American Sniper Touches an American Nerve

I am not big on war movies. I don't like blood and gore. But, after seeing the reviews and hearing the controversial political discussions of American Sniper, I decided to see it for myself.

I'm glad I did. It took me out of my comfort zone, and shook me to my core. There's a scene in the film where the main character, Navy Seal Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, is in a bar after his fourth tour, and he calls his wife. She asks where he is. He says: "State side." She says: "Why didn't you come home?" Kyle says: "I needed a minute." That's how I felt at the end of the movie. I needed a minute.

I needed time to process all that I had just seen. This is the first time I can recall a whole audience being stunned at the end of a film. Except for those weeping -- of which I was one -- it was eerily silent.

I can see why some have said it is pro-war, and others have said that it is anti-war. But, to me, that is not what the film is about. It is about military service.

People can debate about whether we should have gone there, what our mission was or if it is wrong to call insurgents "savages," (in every war, there are hateful names for the enemy; it gives us a justification for killing them).

On the record, I was opposed to the war from the beginning because I felt that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. And watching this film made me reflect on how the nature of war has changed since the War on Terror was declared.

It is no longer military armies fighting other soldiers. There are civilians and women and children involved. It is often hard to discern who the enemy is. Also, watching this film, it is sometimes easy to forget that we are the ones who invaded their country.

Politics aside, what moved me were the human elements of the story. I found myself becoming sympathetic with a sniper who found himself placed in many moral dilemmas. Kyle was raised in Texas by his father to believe that he was a protector (first, protector of his brother, then his country). His sharp-shooting skills, which began with deer hunting lessons with his dad, are lauded by his Navy buddies, who felt he had their backs.

I've read about, and heard about, the phenomenon of soldiers that have done numerous tours that can't wait to get back to the battlefield. This movie explores that anomaly in a real way.

Despite the consternation of his wife, Taya, played by Sienna Miller, Kyle longs to return to finish his mission and protect his comrades in arms. This is in sharp contrast to another 2008 Iraqi war movie, Stop-Loss, starring Ryan Phillippe as an Army Staff Sergeant who decides to go AWOL after getting called back to service.

I believe that disturbing film, which I consider a true anti-war flick, did not get the attention and praise that American Sniper has gotten because the lead character wrestled with doing the noble thing, which is going back to battle to defend God, country and fellow soldiers.

Both films dealt with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which occurs when some embattled veterans attempt to return to civilian life. Any little noise, such as a lawn mower or passing car, can trigger flashbacks that take them back to the battlefield.

It also seems as though the adrenaline rush that wartime situations create can be addicting for some soldiers, and make ordinary, civilian life unbearably boring. Because of this, many vets turn to drugs or alcohol as an escape.

Those latter addictions did not manifest in Chris Kyle. But, he struggled each time he returned home: first, by not wanting to leave the house, and then by having trouble relating to his wife.

One scene that stood out to me was when Kyle was driving Taya to the mall; he said that it bothered him that everyone was going about their lives as though nothing was going on in Iraq.

It is so true that with today's volunteer armies, the majority of Americans are not engaged with the wars we wage. The sacrifices are being made by a percentage of military families. And the press does not accurately cover what is happening "over there."

Contrast this with World War II where the "greatest generation," our parents and grandparents, all came together as one to contribute to the war effort. Women worked in the factories; people bought war bonds; and, even movie stars and athletes joined the armed forces. The country was united behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Everyone was engaged.

Even the Vietnam War, while a polarizing conflict, was at least debated, protested and the center of the country's attention. However, the unappreciative treatment that returning veterans got from a war-weary nation was deplorable.

The Iraq War mission, like Vietnam, was confusing, but it seems now that the public is more grateful for the sacrifices of our soldiers. Often, however, it is only lip service. A truly thankful nation would make VA hospitals and jobs for vets top priorities.

I also find it odd that Congress is taking too long to bring up a vote on how we should deal with ISIS. It's as if war is a political hot-potato-issue that no one wants to even debate or talk about.

In her book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, Rachel Maddow deftly discusses this issue. She points out that war used to need congressional approval. Now, they would just as soon let the President be the one to declare war (while they complain about him abusing his powers).

This goes back to the disconnect between American civilians and the armed forces, and the sacrifices they and military families make. I don't know what the solution is -- only that this film got me thinking about it. And, apparently, a discussion has begun across the country. That is a good thing.

I have two trains of thought on this. War is hell, and should be avoided at all costs (diplomacy first), but, if it is necessary, we need national engagement, and we need to truly support our men and women in uniform before, during and after our conflicts. And, in my mind, Navy Seal Chris Kyle was absolutely a hero.