Pas de Deux with American Sniper

American-Sniper-Widescreen-Wallpaper

American Sniper did well this past weekend, smashing box office records and garnering 6 Academy Award nominations. It has also been making waves online, as a number of articles were written in the past few weeks either praising it, critiquing it, or placing it somewhere in a gray area.

I didn’t see it (I’m still in Afghanistan), but I intend to, when I get home, on a big screen in the theater. The last time I wrote about a war film was when I posted a few thoughts on Lone Survivor, which I still haven’t seen for reasons I elaborate on in that post. I really like war films, but not for the violence. I like war films that capture the absolute absurdity of war and showcase the limits of heroism. For that reason, Full Metal Jacket is still my favorite movie and I look forward to the Iraq and Afghanistan version of it.

I was never really that excited for American Sniper. When I originally saw the well-done trailer, it all seemed so ho-hum to me – another story of a Special Operator that would undoubtedly lionize and champion the role of the “warrior” absent the black context of the war(s) itself. Additionally, I have less and less of a stomach for war movies about our modern conflicts. We’re still in Afghanistan and we’re back in Iraq. While I don’t think that in order to make a good war film the war necessarily has to be over, it seems to be a good general rule.

There are two running lines in the veteran community about American Sniper; 1) it’s the best modern war movie about the current conflicts, and 2) it’s a caricature of war that feeds into America’s obsessions with its military.

The first point of view is is championed by Paul Rieckhoff in an essay for Variety. In it, he writes:

I’ve seen just about every film about the Iraq War ever made. I’ve produced and associate produced a few. I even appeared in one (for about a millisecond). And without a doubt, “American Sniper” is the single best work of film about the Iraq War ever made.

It’s a strong opening statement. While Paul goes on to admit that the story isn’t terribly complex, it gets the war better than any other war film about Iraq. He even compares American Sniper to Full Metal Jacket, which I have a hard time believing, especially because FMJ is a work of fiction whereas American Sniper is based on the real life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. I’ve disagreed with Paul in the past concerning war films. I actually liked The Hurt Locker, despite its exaggerations, whereas Paul made it very clear that he did not.

Still, I appreciated Paul’s thought process on one of the reasons he did like American Sniper:

Most of America is tired of hearing about Iraq. But now, they’re at least open to being entertained by it. And as an activist and as a veteran, I’m OK with that. After a decade of working on veterans issues with an unprecedentedly disconnected civilian population, I’ll take it. Like Chris Kyle was, every one of America’s newest generation of 2.8 million veterans is still processing the war ourselves. And will be doing so forever. And we know that films like “American Sniper” may bring civilians closer to us than anything else.

It’s a good point. It’s been over a decade and the closest thing to realistic depictions of military service that are widely viewed have been in the form of video games like Call of Duty and Battlefield (which isn’t saying much). Despite winning the Oscar for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker bombed at the box office. Now, finally, we have a film that prominently features Iraq that is actually entertaining, critically acclaimed, and being widely seen.

On the other side of the spectrum, Alex Horton writes in the Guardian that the movie is another in a series of films that highlight the exploits of special operations forces while dismissing the much more prevalent experience of the conventional military that have rotated in and out of theater for over a decade. He writes:

These films have the potential to distort how the United States views its own history and its troops. The everyday stories of war are background noise. We rarely see intel soldiers piecing together insurgent networks, or low-ranking officers meting out local grievances in rural Afghanistan.

It’s a good point, and one that I think lends ammunition to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement that the American public has a “cartoonish” idea of what the military is and how it operates, largely based, as Alex suggests, on films like Zero Dark Thirty and now, American Sniper.

He also gets in this gem, which he says was to see if I’d notice:

People under 40 no longer ask what war is like; they ask if it’s like Call of Duty.

I noticed.

Alex’s point is one that I’ve made before as well: whether we like it or not, the films become the historical record of the conflict. When I think of Vietnam, I think of the movies I’ve seen that tell me what it was like. When tomorrow’s children wonder what the hunt for Osama bin Laden was like in the first decade of the 21st century, they’ll think of Zero Dark Thirty. And when they want to know what Iraq was like, they’ll think of American Sniper.

Of course, any criticism about getting details right or exploring the full context of war are always dismissed as either not the job of the filmmaker or brushed aside as secondary to capturing the spirit of the war-fighter:

“And for me (Bradley Cooper), and for Clint, this movie was always a character study about what the plight is for a soldier…It’s not a political discussion about war, even…It’s a discussion about the reality. And the reality is that people are coming home, and we have to take care of them.”

The same thing was said over forty years ago, when another film that lionized special operators was made during the heat of the Vietnam War, The Green Berets:

In defense of the film, John Wayne said his “motive was to glorify American soldiers as the finest fighting men “without going into why we are there, or if they should be there.” His “compulsion” to do the movie was based on his pride of the Special Forces, determined to show “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing.”

Rightfully so, war is a topic that people get emotional about. Servicemembers and veterans do not get a monopoly on having opinions on war, and a film that is largely based on the auto-biography of a real person is likely to receive more scrutiny than a work of pure fiction. Reactions to the film’s heroiziation of Chris Kyle have been harsh. So too is the barely latent bigotry of theater-goers who took away only hate from the movie.

