I saw American Sniper last Friday when it came out. I thought it was a good film but not a great one. As ever, Clint Eastwood does a solid job directing. It has been an immensely lucrative but polarizing film. However, overall I didn’t feel that it lived up to its hype. Brad Cooper did give an amazing Oscar-worthy performance. But for me it was mostly just a terribly sad movie.
Beyond the pathos of the Chris Kyle story itself, I was saddened that anyone had to die or kill in Bush’s pointless war. There were no WMDs and Saddam posed no threat to us. We were fighting the wrong enemy at the wrong time and in the wrong place and in the process we created an even more vicious foe in ISIS than Al Qaeda ever was.
The movie shows Kyle growing up in Texas in a family ruled by a stern no-nonsense father. His father takes him deer hunting and teaches him how to shoot and to kill. It’s very apparent where he gets his black and white view of the world. He’s trying to make it as a rodeo cowboy when 9/11 happens. The horror of 9/11 deeply impacts his patriotism and he decides to join the Navy Seals and fight our country’s designated enemies.
The film follows him thru the grueling Seal training. It shows vignettes of his marriage and family life sandwiched between multiple tours in Iraq. It paints the picture of a man both obsessed and tormented. One critic described it as weirdly both pro-war and anti-war. Political op-ed writer Matt Taibbi panned the movie and described Kyle as “a killing machine with a heart of gold.” That as well as anything sums up the irony of the basic Chris Kyle story.
He’s depicted in the film as a sensitive guy suffering PTSD. However, in his own words he says that he enjoyed killing and that he only wished he could have killed more. He refers to the Iraqis as “savages.” At one point in the movie he says that he’s willing to account to God for every man he killed. He was credited with 160 confirmed kills and likely killed many more that couldn’t be confirmed.
For me there’s something unseemly and almost immoral about sitting hundreds of yards away coolly drawing a bead on a foe and in effect assassinating them. However, he saw his role as taking out enemy combatants who could potentially kill other American soldiers. Many of the folks he killed likely were “bad guys” and “savages” but I suspect that some were just joe-average schlubs defending their country caught up in a war that they didn’t start.
But in his defense, Kyle was no coward. He volunteered to go door to door with our troops clearing buildings. He apparently didn’t have to do that. And after he got out of the service he spent some of his time trying to help disabled vets. Like most humans he was complex, and not the one-dimensional psycho-killer that those on the extreme left like Michael Moore would want to paint him—nor was he the pristine hero that those on the right would like him to have been.
There was another biopic movie released a few weeks before American Sniper that was about an American hero: Unbroken. I wrote a review of that movie along with some other holiday films about a week ago. Unbroken tells the story of Lou Zamperini. Most of it takes place during WWII. He was an Olympic-class distance runner who served in the Army Air Corps. His B-24 crashed into the Pacific and he spent 47 days on a raft only to be “rescued” by the Japanese—then enduring two years as a POW and surviving gruesome torture.
He returns to the States a hero but a tormented and bitter man. He copes by abusing alcohol and venting his rage on his wife. At a Billy Graham crusade in 1949, he accepts Jesus and with that his PTSD resolves and he returns to Japan to personally forgive his captors. Later he opens a school for troubled youth and becomes an evangelist himself. It is a powerful story of redemption and transformation.
And then the other night I saw a snippet of a piece on Audie Murphy. It was part of a show called “Secrets of the Arsenal” on the American Heroes Channel, one of the history cable channel spawn. This show’s icon was the actual M1 carbine used by Murphy during WWII. For those of you under 50 who might not know Audie Murphy, google his name. You will see pics of a peach-fuzz faced teenager with a chest full of medals. He was the most decorated American soldier of WWII and his exploits are as fantastically improbable as any graphic novel superhero.
Murphy grew up in East Texas during the Great Depression. His family had been abandoned by the father and he had to become a crack-shot to help feed his family. Following Pearl Harbor, much like Kyle after 9/11, he tried to enlist in both the Marines and the Navy at age 16—and was rejected by both. Finally, he was accepted by the Army at age 17. At the time of his enlistment he was 5-5 and weighed 112-lbs. Clearly, he could have never made it as a Navy Seal.
He served with the 3rd Division, and he fought in North Africa, Italy, France and eventually Germany. His unit was in almost constant combat for two and a half years. He earned the Medal of Honor and multiples of pretty much every other medal our Army offered. After the war Hollywood cast him as the star in many B-grade Westerns—and then a decade after the actual events he played himself in To Hell and Back. In reliving his exploits for the big screen he suffered nightmares and flashbacks, but in 1955 no one really understood PTSD. In those days you just sucked it up and went on with life as best you could. To Hell and Back was a so-so movie at best, but Murphy’s life is a great story. I hope some director like Eastwood or Spielburg tells it again and does Murphy justice. He was as great a hero as this country has ever had.
And when I ponder what it is that makes some men heroes, I recall a magazine article by historian/biographer William Manchester from around 1978. Manchester was a U.S. Marine who earned a Purple Heart on Okinawa in 1945. A statement from that article gave me insight about the heroism of many combat veterans. He quoted First John 3:16 about the hallmark of real love—the willingness to lay down ones life for your friends. That’s what Manchester observed during the savage hand-to-hand combat on Okinawa—men risking their own death and sacrificing themselves to protect their brothers-in-arms. That was confirmed by the statements of an old client of mine who had seen action with the 11th Airborne in the Philippines. He suffered tremendous survivor’s guilt, and no relationship in the decades after the war ever matched the love he felt for his buddies. Oddly then, it seems true heroism is rooted in love, and not some jingoist patriotism, and by that standard Chris Kyle, Lou Zamperini and Audie Murphy all qualify as heroes along with hundreds of thousands more Americans who laid down their life for their friends.