American Sniper: One vet’s story

A couple nights ago I saw the movie American Sniper. First things first: kudos to actor Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. Both did excellent work in this film, Cooper in particular. It never occurred to me I was watching the actor on screen, during the entire movie. Maybe it was the extra pounds he out on, the beard — or maybe his great skill as an actor.

Sniper WeddingAs for the director, Clint Eastwood: When he isn’t talking to empty chairs he’s making good films and this was no exception. He said American Sniper is an anti-war movie and there are parts of it that lend itself to the anti-war sentiment.

For a young teenager with a bent for joining the military, the moments depicting war look pretty cool and would certainly help the military recruit young teens that want to see “action.”

Make no mistake, the young Marines and other service members who haven’t served in a war are eager to get at it. For the young people that haven’t been to war yet, this will give them the idea that it’s going to be fun. And not just to take down doors or patrol the streets of some far away city; these young soldiers, sailors and Marines are eager to get into battle and kill someone. That’s what it’s all about.

Until you get there and the realization that the enemy shoots back and kills or severely maims your best friends comes home to roost. Then it isn’t such a great idea. But the scene of war is addictive, for a lot of reasons civilians don’t and can’t understand.

In the military everyone matters, from the lowest private to the most senior generals in the Pentagon. The Private First Class matters to everyone in his squad, platoon and company. The platoon commander will do everything in his power to protect that PFC and likewise. Every member of the platoon and that company is dedicated to the well-being of every other member of that platoon and company, regardless of any personal beefs that might occur in the barracks or out in the ville, when they’re not in a war zone. Compared to the military culture, civilian life is one endless parade of back-stabbing, self-centered pseudo-friends that won’t think twice about walking all over you if it means accomplishing their own selfish ends.

We count ourselves lucky if we have friends that don’t do that and probably most of us have a small core group of friends we can count on when the chips are down. It actually adds the pressure on the individual to be as selfless as we perceive our friends.

In the military, especially frontline units like the Navy SEALS and Marines, esprit de corps is drilled into each member from the first moment they step off the bus at the recruit training deport and plant their feet on the yellow footprints, to put it into deeply personal terms. By the time a SEAL or Marine gets to a place like Iraq or Afghanistan he already knows who’s got his back and he definitely knows he’s got their backs too because they are all they have when the IED explodes and the RPG rounds start coming at them.

At that moment, when the first AK-47 and RPG rounds start coming at them, they aren’t fighting for God, country and family, they are fighting for themselves. “God, Corps, Country and Family” is just the answer you give when someone asks the question: Why do you do it?

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle

Some of us don’t even believe in “God,” even in the proverbial foxhole. “God” doesn’t have your back — that assurance lies with the other members of the squad and platoon. If you really want to get down to basics, in the most immediate circle that duty falls to the other three members of the fire team. If, when we’re sharing that proverbial foxhole, you ask me whom I put my trust in: “God” or the other 11 members of that squad, I’m picking the squad every time.

God is nice when you’re sitting in the pew at church in Milwaukee, but in war “He” is conspicuously absent. By the same token there are some vets who were (are) quite certain “God” was looking out for them when they were in that proverbial foxhole.

The movie touched on that camaraderie. As the character of Chris Kyle sat on the roof looking for potential targets, his sole mission was to protect the Marines patrolling the streets and taking down doors. Had he and his spotter been under attack there would have been SEALs and Marines doing their best to protect Kyle and his partner.

Which brings up an interesting point: I was watching the movie with another vet and we noticed that in the movie Kyle disobeys an order and on another occasion, leaves his post. Both are court-martial offenses. The movie never explains how Kyle’s chain of command dealt with those matters. And it begs the question: how often did Kyle do it and get away with such flagrant disregard for the General Orders and UCMJ?

Clint Eastwood suggested everyone should read the book so that’s on my to-do list. Maybe it gets addressed there.

After just one tour in Iraq Kyle feels out of place in the laid back civilian world. Even as a uniformed sailor he doesn’t matter as much back in San Diego, where he was stationed. In a war he had a purpose and was needed in a much different, more visceral way. Sure, his wife and family needed him, but not like his friends in the war zone needed him. For Kyle and the millions of other American veterans that served in wars, if you’re here at home you’re not back there doing your job, watching your buddy’s back.

As good as it feels to be back here where we can count on the electricity, hot showers and a McDonald’s in every neighborhood, there is much separation anxiety and guilt. Which often gets wrapped up with Post Traumatic Stress.

The reaction to American Sniper has become quite political. In general terms conservatives think it’s a great movie and liberals don’t. The Conservatives gloss over Kyle’s flaws as a warrior and person while liberals claim, among other things, this movie glorifies war. Michael Moore even went so far as to call Chris Kyle and other snipers “cowards.”

Considering what it takes to become a sniper and the fact that they work in two-man teams, often out of sight and without cover, snipers are anything but cowards. If the enemy hauls them off those rooftops alive, they won’t die quick and painless deaths. That is the risk they take when they volunteer for the duty. The military does everything it can to protect its snipers and scouts partly because they often have bounties on their heads.

Michael Moore is way off base: Chris Kyle may have been arrogant and egotistical, but snipers aren’t cowards.

As for the movie glorifying war: well, like I wrote earlier: for the young kid contemplating a turn in the military it looks cool. No amount of readjustment to the civilian world and all that goes with it isn’t going to change it for the kids that are already in the military and itching to go and the ones looking at enlistment once they are done with high school. War and the military have always looked cool and romantic to a certain segment of the population. Our parents and other family members served, other kids from the graduating class are going — it’s just going to happen with or without this movie and it will have little effect on enlistments.

Chris Kyle on Conan O’Brien.
Chris Kyle on Conan O’Brien.

Was Chris Kyle a hero: it’s an over-used word. He was a guy doing his job, just as the Marines kicking in the doors were doing their jobs. Two and a half million Americans, men and women, have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. They were all doing their jobs.

The sad reality for them is this: their jobs back here in the U.S. mean so much less than their time in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s the tough readjustment for people like Chris Kyle: finding meaning in their civilian lives, a purpose that feels just as important as their time with that squad and platoon, or in Chris Kyle’s case, SEAL Team 3.

Last week I spent several hours in the V.A. urgent care unit due to some severe dental pain. At the intake a young man took my vitals and announced himself as a “medical technician.” I said, “The civilian version of a corpsman.”

He replied: “It’s nothing like being a corpsman.”

The young medical technician had done three tours in Iraq as a Navy corpsman, with the Marines, and taking the blood pressure, pulse and temperatures of veterans was nothing like the work he did in Iraq, when he was tending to severely wounded comrades, some of whom would not survive. Being a medical technician at the V.A. is nothing like being a corpsman with a company of Marines in Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s not even close to being the civilian version of it.

In case you missed it, that was the message of this movie. It takes time to become a member of civilian society and quite frankly, the time in the military never really leaves for most veterans. It’s there every day.

Chris Kyle a hero? I don’t know about that, but he was no coward.

(All photos via YouTube)