I bumped into a friend while dropping my daughter off this morning and she asked me what I thought of the Clint Eastwood movie, American Sniper. I answered that I hadn’t seen it so I didn’t really have an opinion. It was only later that I realized I was wrong. I may not have watched the movie but I certainly have an opinion.
I haven’t gone to see it yet because the movie wasn’t made for me. Nor are just about any of the war movies set in the post 9/11 world. I can handle zombie apocalypse movies and robot/machine/transformy-thingy movies because I know nothing about zombies or cars that turn into giant aliens created in a Chrysler designer’s wet dream. That’s what makes those movies entertaining to me. But war? Yeah, I know a few things about war. And it’s not something I find entertaining. At least, not anymore.
There was a time when I would have been first in line to see American Sniper. I would have gone to the theater eager to soak up the emotions and intense reactions the gifted actors and skilled director deemed “true” enough to portray. I would have viewed the movie as a glimpse into an unknown world and, as such, I would have felt a certain obligation to watch–as if by watching it I could learn something about combat that might help me later on.
Then I went to combat myself. Twice. And it ceased to be entertaining almost immediately. I say almost because there are aspects of combat that are incredibly exciting and fulfilling in ways that almost defy explanation. Sometimes it can even be fun. But when taken in its entirety, it’s a goddamn awful shitty place to be.
I’ve spent much of the last six years trying to process and understand how my experiences in Iraq impacted me. And I’ve done a pretty good job of it. Through hard introspection, honest self-evaluation, and years of writing I have unpacked formerly compartmentalized emotions and reactions from combat. I now know what I was feeling and thinking when I killed. I know how my friends’ deaths impacted me, and understand the poisonous effects of guilt–especially when it’s unreasonable. I know how the effects of combat followed me home and how they continue to manifest themselves in my life. This hard-won knowledge has given me valuable perspective on my experiences and has helped me continue to move forward in my life after combat.
One of the side effects of earning this knowledge is that I have no desire, whatsoever, to listen to someone else, who hasn’t been there, tell me what I should feel about my experiences. The overwhelming onslaught of clear-cut definitions of right and wrong–good and evil–reinforced by music, imagery, and brutal yanking on exposed heartstrings that some reviews of American Sniper have held up as reasons why the movie is so “good”, are all the more reason why I won’t go see it. My experiences with war have been mixtures of highs and lows, of moral ambiguities and blurred lines of right and wrong. Anything that purports to show the reality of combat that glosses over these ambiguities rings patently false.
Movies are not a good venue for an artist/director to lay out information for the viewer to modify as they see fit. In this format, one concept of “what it was like” is jammed down the viewer’s throat in one brutal push. I guess that’s okay if you like the way it tastes. But to me, simplifying war to make it exciting just tastes like shit.
So, no, I haven’t seen American Sniper. And nor am I likely to. But I’m not the target audience, either. For the vast majority of Americans who’ve never experienced combat, it may be as close as they’ll ever get.
This is something we can all be thankful for.