While American Sniper is setting box office records the controversy around the man and America's view of war rages on. Everyone from Noam Chomsky to Kid Rock is weighing in on what the movie says about Americans.
I've always enjoyed watching war movies -- maybe it’s a male thing -- but I find the accomplishments of the (mostly) men in battle scenes and campaigns to be an inside look at what a person can handle and do when a situation requires action.
But all the hype and controversy surrounding American Sniper made me reluctant to watch the film. I did eventually go and when the movie ended, the packed room was silent. It is one of the few times I can remember, when an audience was moved to silence.
Kyle is not the first war hero in America and he is not the first to be the subject of a full length film. One of the first was WWI's most decorated soldier, Alvin C. York and when you take a close look at the lives of the two men, you will see it provides a look into how our society's view on war has shifted in 100 years.
Alvin C. York
I'll admit up front, that I enjoy the Alvin C. York story, probably because he is from the same county in Tennessee where my maternal grandfather grew up.
York is from Fentress County in north central Tennessee and was born into an impoverished family in 1897. He lived in an era where engaging in 'other people's wars' was not an accepted premise by many Americans. The country as a whole operated under a 'you take care of your side of the street and I'll take care of my side,' in life as well as in war.
Benjamin Harrison, who was president shortly before York was born, once said, "We Americans have no commission from God to police the world."
But York's real dilemma wasn't the isolation philosophy -- it was more personal -- because of his religious beliefs York truly did not believe in war.
Born in the backwoods, York was the third of 11 children and his family eked out an existence through farming and hunting. His childhood was not remarkable and the story of life picks up in 1914 when two significant incidences happened: a good friend was killed in a bar fight in Static, Ky and York attended a revival meeting conducted by the Church of Christ in Christian Union.
At the revival meeting, York converted, gave up drinking, embraced the church's strict doctrine (they were against almost everything including war) and became a Sunday School teacher. About six months before his 30th birthday he received his draft notice and returned it with the handwritten not: Don't Want to Fight -- and sought conscientious objector status. The status was denied because the church he attended was not recognized as a legitimate Christian sect.
Origin of Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs Phrase
In American Sniper, Kyle's father explains to his two younger sons how there are three types of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. The scene lays the foundation of the movie, but the phrase is not specific to Kyle or his father -- it is actually from On Combat by Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman.
Kyle's entry into war (based on the movie) is based on a couple of things: attacks on American embassies and 9/11 as well as he is at a point in his life where he needs something to do. In the movie he decides to join the military after a breakup with his girlfriend -- it real life, there was no break up and his bull riding career was over.
The movie portrays Kyle as a 30-year-old recruit (he was 25) so, like York, he is an older soldier heading into war. His childhood, which is briefly shown, does have some of the same moral/religious flavor as York's in that Kyle's family attends what appears to be a fundamentalist church based on his father's actions and beliefs. In the dinner table scene, Kyle's father's conservative views are further noted when he explains to his two sons that there are three types of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs.
Kyle's father lets the boys know he expects them to be sheepdogs and protect the flock.
When Kyle enters the conflict in Iraq as a sniper -- he, like York, is faced with a moral decision -- not in the sense of 'is war right' but in the sense of 'who is the enemy.' In the movie his first two kills are a woman and her teenage boy. He shoots them both as the pair attempts to throw a hand grenade at American troops.
Kyle's moral dilemma is further felt, though, when he returns to camp at the end of his first day and fellow soldiers are congratulating him for having six kills -- which must be a record one soldier says.
Kyle will go on to be credited with 160 kills in his four tours of duty in Iraq.
Re-Release of Sergeant York
View the official movie trailer for the movie. Gary Cooper, won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role. Overall the movie was nominated for nine Oscars, winning five.
York's Moment of Glory
Unlike Kyle, York does not have multiple tours of duty, instead as a civilian drafted near the end of the war he serves about two years. Like Kyle, York was an excellent marksman which is what saves his life and the life of the eight men with him.
