Saturday, January 24, 2015

Scoped Out

"We need the kind of soldier who can turn the remorse button off," said Sgt. Buck, the head of an Edmonton Garrison-based sniper unit.

I went to see American Sniper with a group of friends - police officers all. Movie theaters have moved out of the "popcorn, candy, soda" era, and so I sipped a beer in the packed house and let the story of Chris Kyle unfold.

It wasn't what I expected. The war scenes were grim but not graphic. Mostly, they told of a battlefield littered with contradiction. The intermingling of cultures led to uneven interactions between American and Iraqi, between Iraqis of differing allegiances and among the Marines and SEALS sent to fight another of America's ambiguous campaigns. Kyle's skill was not used so much to eliminate high-ranking enemy combatants as to protect columns of Marines and Iraqi troops fighting for control of Fallujah, Ramadi and other cities key to suppressing the insurgency.

Memorable scenes exposed the moral and mental challenges posed by the War on Terrorism. A woman hands a young boy a live grenade and shoos him toward an approaching column of Marines. Kyle shoots him. The woman picks up the device, apparently intent on finishing the job. She is not successful.

The heart of the movie begins when Kyle meets a young woman named Tara. At a bar. He is charming. She is unimpressed. A drinking game ensues (the rules are meaningless) and she ends up puking into a planter outside. Of course, they marry and have children. Those, however, are set pieces for the real drama that unfolds.

Kyle is on a satellite phone call with Tara. She's telling him their first child will be a boy. A firefight interrupts their conversation and she gets to hear the battle rage, her husband's life surely in the balance. He survives.

The Chris Kyle Tara fell in love with does not. His first tour over, he returns home distant, distracted. His body sits in a chair at home, his heart still with the men and women he left behind to fight and die. He is moody, prone to periods of silence. His wife tries to pull him back into the her life - into the life of a loving husband and adoring father. She succeeds imperfectly, the chore harder and more fruitless with every deployment.

It all sounds vaguely familiar. In the professional life of a police officer there are enforced (though relatively brief compared to duty in a combat zone) absences. There are long days and short nights having little to do with the circadian rhythm into which human beings evolved. Stress, short tempers..... Withdrawal from friends, family and the things we enjoyed before "the job" intruded. Distance of a most unnavigable sort. A career of filling our buckets with the trauma and misery of others.....

I don't presume to compare myself favorably to Chris Kyle, or the men and women who have been thrust into the maelstrom of battle on behalf of our country. His life story stands as a singular tale of the collective sacrifice and service offered every day by our military members all over the world. Called selfish, he responds "I'd lay down my life for my country."

A visceral outrage intrudes, though, whenever another critic of the movie, and of Kyle, bubbles to the surface of the thoughtless ooze of anti-war sophistry. None of these men whose lives are touched (and sometimes are ended) wanted war. The chilling scene showing the Kyles holding each other in front of their TV on 9/11 speaks volumes for what they both knew was to come for them. Along the way he loses friends, who die as he looks on. The thoughtless comments and hollow moralizing by people who have never faced a graver danger than choking on a steak aboard their private jet deserve far less attention than they are getting, and no respect.

This is not a war movie. It is a cost movie, of the few paying a never-ending bill so that the many can be free. That some of those on the paying end were Iraqis struggling with their own culture is one of the smaller ironies (and points of anguish and dismay among the combatants) explored. 

Chris Kyle only faced the failure of his own remorse button (and his stubborn refusal to admit it) late in his life. Surrounded by his friends, a strong wife supporting him, he eventually won the ultimate battle borne by those who serve. 

It is a triumph I wish for us all.

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