Military combat vets view war movies different from non-combat Vets. Civilians tend to glorify wars and the men and women who serve in them, often over looking the true ugliness of war and the loss of humanity it brings for those who are tasked with fighting in lands with cultures that don’t share all of our values.
In his last battle with Iraqi insurgents at the end of his fourth tour of duty Bradley Cooper’s character, Chris Kyle, calls home to his wife to let her know he’s ready to come home – for good.
Clint Eastwood’s directorial savvy and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Chris Kyle in the popular film, American Sniper, are well done. I liked the movie and not for reasons that glorify war. Most of you who read my blog know that I reject the notion that there is glory in war. But what Eastwood and Cooper have done is to portray a life caught up in recent American events that show how some men are able to deal with the ravages of war better than most.
Notions formed earlier in life create a state of mind that works well for some when confronted with the horrendous death and destruction that comes from military combat. On the downside though it can have a latent effect as it did for Navy Seal Chris Kyle following four tours of duty in Iraq that cultivated what can only be considered as a blood lust when he describes killing as “fun” and how he “loved it”.
Eastwood sets the stage at the beginning of the movie for our hero in childhood scenes where Kyle’s father praises his son’s shooting skills while they are hunting, telling him he “has a talent”. The other character trait that the young Kyle picks up from his father is presented in this scene where older brother Chris come to his younger brother’s rescue when they were much younger who is being hammered by a bigger kid at school.
At the kitchen table that night Kyle’s father uses a popular imagery of how there are three types of people – the sheep, the wolves and the sheep dogs. Sheep are weak Kyle’s father tells him saying they wouldn’t recognize evil when confronted with it. The wolves are the predators “who prey on the weak. Then there are those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression”, Kyle’s fatherly solemnly tells his sons. They are a rare breed he says, meant to confront the wolves in society. They are the sheep dogs.
The dad tells his two boys that he is not raising any sheep in this family and then drives home the point about wolves when he pulls off his leather belt, slams it on the kitchen table and says to his two impressionable sons, “I will whoop your ass if you turn into a wolf.” He let’s Chris know in no uncertain terms after coming to the rescue of his younger brother earlier that day that he is sheepdog. A concept that apparently Kyle brings into adulthood with him and uses to shield himself from the atrocities of war from not only the things he sees happening to other people, but that he himself has to perform with his “gift of aggression” to protect his brothers in arms. As we see later in the movie, the younger Kyle apparently doesn’t imbed this concept as his older sibling did.
Earlier I called Chris Kyle a hero. I use the term sparingly because it is too often used cheaply to depict anyone who dies from the “wolves” of this world. All those who died in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 911 have been called heroes by some. Sorry but they weren’t. They didn’t make a choice to die for any cause unlike those passengers on Flight 93. They were, sadly, unfortunate victims of some evil men.
Though I have much contempt for those hijackers responsible for nearly 3000 American lives that fateful day, members of their culture would call them heroes for volunteering to commandeer plane loads of people into symbols associated with the “enemy”. And despite what any of us feel for them, they did in fact meet the true definition of the word “hero”. Just because they took American lives doesn’t mean they weren’t instilled with the same sense of righteous cause that Chris Kyle was as a child and took with him into battle. The glaring difference of course is that Kyle didn’t mass murder innocent people for his righteous cause.
It is this strong sense of righteous cause that enables warriors to fight the brutal battles of war and remain relatively sane afterwards. These are the people who appear to have no qualms with their “gift of aggression” in the pursuit of killing those they perceive as wolves. Both sides have their heroes just as both sides believe God is on their side. It’s a psychological tool used to stiffen up the warrior mentality
Kyle was indeed a hero, though some would see it otherwise, not only because he volunteered to serve and put his life in harm’s way to fight for what he felt strongly were righteous causes. But he went even further to remove himself from the relative safety of the concealed sniper at one point to join the troops on the ground he was responsible to protect with his shooting skills and confront the enemy head on as they swept through a town, going door to door looking for insurgents. Could this act be the result of a conscience that saw his role as a sniper as one less honorable than the men who were actually engaging in close encounter combat with the enemy?
We also mustn’t forget that this is a movie, based on the accounts Kyle gave in his book of the same name. I haven’t read the book in its entirety so I don’t know if Eastwood, or even Chris Kyle himself, omitted parts that made Kyle more vulnerable, but there is enough in the movie for the perceptive viewer to see that this “American Sniper” was not a super human.
There are parts in the book that show a side of Kyle that are diminished in Eastwood’s character. He believed everyone he shot was a “bad guy”. To him all Iraqis were “savages” that he “couldn’t give a fuck about” Did he bring this state of mind with him after seeing what Islamic militants did to his country on 911 or did that develop over time while serving in Iraq? Did all Arabic Muslims become forever equal in Kyle’s mind to the handful of jihadist terrorists who killed innocent people that day?
It was comments like this by Kyle in the book and to a lesser degree in the movie that stirred anti-Muslim feelings by some people after watching the movie. This also is neither a pro-war nor an anti-war film, though anyone who has experienced the horror of war will attest to the film’s authenticity to the violence depicted on the screen. In that sense it should be considered an anti-war commentary to discourage all the video warriors who feel invulnerable playing pretend games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.
Kyle’s sense of patriotism will appeal to many on the right who lamely vilify anti-war protestors but it should not be seen as a patriotism that considers war as the only option in dealing with the perceived evil in the world. Kyle’s actions were the result of that sense of being a sheep dog his father anointed him with early in life. This tunnel vision enabled him to do what he had to do during his first of four tours in Iraq, even the killing of a child and a woman who threatened American troops in his first sniper-related duties.
He never allowed himself to think outside the box of good vs. evil which he learned as a young boy. However, this tends to make some immune to the fact that both good and evil are relative, not absolutes as many on the right believe. Such unequivocal beliefs help block out questions that would give one pause to take a life, even in combat and transfer guilt for taking another human’s life into the dark recesses of the mind. Such equivocation would disqualify many to do what Chris Kyle felt he had to do.
To question military actions taken by our government and protest endless war is not unpatriotic but Kyle’s father blocked this notion from his son when he labeled such as sheep early on. This is why Chris Kyle was confused later when he ran across his younger brother In Iraq who had already seen enough combat and was ready to wash the dust of Iraq from himself, telling his older brother in parting words, “fuck this place”. “This place” to Kyle was the Valley of Armageddon depicted in Revelation 16, where the “good” warriors were battling the evil wolves. Not that he thought purely in End Timer terms but better here, he rationalized, than in American cities. A perception many supporters of the war used to combat the realization that the reasons first given for invading Iraq were less than honest.
The psychological toll of four tours of duty in Iraq has had on Chris Kyle gets played out in this scene where he informs his wife that after having been rotated out of Iraq, he has not come home yet because he “just needed a minute”, suggesting that his life was coming apart and needed time to try and piece it back together before coming back to his family.
The movie is understandably popular because Eastwood has struck a chord where Americans are desperate for real heroes in their lives. Kyle fits this character, but make no mistake about it. Even the mentally toughest are not immune to the destruction of our humanity who see enough “evil” in this world, be it that of our perceived enemies or our own actions that cavalierly disregard innocents of war, referred to as “collateral damage” by some. In the end Bradley Cooper’s character shows that beneath that tough veneer is a man on the brink of collapse and is only restored by utilizing his “gift” as a sheep dog to help wounded vets back in the states. A move that regretfully shows the flaws of any ideal when Kyle loses his life to a troubled vet he attempts to bring back to a pre-war life.