On October 8, 1918, Corporal Alvin C. York and sixteen other soldiers were dispatched to take command of a railroad in the Chatel-Chehery sector of the Meuse-Argonne sector. However, the 17 men misread the map (which was in French not English) and ended up behind enemy lines. After an exchange of gunfire -- and in the confusion -- the German soldiers surrender to the U.S. soldiers until they realized the Americans are heavily outnumbered.
Once the Germans realized this-- all hell broke loose as German machine gunners on a hill overlooking the scene ordered the captured German soldiers to lie down. The exchange left nine of the 17 American soldiers dead -- including York's best friend in the unit Murray Savage.
With only nine Americans remaining, marksman York was ordered to silence the machine guns which he did. York and the other eight surviving American soldiers captured 132 prisoners.
York, kept a diary of the war, explains how he took on the 30 machine guns that had him penned down.
I knowed that in order to shoot me the Germans would have to get their heads up to see where I was lying. And I knowed that my only chance was to keep their heads down. ... Every time a head come up I done knocked it down. Then they would sorter stop for a moment and then another head would come up and I would knock it down, too. I was giving them the best I had.
York further writes, explaining how he fell back on the turkey-hunting tactics of his youth,
In the middle of the fight a German officer and five men done jumped out of a trench and charged me with fixed bayonets. They had about twenty-five yards to come and they were coming right smart. I only had about half a clip left in my rifle; but I had my pistol ready. I done flipped it out fast and teched them off, too.
I teched off the sixth man first; then the fifth; then the fourth; then the third; and so on. That's the way we shoot wild turkeys at home. You see we don't want the front ones to know that we're getting the back ones, and then they keep on coming until we get them all.
Kyle's moment of glory, though, is ongoing and in the movie he is on a quest to kill a couple Iraqi terrorists -- the Butcher and an Olympian sharpshooter who has killed Kyle's friend. The movie does not give the exact length of his tours, but implies that he is in the war zone for nine months and then out for three. He does this four times.
What is more surreal about this war -- compared to WWI -- is the connection a soldier still has with home.
Besides being rotating out and brought stateside once a year, the soldiers have cell phones and call talk with family members throughout the day. The movie drives home this phenomenon in three powerful scenes.
In one scene, Kyle is in his sniper's nest patrolling the street while at the same time engaging in chit-chat with his wife. In another more dramatic scene, his pregnant wife calls to let him know they are going to have a son. While she is on the phone -- Kyle and his comrades engage in a firefight and Kyle's wife hears the scene unfold (which really did happen).
In his final war scene of the movie, Kyle finally kills the elusive Iraqi sniper but exposing his unit in the process, causing the Americans to be overrun by enemy forces. During the firefight, Kyle calls his wife and says, "I'm ready to come home for good."
Because he is fighting in a long-term war, Kyle's return home is anti-climatic. There is no hero worship, no parades. In fact, he stops by a bar to decompress before he heads home. His wife learns incidentally that he has left Iraq and calls him.
When he admits to her that he is stateside and at a bar, he starts to cry. His war is physically over so the remainder of the movie looks at the symptoms of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In the process of getting professional help for his PTSD, Kyle begins working with veterans who have been maimed by the war. Of course, he is eventually murdered in the process.
York, on the other hand, is treated as royalty when he comes home..
In his diary, York records,
In Washington, D.C., I went in to meet the President, and he was out. I had a nice talk with Secretary of War Baker. I went to Congress. Both houses came together and met me. From Washington I returned to New York and went out to Camp Merritt.
He then headed home.
I came on home to Pall Mall, Tennessee, on the 29th of May. My people from all over the mountains, thousands of them, were there to meet me.
Oscar Winning WWII Movies
Saving Private Ryan
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Longest Day
This Land Is Mine
© 2015 Charlie Claywell