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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