American Sniper?

Prepping for a mission with MCSOCOM Det One, Baghdad 2004.  Armed with an M-4 and a .45cal Kimber, the radio on my back was my most lethal weapon.  pg 289

Prepping for a mission with MCSOCOM Det One, Baghdad 2004.

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.

After several sleepless days and nights in Najaf, the heat and fatigue made simple actions difficult.  The post-mission report I'm scribbling in my notebook is almost incomprehensible. August 2004  pg 289

After several sleepless days and nights in Najaf, the heat and fatigue made simple actions difficult. August 2004

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.

Taken shortly after we finally made it back to Kuwait after the 4 day dust storm.  From left to right: Weasel, Shoe, Gash, BT, Fuse, IKE.  Missing are Spock and JoJo--still in Iraq after being shot down during the final mission of those four days.  It would be several more days before maintenance Marines could get their aircraft flyable again.

Taken shortly after we finally made it back to Kuwait after flying close air support missions during a four day dust storm. Missing are Spock and JoJo–still in Iraq after being shot down during the final mission of those four days. March 2003

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.

10 thoughts on “American Sniper?

  1. Ed

    I was with 2nd Bn 4th Marines in Ramadi, iraq in 2004. I am indifferent to the movie. Not because I dont care but because im numb to the experiences in it. I saw the movie because id do anything to support those who chewed the same sand with me and my Marines.

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Ed,
      Thanks for responding to my post–and for what you did in Ramadi. That city was a nightmare in 2004. I can understand how being numb to those experiences can make you indifferent to the movie. That’s a normal extension of the only tool we were ever given to combat the mental aspects of our job: compartmentalization. It doesn’t protect us from experiencing the emotions of combat, just from allowing them to interrupt what we need to do to accomplish our mission. But when we keep doing that after coming home we run the risk of missing out on the rest of our lives.
      I applaud your desire and willingness to support those who “chewed the same sand” with you and your boys. I just wonder if there might be a better way than watching a movie. I’ll be happy to help you explore those options if you’d like.
      Best wishes and Semper Fi,
      Dan

      Reply
  2. Sgt. Mac

    Dan,

    Having read and reviewed your book some time back, I can relate to your post. You lived it and dealt with it the only way you knew how. Then the battle continued once you came home. Alcohol and all the other things you did to hide the feelings, then the long trek back to some semblence of normal.

    Having served in the military, but not in combat, I can only relate this way. I lost my best friend in Vietnam, three months after he joined. Some forty or so years later, one of my sons, eanted me to watch, ‘They Were Soldiers Once,” with Mel Gibson.

    I couldn’t make it through the battle scenes, and broke down sobbing. My son asked what the matter was, but I couldn’t speak. Not only did it affect me because of the loss of a friend, but because of another incident, while still in the military.

    To make a long story short, we ran into a kid who was a chopper medic. He had three large boxes of photograhs from nam. Not pictures of scenery, nor girls, all the normal stuff, but photo’s of dead and wounded soldiers he took care of or had to evacuate out.

    The images were horrific, and still have a profound impact on my life today. Now that said, I will watch American Sniper. I hear it is about half sniper movie and half, relationship with his wife and kids. I’m sure it will be hard to watch.

    And like you say, the movie really is for those, who have no idea, what war is, or how it affects our veterans. If it can make a positive impact on our military and for those who like you and your buddies sacrificed for us, than I’m for it.

    Keep on with life bud,

    Sgt. Mac 😉

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Hi Nancy,
      The new book is coming along nicely. I’ve been getting some good feedback from the test-readers I sent it to and am busy incorporating their suggestions. I’m setting an arbitrary goal to have it finished and available within the next four months. If the surfing and spearfishing conditions are not good for a while I might even make it!

