Saturday, February 28, 2015

American Sniper

I served eleven and a half years in the military and I am a disabled veteran. I met nearly all of my friends in the military, but none of us spend much time dwelling on it. Though I consider myself patriotic, I have never been pushy about it, like so many patriots who are really nationalists. Clemenceau distinguished patriots - people who love their country - from nationalists - people who hate everyone else's country. 

Unlike a lot of people, many of whom are proving to be liars, I don't have any war stories. I guess I'm lucky that I don't. The people I know who have real war stories don't go around telling them to just anybody. When I was released from active military service, I took my uniform off. I keep my dress uniform in a closet at home, but even if I wanted to put it on, it no longer fits. Even David, the warrior king, advised us, in Psalm 67, to "rebuke the company of spearmen" and to "scatter thou the people that delight in war." Most Americans seem to be doing just this, despite all their attestations of "thank you for your service." They've lost their appetite for war, which is fine by me.

In the 1851 preface to his great book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World from Marathon to Waterloo, Sir Edward Creasy wrote: "It is an honorable characteristic of the Spirit of this Age, that projects of violence and warfare are regarded among civilized states with gradually increasing aversion." So, why is it that, 164 years later, Clint Eastwood's new film, American Sniper, has become so popular, even becoming the highest-grossing war film ever? I haven't seen it, so I can't comment on its virtues - if any - as a piece of filmmaking, but from what I've heard, American Sniper is a response to Oliver Stone's film Born On the Fourth of July (1989). Both films tell so-called "true" stories about veterans of war. Stone's film, which I admire, is concerned with Ron Kovic, who went to Vietnam in 1967 as a marine . When he came under enemy fire, Kovic mistakenly shoots and kills a fellow marine. On another patrol, Kovic is critically wounded. Paralyzed from the chest down, in a dilapidated Veterans Hospital, he suffers from such ill-treatment from the overworked, drug-abusing doctors and nurses that he suffers a compound fracture of his femur and nearly loses his leg. The rest of the film chronicles Kovic's difficult return to civilian life and his political awakening in a country that wanted only to forget the war in Vietnam and to forget the sacrifices of Kovic and the millions of other veterans who served there.

The American war in Iraq, which was really the second war in Iraq, ended - so to speak - without a clear victory. Like Vietnam vets, the thousands of veterans who served there have had to get on with their lives without an understanding of what their sacrifices accomplished, if anything - especially now that a third war in Iraq is looming. It seems to me, from what I've been able to learn about American Sniper, that Clint Eastwood's film is about the altogether unique experience of war as a crucible that creates such close bonds among the men who serve in it that nothing can sever them, not even death. When thrown together into situations of extreme adversity, in which men have to depend on one another for their very survival, the degree of brotherhood is so intense that, ultimately, what every soldier fights for isn't abstractions like "liberty" or "country," but for the lives of every fellow soldier.* 

While there is no way to satisfactorily explain the popularity of American Sniper, perhaps it's because it's a way for Americans, drunk from the comforts and safety of their lives, to do their patriotic duty and do right by the men and women who perform the too often thankless job of serving their country.

Vietnam was the last American war that was fought by draftees, but at least the draft meant that a much broader cross-section of the population participated in the national nightmare. Now, after the end of two wars fought simultaneously, the percentage of Americans that volunteer to serve in the military is one per cent. That the other ninety-nine per cent of Americans likely can't comprehend what the one per cent have had to endure may explain some of the fascination that American Sniper holds for them. It may also go a long way to explain why our victory in Iraq (and Afghanistan) was unattainable. When the commitment of Americans to our "war effort" is so minuscule, when the day to day hazards of war are so remote from the lives of the vast majority of Americans, how can they be relied on to elect governments that prosecute such wars?

Many people who never served in the military still want to be a part, no matter how insignificant, of the narrative. Even TV news anchors have fabricated stories about their experiences of war. If we can believe what Creasy wrote about the public's appetite for war, not to mention accounts and depictions of war, then it is a positive step for our civilization. But our appetite foe experiencing war vicariously, if the popularity of American Sniper is any indication, then warfare, at least as a concept, is as real and as resonant as ever. 

There is a moment from the film The Truce (1997), based on a memoir by Primo Levi, in which a prisoner liberated from Auschwitz (played by John Turturro) tells a fellow prisoner that the war is over. The fellow prisoner corrects him. "War is always," he says. Let war stay on our movie and television screens and in our imaginations, and not in our lives.

*When marine PFC Lee Marvin was wounded in the battle for Saipan in 1944 and regained consciousness on a hospital ship bound for home, he realized that for him the war was over, and yet he wept bitterly because he was leaving behind all his buddies, for whom the war was far from over. After a long career as an actor, Marvin died in 1987, and was buried in Arlington Cemetery.

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