Iraq war veteran explains what 'American Sniper' and its critics both fail to understand
Actor Bradley Cooper shown as Chris Kyle in a movie trailer for American Sniper (Screenshot)

Americans love war movies – they always have – and they love their movies far more than they love going to war. I enjoy war movies too but, since serving in Iraq during the war, you would’ve all but had to point a loaded gun to my head to get me to watch a Hollywood version of the Iraq war. Not because the experience of war was that bad for me – it was - but because I’m deathly afraid the war movie that Hollywood is going to produce will be.

But then the movie American Sniper seemingly divided our country far more than the Iraq war ever did. Critics left and right came out of the woodwork to either praise or tear the film apart – and then many began criticizing the soldier, Chris Kyle, on whose story the movie is based. Read anything about the movie, and it’s like you are either with us or the terrorists. You’re asked to decide whether the Navy Seal is a “hero” or a “hate-filled-killer” .

I never read his book, but after it was released back in 2012, Time magazine asked Kyle if he had any regrets about killing over 160 people during his five deployments as a Navy Seal. Kyle said no because, “I had to do it to protect the Marines. You want to lose your own guys, or would you rather take one of them out?”

As a former infantryman, that makes sense to me, but I know that many civilians might not get it. That they don’t isn’t helped by those in the media who read Kyle’s memoir primarily to use certain passages from it to try and paint Chis Kyle as some kind of a monster. They freaked out at Kyle’s descriptions of killing enemy combatants. So what? He was a sniper; they kill people. That’s their job, and it’s one that our government recruits and pays them to do. Kyle was a Navy Seal – he didn’t enlist in the Peace Corps. What else do civilians think that combat soldiers to do? Hand out flowers? Hold peaceful protests against the armed enemy?

All the criticism made me feel compelled to watch it: I had to find out for myself if either the hype or the criticism it’s received were valid, good marketing or simply a byproduct of Americans’ ongoing divisions over the war in the first place, once again transposed onto the soldiers sent to die in it.

So I went: I showed up early to get a good seat – and paid the extra five bucks to see it in Imax. The lights dimmed, the movie played, two hours later it was over.

After the movie ended, I got up and followed the red carpet towards the exit – it reminded me of the red carpet they laid out for us when we got off the plane after returning from Iraq; as if we were all now celebrities. It then hit me that the hero’s welcome that we all received when we returned is over now.

I still didn’t get all the criticism. I liked Kyle – at least, the Kyle in the movie, as I know nothing about the one on the page or off camera. In the movie he did his job, did it well and hit all his enemy combatant targets with not a civilian killed. He followed the rules of engagement and, if anything, was a pretty squared away soldier – one I’d be honored to serve along side – and, if people think that the real Kyle was a monster for doing the job that our country sent him to do, then that must mean that they think I’m a monster as well. I also tried to do my job to the best of my abilities while over there, just so that we could all go home and nobody in my platoon would get killed.

Did I give a shit about the Iraq people? Yes, but I, too, joined the military and not the Peace Corps. I had a pretty good idea what I was getting myself into. War is shades of grey, but I had to view it in black and white while doing my job over there. I’d have gone mad if I hadn’t. It was us vs them, kill them before they kill you, and, as my Battalion Commander once told us all right before rolling into a heavily insurgent occupied city of Tal Afar, “Shoot first, shoot straight, protect the innocent and punish the deserving.”

While taking a piss in the urinal after the movie, I overheard a guy washing his hands behind me tell his buddy, “That was the best movie I’ve seen all year.”

We’re only two weeks into the year, I thought. This is only the beginning. Hollywood is a for-profit industry and, with the success of American Sniper, I’m sure they’ll be plenty of other Iraq and Afghanistan war films to come.

I then tried to figure out why American Sniper was such big political deal, because it’s just a movie. That’s all it is. It’s just actors playing roles, all of whom have already moved on and none of whom suffered any PTSD afterwards or experienced any loss of limbs while filming. Rumors are that Bradley Cooper might win an Oscar for his performance – Hollywood’s version of the Medal Of Honor.

Outside the theatre I tried to recall specific moments from the film but, like war, it was all a blur. The whole experience made me feel melancholy and distant, like everything else was silent. I needed a drink.

At the bar, I thought about a routine movement-to-contact mission we once went on in Iraq. It was at night and we were all exhausted. Command had us stop our vehicles after one of our snipers called in over the radio that they had eyes on an individual setting up an improvised explosive device in a traffic circle through which we frequently rolled on our routine patrols. He asked for permission to engage; permission was granted. Seconds later: “tango down”.

None of us cheered – none of us even responded, really. There was no hooting and hollering or high fives; it wasn’t a movie. We were all sleep deprived and just wanted to head back to our base, our home in Iraq.

I have no idea who that sniper was who took out that individual setting up the IED; I don’t know his name, what he looks like, if he’s liberal, conservative, or if he was a good guy or not. I don’t care and none of that matters. I also don’t know anything at all about the enemy combatant that he took out, other than that person was trying to prevent one of us from coming back home.

After I began dwelling on the criticism of Chris Kyle and the movie, I found myself feeling depressed. In ways, this movie got people to express how they really feel about our veterans and the war in which we fought in. They don’t look at us the same way they do the “Greatest Generation”, but more like they see Vietnam vets. Some probably even view us as being no different than Nazis but, instead of “baby killers”, I guess we’re all mindless Arab-killers to them.

A mental health physician at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs once advised me not to watch war movies and I think she’s probably right; she also told me not to drink. Both are impossible. I still watch the old war movies that I loved before my time in Iraq, but they’re different now. Everything is different now. I pick up on all the anti-war messages these days – the ones that, unfortunately, didn’t quite register with me when I was a kid, and the same anti-war messages that are all throughout American Sniper, not that anyone else seems to notice amidst all the arguing about whether Chris Kyle was a bad person or not.

Chris Kyle is more complicated than he’s been portrayed. War is, too. © Guardian News and Media 2015