The recent release of the movie American Sniper, based on the life and experiences of the late Chris Kyle, has ignited a bit of a firestorm in the blog-o-sphere about war in general, about Kyle specifically, and a debate about whether the movie is an advertisement for war, or a symbol of courage.
I have to admit, I have not seen the movie yet, so perhaps, I’m wholly unqualified to have an opinion. What I am qualified to have an opinion on, however, is the blithering of those with ‘opinions’ about war. It might be about the war in Iraq, or the war in Afghanistan, or war in general, but there are a lot of opinions flying willy nilly out there.
Much of what I have seen written about the story (and the movie) deal specifically with that person’s individual view of the war as a whole. Many fling arguments about lack of WMD, of ‘war for oil’, or whatever their personal bent on the origins of the war might be. There will forever be a thousand versions of what a war ‘is’, or how it came about. But this story is not about that.
No matter the conflict, there are stories to be told from within it. These stories are limited. They are particular to a geographical area, to a mission, to a unit, and even down to the individual man or woman. They cannot and should not all be seen through the quietly and safely reasoned prism of academic and political critique. These stories might have moral lessons or failures of their own. Or, they might be spectacular in their courage and bravery. No matter the individual story, they must stand on their own, because they are personal.
The individual in a war does not make their day-to-day decisions based on geopolitics. They may care, but they cannot control the why’s or how’s that brought them to the place they are at that moment. What they can control, sometimes, is the actions within their particular sphere of influence. They can control their reactions to the events that unfold around them. They can deal with the challenges faced by their closest friends at that moment. But that is all they can do.
I was always amazed by the sheer volume of things that had to be dealt with while at home station, and the truly limited volume of things on the ‘to do’ list while in combat. The stakes might have been extremely high, but the tasks themselves had a limit. A more cynical person might say ‘wash, rinse, repeat.’ It sounds flippant and silly, but it was true. It is part of why people like me, and many thousands of others, quietly pine in the back of our minds for those ‘simple’ days of combat, of decisions made rapidly, with black and white simplicity. Live, or die. Period.
To those uninitiated, it will sound foolish or arrogant. It will sound ‘warmonger-ish’. I get that. But I also get that it doesn’t matter how smart they are, nor does it matter how many degrees they might have. If they have never experienced combat, they will never, ever, ever understand it. No intellectual exercise ever devised can recreate the visceral and pure experiences of combat. That is a fact, and it cannot be disproven by anyone, at any university, or at any think tank, ever. To suppose they could would be to intimate that a man can be made to understand the pain and joy of bearing children. It just can’t happen, people.
So, I read the reactions. I read the opinions. Most can be easily discounted, written by people with no experience in the realities they are discussing. This also makes sense, because to them, war is an abstraction. For many (especially those in academia), it is an intellectual exercise that provides simple moral high ground. No one should want or like war, therefore everything associated with it is bad.
Unfortunately, war is not an abstraction. It is a living, breathing, nasty bastard of a thing that pervades every nook and cranny of the world. It has affected every populace, every tribe, and short of genetics, it may be the one thing we share with every other group of humans on earth.
But no matter how horrible it might be, or perhaps in some perverse way, because of it, noteworthy actions abound within it. Actions of simple grace, of mercy, of heroism, of sacrifice, of professionalism, of pride. All of these things exist simultaneously alongside the heinous. They are inextricable. But that does not make them less worthy of note, of pride, or of celebration.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions; I absolutely agree to that. Specifically, everyone is entitled to an opinion on war, on geo-politics, or on just about anything else. One would hope that prior to having or expressing said opinion, people would do their level best to arm themselves with facts and information, but in the internet-driven world of links and websites that masquerade as ‘news’, that is not always likely. However, on nearly every other topic, most of those people would weigh their views based on the opinion of someone ‘experienced’ or educated in that field. They might quote or otherwise repeat the views or findings of learned people of that sort…except for war.
War, it seems, is the exception. Those experienced and educated in war are the very participants they deem ‘damaged’ or ‘brainwashed’. Yet, despite my damage or my brainwashing, I know more about war than just about every commentator or opinion-monger. In the twenty years of my active service, a little over ten of those were ‘at war’. Out of those ten, I was deployed in war zones for five of those years. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, on year-long deployments and on shorter 30-60 day rotations, I saw most of what both theaters had to offer.
I cannot say that I had it hard; I did not. I had a job that provided me with a much greater chance of survival and control over my environment than most. There are tens of thousands of others who know more about war than I do. My experience does not qualify me to speak to the experiences of an infantryman in Fallujah, of an A-10 pilot out of Kandahar, or an SF soldier in the Helmand. But it gives me a voice. It gives me my own version of moral high ground.
There is a saying making the rounds on the internet today that I found appropriate. ‘The lion does not concern itself with the opinions of sheep’. I appreciate the intent behind it, though I’m well aware of the fact that as a warrior class, you have to serve a higher purpose. That higher purpose is the nation, and the nation is comprised of those being called ‘the sheep’. It is a bit of a conundrum.
I signed on the dotted line to, among other reasons, defend the right of anyone to say anything they pleased. It would be disingenuous of me to be dismissive of their opinions. But I also know that we are all charged with teaching those around us to be better. To know more. To share what we have learned, and make that knowledge part of the collective experience. Movies like ‘American Sniper’ can do that. If well told (and to every report is has been), it can teach of the individual experience. It also can spark and inspire debate and conversation, which also allows for learning. Unfortunately, there is no metric for measuring that effect. And that is a shame.
There are untold lessons to be learned in every conflict in history. One does not have far to go to find them, good or bad. The question is if you will remain open to the learning. War is a monster. War is a massive thing beyond measure. But it is fought singly, individually, by thousands upon thousands of your fellow citizens.
Take a moment and learn from their experience. Silence your rhetoric. Stop assigning blame and morality. Listen to the story that might have been told by your brother, or your sister, or your father. When it is done, add it to your knowledge. Let it build or form your views. But let the story stand on its own, for what it is. It is the story of a soldier, or of a sailor, or of an airman, or of a marine. They were flawed, they failed from time to time, and just like you, they were human.
You owe it to them to listen.
(Featured Image Courtesy: DODLive.com)
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