Fallows puts it in his recent article for The Atlantic titled, "The Tragedy of the American Military," "This reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military -- has become so familiar that we assume it is the American norm."

Sadly, it is the norm. And, that norm widens the gulf between those who inhabit the civilian world and those who inhabit the military one.

Matt Richtel in his New York Times article, captures the distance between those worlds as follows,

To some recent vets -- by no stretch all of them -- the thanks comes across as shallow, disconnected, a reflexive offering from people, who while meaning we'll, have no clue what soldiers did over there or what motivated them to go, and who would never have gone themselves nor sent their sons or daughters.

This brings us back to American Sniper. The movie, adapted from his memoir of the same name, tells the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL.

Kyle served four tours in Iraq. He was in harms way, did harm, came back harmed and was harmed. He killed an estimated 160 people as a sniper in Iraq, returned to this country with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and was killed on a shooting range by a troubled veteran whom he was trying to help.

Bradley Cooper who portrays Kyle in the movie is currently playing the extremely disfigured Joseph Merrick as the Elephant Man on Broadway. During an interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio, Cooper stated,

I see more similarities between Joseph and Chris than differences and I'll explain what I mean. Chris, if you watch any interview with him -- [he's] not very animated physically, it's all in his eyes. He doesn't even move his head that much and always had a dip in his mouth so his lower lip was always sort of protruded... And also the Texas accent, it's a very closed mouth way of talking. He had to express a lot of what he was feeling and doing through his eyes and his voice -- very similar to Merrick, so I actually see a lot of similarities in terms of the approach of the way these two men walked through their lives.

Cooper doesn't say this but there is one other striking similarity between the two. Joseph Merrick because of his physical deformities became a side show attraction for audiences in London and Belgium. Kyle because of the film has attracted audiences, or as we have labeled them spectators, as well.

We assume that many viewers of American Sniper audience believe they are honoring the memory of Kyle by seeing the movie. But, seeing the movie is not nearly enough.

To do true honor to Kyle and the other members of our volunteer military force, we need to get off of the sidelines and become proactively engaged as full-fledged American citizens.

As Joseph Epstein reports, Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has stated,

The next time we go to war the American people should have to say yes. And that would mean a half a million people who weren't planning to do this would have to be involved in some way. They would have to be inconvenienced. That would bring America in. America hasn't been in these previous wars. And we are paying dearly for that.

We agree with Admiral Mullen's perspective. But,we think that this need for renewed and enhanced commitment should not be limited to military service.

It should extend to a program of national service and to increased and enhanced participation by citizens of all ages and political persuasions. (For more of our thoughts in this regard, read these two blogs we posted to the Huffington Post in the past.)

Chris Kyle was treated for PTSE Eddie Ray Routh the veteran who was just found guilty of Kyle's murder was also treated for PTSD. To date, more than one quarter of the veterans who saw active duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated for PTSD.

American Sniper is one man's story. It is the story of a warrior and a human being who loved his country and his family who bore the burden and paid the price. It could have easily been called "American Tragedy."

Unfortunately, it is also the story of many other men and women who have suffered injuries and been traumatized by fighting in wars and repeat visits to places where only they were asked to go. It will be an American tragedy if in the future we ask those brave souls to continue to go it alone and to do our bidding.

A recent CBS poll showed that 57 percent of those surveyed favored ground troops to combat ISIS. This compares to only 39 percent in favor in September of 2014.

One wonders if the percent in support of using ground troops would be as high if the respondents were told that such a deployment would require re-instituting the draft and providing relief to those who have been on the front lines over and over again.

It is time to answer that question. It is time to get out of the spectator mode. It is time to stand and deliver for those who have done so for us.

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