American Sniper is now the top grossing war film of all time. It follows Navy SEAL Chris Kyle through his time in and out of Iraq, recounting his experiences as the most successful sniper in US military history. As a veteran of the Iraq War, you couldn't pay me to go see this movie in the theater. Not for the reasons you might suspect, and certainly not for the reasons most liberal/progressives would give. I wont see this movie in theater because Kyle's words hit far too close to home.
Since I haven't seen the movie, I wont pretend to talk about it. But having read the book, I understand the gist of what will appear on screen. While I could never compare myself to Kyle in terms of battlefield accomplishments, I recognized far too well the mental anguish he struggled with, as well as the struggles between serving and being a husband and father.
The hardest part of war was not the fear of me being killed-that was a reality we all had to adjust to. By far the hardest part of war was the fear of what was happening to our families while we were deployed. In the book, Chris's wife Taya chimes in at significant points to recount what she was feeling and thinking about her husband. Though her pride in her husband is pervasive, her fear for his safety and resentment of his sense of duty is impossible to ignore. Her anger towards her husband and recriminations for his absence are, I have no doubt, very close to the feelings my wife had while I was gone.
Similar to Kyle, I volunteered to deploy to Iraq. In fact, I refrained from telling my wife for months that I had volunteered, instead making it sound like my deployment was inevitable. Much like Kyle, I wanted to serve and felt a sense of duty-my country was at war and it was my job to fight.
The worst moments I remember from Iraq were not the one of being in danger. The Army trained me well to react according to tactical principles, and when I was engaged with the enemy, I was honestly far too busy reacting as I had been trained to be overly scared. That's not bravery, but more a lack of reasoned thought of my situation. In the military we trained over and over to react to situations regardless of emotion, essentially a military mathematical formula. IED explosion=pre-planned react to IED scenario. Enemy ambush from close range=turn and assault. Battle drills remove fear and emotion from the equation.
By far the hardest moments of being deployed came from the emotional toll to our family's lives. In 2004, while deployed as a peacekeeper to Kosovo, my then 3 year old son had spent so many weekends with my brother and his wife that he started calling my brother 'Daddy'. As a husband I was grateful to my brother for taking my son on weekends and letting my wife have a break; as a father I felt like an complete failure.
In 2006, I had the surreal experience of telling my wife in an email that my truck had been hit by a large IED, but that we had all miraculously walked away with a few bruises. Battalion policy was that any soldier treated by a medic after a combat incident would have their family notified by phone from the local National Guard unit. I wanted the word to come straight from me, but on the night in question, the morale phones were down, so email was my only option to let my wife hear it from me instead of from some lieutenant who would have only known the bare minimum facts as reported. It was three more days before I could talk to her in person and assure her that I was fine. She later commented that several stiff drinks were needed to calm her down after reading my email.
Also similar to Kyle's experience, we faced the wrath of military lawyers second guessing our actions. 'Memorandums of Concern', polite Army jargon for 'we're watching you' began to circulate for any incident in which we fired our weapons without overwhelming proof that the target was hostile. Never mind the fact that the military lawyers writing them had rarely set foot in a combat zone, let alone been part of any combat mission outside the wire. From privates to sergeants to officers, we all worried that doing the right thing in protecting our fellow soldiers could actually wind up landing us in jail, and away from our families even longer.
The reason, plain and honest, that I wont see American Sniper in the theaters is that I have no desire to experience that intense range of emotions in front of complete strangers. I will certainly see the movie when it comes out on DVD, and hopefully with my wife, because we can now look back on those emotions and know that we are among the lucky minority who survived the war with our marriage stronger for having been put to the test. But like anyone who has been through a traumatic experience, it will still be hard to relive, even for a moment, the emotions that we felt at the time.
To those who see American Sniper as a glorification of war, you are sadly mistaken. War is a occasionally necessary but terrible thing; there is no glory in war, unless it is to prevent a war from happening. To those who see evil in Kyle's recount of his time at war, you are mistaken as well. Evil was the intent of our enemy in Iraq, whether it was killing innocent Iraqis or hiding amongst civilians to kill Americans. Standing up against evil is not in itself evil, and if you doubt that just ask the US servicemembers who killed German soldiers to liberate the Nazi Holocaust camps.
Chris Kyle's story is a reminder that as far freedom has advanced across the world in the last two centuries, there are still plenty of areas where naked brute force rules the day. While America should always strive for peaceful solutions, the reality is that military force is still needed in our 'civilized' world, and likely will be for several generations to come.