America Loves a Sniper

There is appalling irony in the dust-up caused by outspoken liberals on the movie American Sniper.  Their anti-sniper cheap shots actually reinforce the theme of the movie, which is only incidentally about a sniper.

I took with me to the movie a buddy who was a sniper in the Vietnam War.  While gasbags like Michael Moore toss around the word “cowardly” about men whose boots they are not fit to lace up, those who have served in combat know that snipers are just another reliable weapon, typically picking off with precision enemy threats to our own troops, at considerable risk to the snipers themselves, who were hunted with vigor.  Of course, Michael Moore’s ilk think of snipers as unfair, while we know that a fair fight in combat is glaring evidence of a failure to plan.

The encouraging thing about American Sniper is that America is turning out in droves to see it.  Since the show has been selling out locally an hour before evening show times, we went in the middle of a weekday instead of lunch, and even then we weren’t lonely in the theater as we applied our man-rules of one empty seat in between, no touching, and no sharing popcorn.  These movie crowds are a good thing, since our country needs to absorb the subtle message of this film – the ever-widening gulf that separates America from its own military, and the price our troops and their families pay to serve.

This film does a fine job of portraying good people giving their all to do America’s dirtiest work in Iraq.  It will make you think about the cost to survivors of combat, things I slowly came to realize about myself and others over several years as I interviewed lots of Vietnam vets while writing a book about them.

You don’t emerge from combat unchanged.  When a sniper receives a radioed “green light” to shoot a target 800 yards away and he has already set lateral windage and elevation for bullet drop, he concentrates on gentle pressure on his very light trigger and steadies the cross-hairs in the scope while breathing very shallow, ideally timing the shot in between breaths and heartbeats to eliminate the slightest unwanted motion.  If his shot succeeds, he may have protected his brothers by taking a body shot or turning the enemy’s head into a distant puff of pink mist.  If you asked him what he felt when he fired, he might lightheartedly respond, “Recoil!” because he was shooting at a “thing” that threatened his brothers.  But in the quiet recesses of his mind, how long do you think it takes him to wipe that life he took from his memory?  Probably he never can.  Our troops have many different jobs in battle, and lots of them create lingering ghosts.

We outside the military tend to think of war as something that takes place in a different locale, but it is removed by more than just distance.  A combat zone is like a different planet, with a foreign civilization and its own culture and customs, values, and even language.  The behaviors one learns there would be unacceptable at home, and yet we judge from the safety of our couch when TV news brings us events from a war zone.  Combat snatches young men out of the morality they learned growing up, puts them in a different world, and teaches them radically new skills they need to stay alive and to kill people in violently terrible ways.  When they come home, we expect them to turn the war switch off and neatly step back into the morality and norms of home life.  Sometimes it doesn’t work smoothly.

Days in a war zone usually include fantasizing about returning home to be reunited with loved ones.  The reunion doesn’t always turn out as expected, because the troops don’t realize how much they have changed.  It seems surreal at home that people go about their trivia-filled lives with nary a thought for a war going on with Americans fighting and dying.  With a newfound sense of what is important, our troops might have difficulty reconnecting with unchanged old friends.  Even their wives and kids might seem out of reach.  They might be puzzled by and never admit to a yearning to be back with their fellow troops, the ones they respect now, the ones who understand them now, the ones who share new fighting and survival skills civilians will never comprehend, and they might wonder just when those guys became their other family.

Many combat vets feel isolated, surrounded by civilians who know nothing of routine physical hardship or watching each other’s back with trust as if your life depends on it, because it does.  Is it any wonder so many combat vets are relentlessly quiet, refusing to open up to relieve the pressure?  Even if they want to talk to their spouse about it, how can they possibly find the right words for the things bubbling inside them they don’t even understand themselves?

For Vietnam vets long ago, the isolation was made worse by an ungrateful nation that listened to anti-war stories painting us as inept, victims or villains.  None of it was true, but it stuck anyway.

For veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, their isolation has been made far worse, since the all-volunteer force meant we were sending the same people back on two, three, four, five, and six combat tours, compounding the ever-building pressure they carried and tearing their families apart.  Along the way, neither Republican nor Democrat leaders could muster the courage to call on the rest of us to do anything at all – not even pay higher taxes to fund the war.

Maybe these messages in Clint Eastwood’s film won’t be so clear to you, but they were to me and my buddy.  We talked about it a little after the movie, and he said quietly, “Some of us never came home.”  He meant some who lived and returned, but whose wives and kids could tell you they might be here, but their thoughts are always far away.

American Sniper did not touch on why combat veterans seek each other’s company, but I think it’s part of this puzzle.  I will bet the farm that Iraq and Afghanistan vets would understand that, even though my combat experience was shorter than theirs and many years ago, I still feel alone in a crowd of strangers to military experience, but when I walk into a room of vets from my war, even if I had never met any of them, it feels a bit like coming home where you are automatically welcome, where you share a deep unspoken bond and you know others will watch your back.  I also know that the men and women who served so many tours in recent wars are part of a brotherhood that will grow stronger with every passing year, and they will find comfort in the company of others who did the same hard things well when they were young while the rest of our country went to the mall.

That’s why, I think, America is loving this movie, a kind of salute to those who have been required to do far too much in wars that might have been avoided, fought with unwise Washington, D.C. strategies that prolonged war and killed too many of our own.

In the aftermath of WWII, more than half of America’s families had veterans.  Today most Americans don’t even know anyone who serves in the military.  Michael Moore proved how little he knows of military matters with his stupid comments about snipers.  Now, by rushing to this movie, Americans are unveiling their patriotism – and at the same time telling Michael Moore to go to hell.

Terry Garlock of Peachtree City, GA was an Army Cobra helicopter gunship pilot in the Vietnam War in 1969.  His book is Strength & Honor: America’s Best in Vietnam.  His e-mail is

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