Thursday, March 12, 2015

Response to American Sniper demonstrates vast spectrum of war experience

I’m cleaning, like I do when I’m anxious. My husband Colin is thinking about shoes.

“Women and children,” he says. “You determine their intent by their shoes.”

We saw American Sniper earlier. All through the movie I fidgeted, like I do when I’m anxious. Colin sat rigid. Now he’s thinking about shoes.

“Women have no cause to wear shoes with tread,” he says. “So if they are, they are far more likely to blow you up.”

I say something like, “that makes sense,” because it does, and because I don’t know how else to respond. I often don’t know how to respond when Colin’s brain is in Afghanistan. I know his mind needs to dwell there for a while. It bounces between mountain passes and desert, between quiet conversations and the rumble of Humvee motors, or gunfire. Often it fixates on the suicide bomber who rammed his truck into Colin’s convoy. The young Afghan boy caught in the explosion. Colin’s gunner, his friend, engulfed in flames.

My brain goes to Afghanistan sometimes, as well, but to another time, another location, another mission. Colin served as an infantryman in 2006. My role in 2009-2010 as part of a nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team was largely bureaucratic. However, when we met in 2012, Colin and I connected through our disparate war stories. We talked. He lent me his then-unpublished manuscript of war poetry. I shared an essay about redeploying. Our writing, our experiences, were drastically different. But they were also the same.

I discovered this connection, too, with my mother, who served as a nurse in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. When I came home from Afghanistan, despite the decades, borders, and job duties that separated our wars, Mom and I found common elements weaving through each deployment, and the aftermath.

In the weeks since its release, American Sniper has generated heated discussion of many colors: respect and admiration for what Chris Kyle and his family endured, attacks on his character, praise for the film’s raw and intimate portrayal, admonishment for lack of political context, rebuff for the use of the mythical/hero formula and appreciation for the same.

Perhaps the most impassioned debate comes from within the veteran community. I’ve seen numerous articles and social media posts from veterans proclaiming that the movie did not accurately represent their time in the military or in Iraq. Many express the valid concern that this contemporary war film will become the contemporary war film and will shape (or perpetuate) public opinion. Others rejoice that the movie has spurred conversation, regardless of the nuances.

The response mirrors war itself. War is a spectrum. Or more accurately, war is a complicated graph of various separate but related spectrums: of danger and comfort, of excitement and fear and humor and absurdity and friendship and guilt and shame and pride.

Veterans easily point fingers at those who had it worse, or better, or different.  We elevate some to the top of the heroism hierarchy. The rest are left muddling somewhere in the middle.

Kyle’s war certainly more closely resembles Colin’s war than it does mine. Still, Colin never engaged in urban combat (“urban” isn’t a term associated with most of Afghanistan). Colin worked directly with the local population, rather than viewing them solely through a rifle’s scope. He didn’t deploy multiple times. He didn’t leave a family at home.

But the movie left him thinking about shoes.

“I shouldn’t be sad,” Colin says. “I didn’t even come close to doing what Kyle did. But I did more than most, so it’s not like I feel insufficient. I don’t feel depressed. I just feel sad.”

I feel sad, though for different reasons. I’m remembering being on the other side, when my mom deployed and left me behind. I’m thinking about all the things I might have done differently in Afghanistan, all the things I might have done better. I’m trying to figure out what “better” would have been.

I’m also worried about Colin, because I’ve seen his sadness spiral deep and dark and lasting.

No, Kyle’s war was not Colin’s war. It wasn’t my war, or my mom’s war. It wasn’t anyone’s war but Kyle’s. Yet his narrative contains threads Colin and I, and many other veterans, can latch onto.

For the general public, American Sniper provides one perspective. One perspective, from one man, in his unique personal circumstances—and filtered through a Hollywood lens. One perspective cannot come close to a full representation of war.

But it helps.

As long as we have war, we need discussions of war, stimulated by literature, film and other mediums. The public bears responsibility for consuming and engaging with this art, in all its forms, from all its sources: veterans, journalists, civilians, Iraqis, and Afghans.

However, the onus is on veterans, too: for producing it. In order for the public to listen, read, view, veterans must speak, write, create. If we hope to achieve an environment in which veterans can have comfortable dialogue with non-veterans, where discussions of war are candid, not taboo and not sensationalized; if we hope to bridge the oft-referenced “civilian-military divide,” we, the veterans, must lay the groundwork. We must stop the finger-pointing and heroic hierarchies. We must put aside the pride and stubbornness and self-sustaining ideas that one type of soldier has more right to tell his or her story than another. We must welcome all narratives: familiar, traditional, and not. 

More narratives facilitate both a greater public understanding of war and increased opportunities for each individual veteran to find a story—or a thread—to which he or she can relate.

“I’m sad,” Colin says again. “I don’t quite know what to do with that.”

Eventually, he settles on sleep. The next morning he decides to join a support group at the VA.