      Best Wishes,
      Dan

      Reply
  3. Ken Cadena

    Hey Dan good to see you are well. We definitely chewed much ground together with the DET…..Me being a Sniper that was brought up on the art of sniping in the greatest school ever taught….I will say that I commend Chris Kyle for his sacrifice to our country, but I dont agree with the bull shit hype…A sniper is something more than a dude sitting on a building deciding whether to prosecute the targets of opportunity….you know as well as I do in that Najaf mission it is very easy to kill with extreme prejudice…I will close by stating that a Sniper is an individual that studies his craft, and the art, tactics, and is able to use his ability to initiate a detrimental decision on a specific target, or targets….AKA Carlos Hathcock…just because you persecuted 150 potential targets doesn’t make you a sniper, maybe just a real good shot…..

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      Great to hear from you, Ken. The thing I remember most about watching you, Vinnie, Mulv, CD, Jamie and the rest of the snipers at the Det during Najaf was just how focused you guys were. You guys spent hours staring through the scope in 120+deg heat, hidden deep inside a bombed out building, prosecuting targets silently as they presented themselves. There were no celebrations and no high-fives. The most I heard after a shot was a quiet “hit”–and that usually from the spotter. You guys did that for days on end without giving our position away to the enemy. That stealth paid huge dividends when the “cease-fire” was declared and tens of thousands of Iraqi’s wearing Mehdi Army headbands and banners paraded down the road less than 200m from us. If they’d known we were there I’m sure they wouldn’t have let us go without a fight.

      I also commend Kyle for his service–on active duty, sure, but mostly for his actions designed to help other veterans after coming home. I wish he’d lived long enough to communicate that aspect of his service. Returning from combat remains the biggest single challenge members of our military are unprepared for. And one that likely causes the most casualties. Solutions for these challenges must come from the men and women who’ve faced and overcome them in their own lives. It’s time for more of us, veterans, to apply the same courage and dedication we employed to destroy the enemy overseas against the challenges of coming home. And then look for ways to share what we learn along the way with other veterans. If enough of us do this, not only will we be helping ourselves and our brothers and sisters, but also expanding society’s understanding of who we are and what we’ve done. It will take time–longer than a typical movie–to accomplish this. But we’ve never shirked a tough duty before–why start now?

      Reply
  4. Wally

    Dan,
    Hey there War Dog, how have you been?
    Well I did go and see the movie even though I was extremely reluctant. I will admit I did zone out a couple of times during the movie and the parts that I do remember was when he was home between tours and being affected by the hypervigiliance and paranoia.
    It really affected me and I haven’t slept right ( not that I really sleep normally any more anyway) since.
    I know I can deal with it and I do agree with you I don’t have time to listen to someone who has no idea what combat is like, that helpless feeling listening to the mortar and rocket explosions get closer and closer, hearing the screams of people trapped and wounded inside, the burn of the fire and the pkp from the fire extinguishers filling my lungs, then I blink and I’m standing in line at the chowhall wondering why I can’t get the smell of blood and gunpowder off my gosh damned hands.
    I blink again and someone is blowing their horn at me because I’m holding up traffic at the light! I bet they thought I was texting lol I wish!

    Semper FI

    Wally

    Reply
    1. Dan Sheehan Post author

      I hear you, Wally. Your response to the movie is exactly what another good friend of mine was afraid of–although he didn’t go see it. He didn’t want to “wake the dragon”–i.e. he’d actually started being able to sleep relatively well again and didn’t want to screw it up. That’s part of my reluctance as well. I’ve fought pretty hard to get to where I am today. While a 2 hour movie shouldn’t unravel those gains, there’s no reason for me to take that chance.

      Take some time to get yourself back on an even keel. If you have some close buddies who’ll understand then rally them around you. Otherwise, pick up the phone and call 1-877-WAR-VETS. That’s the 24/7 hotline for the Vet Center. I haven’t used the hotline, but my experiences as a “walk-in” at the San Marcos Vet Center were really good. Take the initiative and pick up the phone. If the movie reached in and woke up your dragon, it’s time to talk to someone about how to control that beast.

      Take care of yourself, brother. Because nobody else can.
      S/F
      Dan

      Reply

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