Living just south of Boston, we’ve spent the last few weeks shoveling out of one blizzard after the next. Every time I tried to shake off the cabin fever and get out to the movie theater to see American Sniper, I was swept back into the icy vortex. I wouldn’t have cared—except I really wanted to see the film and couldn’t seem to get there. Instead, I heard (and read) a multitude of mixed reviews—most being positive. “Bradley Cooper was amazing!” “What an emotional ride.” “Clint Eastwood really outdid himself.” And then there were the negative remarks. “It’s a shame how Hollywood glorifies war…that they’ve portrayed a man, with 160 confirmed kills to his name, as an American hero. These were human lives he erased from the earth and no one should ever be honored for that.”
The snow finally let up and I made it to the theatre to see the film.
For me, it was everything the hype had promised. Bradley Cooper was amazing and Clint Eastwood really did outdo himself. As far as the negative feedback, I’d like to respond from the perspective of a soldier who has experienced war—certainly not a fraction of what Chris Kyle experienced, but enough to understand the mentality—and set a few things straight.
In most cases, men and women join the military to fulfill a purpose greater than him or herself. At 17 years old, my best friend and I joined the US Army National Guard on the buddy system. We graduated from basic training and Military Police School in Alabama, and were assigned to a unit in our home state of Massachusetts. One year later, however, my best friend committed suicide and terminated the buddy system contract. I was devastated.
Almost five years to that horrific day, in August of 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait with his henchmen, compiling the fourth largest army in the world. The atrocities and inhumane acts committed toward Kuwait prompted support from around the globe. War was declared. The world called it Operation Desert Storm and volunteer soldiers were called to serve their countries. Within a few short months, soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines arrived in the Middle East to defend Saudi Arabia, liberate Kuwait and embarrass the biggest bully of the post-cold war era. America’s sons and daughters entered a barren wasteland to exact justice. The responsibilities brought to bear, however, were immense. My unit was activated and called to serve.
In 1991, as a shield was replaced by an angry storm, Saddam Hussein threatened America with the mother of all battles. In turn, President George Bush drew a line in the sand. That line was quickly wrapped around Iraq and used to choke the life out of thousands. Though Hussein swore it would take the Americans months to cross the breach from Saudi Arabia to Iraq, it took only hours. We—the Allied Forces—moved fast, crushing the first of three Iraqi lines of defense. As if they weren’t even there, our American war machine rolled right over them, discovering we had overestimated the enemy. It was clear: While Hussein chose to sit out the air campaign, the Iraqi people bore the brunt for their ruthless dictator and like all victims of war; they paid with gallons of their own blood. In such a time and place, it seemed necessary. They were wearing uniforms. It was war.
It took four days, or a mere 100 hours of hell on earth, before the ground war was ceased. History was made. In triumph, Kuwait was liberated, while Hussein was humiliated before the whole world. An unconditional withdrawal was ordered.
During that brief but traumatic time, here are just a few things I learned: Military men and women do not start wars; we are trained to protect our country, given orders and sent to strike. Our government leaders decide when and where. Military men and women do not question orders, as this could easily prove fatal to all involved. We are trained to move and act as one; like a vast machine that depends upon each working part. And when we hit the ground—the battlefield—we fight for our brothers and sisters who stand beside us. This warrants repeating: in combat, we fight for each other—and that’s exactly what Chris Kyle did.
Chris Kyle believed in his purpose—to protect his country from terrorism, as well as his brothers and sisters on the ground. As his father had taught him, there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheep dogs. Chris was a sheep dog, destined to protect the flock. His confirmed enemy kills—160—more than likely helped to spare at least that many American lives. It was war and, for those who have never experienced it, Chris’ kill count must seem demonic. But again, the rules are simple and clear: kill or be killed. Had I served in Afghanistan at that time, I would have thanked him personally for providing the cover he did.
Taking 160 human lives does not make the American Sniper a hero. In my opinion, that just means he was better equipped—with a very specific skill set—to successfully do his duty and accomplish the mission set before him. What does make him a hero is the fact that he stood up and made a conscious decision to serve his country; he dug down and found the courage and commitment to put himself in harm’s way while sacrificing time away from his family—just like every man and woman who stepped onto the same plane heading toward hell.
The expense of war is sometimes paid once all the fighting is over. I know. On February 28, 1991, Iraq surrendered. Yet, the fighting for many was far from over. While America’s technology continued to erase the poltergeist of Vietnam, many servicemen and women were invaded with their own ghost of torment. Amidst the daily chaos, we experienced the frailties of our own mortality and unlike CNN’s sanitized version of the desert clash—the realization that there was no glory in war. Though I’d only spent months in the desert, it seemed like forever. I saw things that nobody should see. I watched children die, men leave their brothers for dead, land mines claim victims—the list is endless.
Returning visibly whole to a proud and grateful nation, my entire body was consumed with pain. And I couldn’t seem to pick my spirits up. The depression engulfed me and though I fought it, my body was just too tired. My every waking moment was spent in a vice of anxiety, or all-out panic. Like clockwork, each night, my restless sleep was interrupted by severe panic attacks or demented, life-like nightmares. Each time, I awoke and tried to find the difference between the hellish dreams and my actual life. The answer was simple. There was no difference. My life was the nightmare. I was merely replaying the torment during my sleep.
Chris Kyle had also learned that not all war wounds are visible. Embarking on his final mission, he was carried away in the eye of his own storm; the type of storm that rages out of control deep inside, tearing at the spirit; the whole being. Only through the support of family and friends, and the willingness to reclaim his life, was he able to completely return home. In the end, war is also a state of mind and a person cannot live in two worlds at one time. One must face his demons and call an internal truce before there is ever a chance for peace. Chris Kyle was finally able to do just that.
U.S. military men and women are taught to value loyalty above all things except honor. They are taught to do whatever is necessary to carry out their mission. Yet, those who call them to serve, as well as those who enjoy the protection they provide, often criticize them for the very things they’ve asked them to do.
Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, did exactly was he was trained and ordered to do