Director Clint Eastwood’s film “American Sniper” has spawned reactions from the American movie-viewing public, spanning a wide range of emotions. Some Americans saw it as an unapologetic attempt to justify the invasion of Iraq and excite patriotic sympathies by glorifying the actions of a trained killer, while others were moved to describe “American Sniper” as the best war film ever created, one that left some young viewers angry enough to claim that they wanted to “go out and kill Muslims.”
Surveys conducted to determine the reactions of theater goers concluded that one of the most dramatic and common after-effects was that patrons sat in stunned silence for several minutes at the end of the film. I observed that phenomenon in the theater I attended and watched with amazement as people remained motionless in their seats well after the screen went dark.
Further, I heard no one speak as they left the theater. That same silence was conspicuously present in theaters around the country.
By far the most common response noted in post-viewing surveys was that the film presented a disturbingly realistic depiction of the kind of war we have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than 12 years. Being held captive to 134 minutes of dramatic urban warfare – where the enemy might be a uniformed soldier, a burqa-clad woman or a 12-year-old child – saddened and horrified an estimated 20 million Americans.
When asked why he had written the book on which this movie is based, true-life American Sniper Chris Kyle, who was later killed by an unbalanced veteran, answered, “Because people back in the U.S. have no idea what goes on over there, or the effect it has on those fighting and their families.” He is right.
Brushing aside the polar criticism of the film noted above, I found “American Sniper” to be a strong dose of medicine much needed by the majority of American people who have become so distanced from those who volunteer their service – and their lives – to defend this nation. One of the unintended consequences of establishing a volunteer military force is that we have created a “we and they” society. Only one percent of Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, while the rest of us are content to have the children of other U.S. citizens volunteer to serve in questionable wars so that our own will not be called to fight.
To date, 2.6 million U.S. military personnel have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them four or five times. Of that number, more than 900,000 have been treated at VA hospitals and clinics for battle-related physical or mental injuries. Veterans’ suicide rates during the latter stages of active fighting eclipsed the rates of those in the comparable civilian age group. Lack of jobs, divorces, spousal abuse and extreme difficulty readjusting to civilian life have marred or ended the lives of thousands of young vets. These issues are addressed accurately, forcefully and appropriately in “American Sniper.”
We have let our veterans down. We pay brief homage on Memorial Day and Veterans Day, but where are we when our civilian leadership contemplates a military intervention with no clear goal? And where are we when our veterans are dying while waiting to receive treatment at VA facilities? We don’t weigh in unless it affects us directly, but we should.
There is no glorification of war whatsoever in “American Sniper,” just an intense portrayal of the realities of combat. I encourage readers to see the film, subject themselves to Chris Kyle’s mental state, his brushes with death and the pressures on his family, and leave the theater deeply mindful that there are 2.6 million Chris Kyles out there, many of whom need help. It would do all of us well to retain the images planted in our minds while viewing “American Sniper” as a reminder of our responsibilities to our veterans. That is the true and lasting value of the film.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert who publishes Capitol Commentary, an independent political newsletter. [email protected]