--Chris Hedges, "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning", 2002
Not one word spoken, none of the usual chit chat or banter, as the film's end credits run and the lights slowly come up in the theater and the audience departs. We are all numb, shocked, overwhelmed by the story we've just seen on the screen. The movie is "American Sniper". On a recent Friday night I took my 16 year old Godson to see it. "American Sniper" is the film adaptation of the book of the same name, penned by former United States Navy Seal Chris Kyle, "the autobiography of the most lethal sniper in U.S. history." One hundred and sixty confirmed kills, according to Kyle's account.
"American Sniper" is a cultural juggernaut. The film has earned $300 million at the box office and is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The book was number one on the New York Times best seller list and is the number two best selling book on Amazon. The story continues in an ongoing trial in Stephenville, Texas, where former U.S. Marine Eddie Ray Routh is being tried for killing Kyle and fellow veteran Chad Littlefield, in February 2013, at a shooting range. Kyle and Littlefield were helping Routh in his recovery from the war. Routh has admitted to the killings. News reports say his lawyers will argue Routh is not guilty by reason of insanity.
You could not make up a more compelling or tragic narrative and it's been fascinating to watch the response to Kyle's story. Some see Kyle as a full blooded, red, white and blue American hero, a powerful symbol of all the virtues a nation desires in its warriors: courage, selflessness, service, and faith. To them, Kyle protected his men, did his job and then returned home with honor. Others view Kyle as a symbol of a war which never should have been waged. They cite studies like one by the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. It reports the war has cost, thus far, $1.7 trillion, has permanently and psychologically scarred hundreds of thousands of returning veterans like Kyle, and caused the deaths of 4,489 U.S. soldiers and 134,000 Iraqi civilians.
After seeing the movie, I've come to view Kyle as a victim, perhaps a hero, yet most certainly a tragic and wounded hero; a fellow citizen asked by his country to do that, which for most of us as civilians, is unimaginable. And then we ask these same women and men like Kyle, to just return stateside. Go on with life, as if any one can participate in the brutality of warfare and not be changed by that experience forever.
I see Kyle's story as very, very sad, neither noble nor ignoble, unlike so many on the left and the right in American politics and life. They--politicians, the media, citizens-- are now scrambling to hold up Kyle as either as their savior or their goat. To me such exploitation is reprehensible, cowardly even, carried out by the many who stand on the sidelines and watch in safety as others do our fighting. It smacks of knee jerk partisanship and cheap patriotism, which asks for no sacrifice, beyond waving a flag and then shedding crocodile tears for the fallen.
Kyle's story lays bare the addiction that we have as a nation, world and species to the mythology of war, the imagined romanticism of taking up arms in some "glorious" cause. But to me, that's a lie, always has been, always will be. War is not, has never been, so neat or clean or morally clear. Instead war is the costliest and ugliest of human sins, no matter how we try to frame or justify it. War always takes down the innocent, even as we try our best to "surgically" carry out the battle. War is not some video game. War produces refugees, destroys civilizations, and perpetuates itself in an unending cycle of violence. War is hell on earth.
And finally war always comes home, no matter how far away it might take place. That's my takeaway from "American Sniper". War echoes on in the hearts and souls of people like Kyle. War always, always, wounds the warrior: in body, mind and spirit. We can try our best as a nation to ignore this truth, to salve our collective conscience with parades and tributes and platitudes, but finally these all ring false. Just ask the more than 700,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who have applied for disability benefits, or the 2.6 million veterans still struggling with physical and mental health problems.
War is so much more than a movie or a book. War is as real as life and death gets on this earth. Maybe that is Chris Kyle's final legacy.