All that said, I’m looking forward to seeing it (albeit, after Mockingjay, Guardians of the Galaxy, Gone Girl, and Interstellar) and like Zero Dark Thirty, I fully expect that it will be both entertaining, and overly simplistic. Pass the popcorn.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Tom Finton Vietnam

fmj-born-to-kill

Week ending March 2, 2014

I didn’t do a search term of the week last week because it was just the usual suspects. This week, the term was Tom Finton Vietnam. I had no idea what this was in reference to. I’ve written a number of posts orbiting Vietnam but the name Tom Finton didn’t mean anything to me.

After searching around my blog, I found a comment referencing Tom Finton on my post titled Conscientious Objection and the Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers. A little more searching and I learned that he wrote a book titled “The Folks Back Home Won’t Believe This.” Tom Finton didn’t agree with the Vietnam War and the book chronicles his service in the Army and in Vietnam. I haven’t read it, but it does seem interesting.

Here’s how he opens the book:

On the rear bumper of my ZX3 I have a 10- by 3- inch Vietnam campaign ribbon sticker. On the left rear side window I have a peace sticker. I put both stickers on the car when Bush went to war after 9/11. Occasionally someone will recognize the campaign ribbon and comment as if we have a symbiotic patriotic bond. When that happens I just nod politely and go on my way. But one day a woman who appeared to be in her mid-40s spoke to me in the grocery parking lot. She had seen both stickers and it piqued her curiosity. “I was in the Army,” she said, “Don’t you think it contradictory to display both stickers?”

As a former Concerned Officer Against the War in Vietnam I responded, “Not at all.” She didn’t stop to talk. Her bemused smile turned to a disapproving scowl as she walked past me.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Joker’s Little Red Book

You can see Joker's little red book peeking out of his pocket in this scene. That's his diary. Also, I just noticed the Mickey Mouse figures in the background.
You can see Joker’s little red book peeking out of his pocket in this scene. That’s his diary. Also, I just noticed the Mickey Mouse figures in the background.

The magic of the internet.

Almost a year ago, I saw a tweet by @ftngleprechaun that led me to this post by Nathan Webster (Stanley Kubrick’s cowardice ruined “Full Metal Jacket” and betrayed Gustav Hasford’s “The Short-Timers.”). I had never read The Short-Timers but was a big fan of Full Metal Jacket. That post inspired me to read it, which I did, and then wrote a reaction.

In the process of writing that post, I came across a blog dedicated to the work of Gustav Hasford (the author of The Short-Timers) that is managed by comic writer Jason Aaron, who I then followed on Twitter.

Months pass, and then I see this retweet by Jason.

Matthew Modine, the actor who played ‘Joker’ was going to do a live-tweet viewing of FMJ to promote the release of an iPad version of his book, Full Metal Jacket Diary.

Without question, FMJ is my favorite movie. Like a giddy fan-boy, I jumped at the chance to watch it and pepper Matthew Modine with questions during the showing. If you follow me on Twitter, it was all probably really annoying.

My furious Tweeting paid off. I won a free copy of Full Metal Jacket Diary for iPad, which I was literally in the process of buying when I learned I had won. I read it over the holidays.

This isn’t really an App review, but if you are a fan of Full Metal Jacket, I’d highly recommend it. It’s a diary that you can read and listen to with pictures as accompaniment. It’s beautiful.

Mr. Modine kept a diary during the grueling filming process. He talks about the off-screen drama (there was plenty) and you’ll get his musings on what he thinks the film might be as he was filming it. You’ll also see lots of photos, many by Mr. Modine himself (he was experimenting with a camera at the time of filming). The photos are fantastic and revealing. You’ll also learn more about the elusive Stanley Kubrick, which is fascinating as Mr. Modine paints him as pretty plain, albeit dedicated to getting his craft right.

What I enjoyed most about FMJ Diary was getting into the head of the actor who played Joker. He became Joker, and it is refreshing to read that this movie, in and out, is everything I wanted it to be.

This is what he writes after Kubrick urges him to “be” Joker as opposed to “play” Joker:

Okay, as of today, I am Joker. I’m not playing or interpreting. I am bringing my life and all my experience to this role. Not someone else’s I will take the information I’ve read and a childhood of watching war on television and “be” the role. I will use Michael and Gus’s books to understand the terrain and put myself into the world they created.

I now reject the traditional movies about war and its nobility. I honor the stories about soldiers’ dedication toward each other, but I question the motivation of the governments that send young men to battle.

I confirm my choice not to work on films that glorify war and perpetuate lies about other countries and cultures…

One of my favorite parts of FMJ is the sharp transition from the basic training sequence to Vietnam, with Joker and Rafterman being approached by a Vietnamese hooker. Joker’s hair is long and wild, his uniform sloppy. It is the transition between the order of military training and the chaos of war. There it is.

Mr. Modine saw this too:

Order. Disorder.

The military’s goal is to create order.

To the military, the world is chaos.

The military recognizes this and imposes conformity.

There is only one way, one god, one country. You do not belong to yourself. You are part of a machine. Theirs.

Directors are the same way.

The diary goes on like that. Minutiae and detail. It’s a story.

If you’re a fan, check it out.

FMJ Diary at the App Store.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Book Review: The Short-Timers

We are approaching the ten year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. I am participating in a project called the Iraq War Reading Pledge. The pledge is to read a memoir about the war by someone who was there, a soldier, a journalist, an Iraqi citizen, between February 1st and March 20th.

You can follow the pledge here. Good luck!

timers2

Like all my book reviews, this isn’t really a book review. It’s more of a reaction.

After finishing Love My Rifle More Than You, I wanted to take a short break from war books. They can be draining. Unfortunately, I came across this blog post (by way of The Fighting Leprechaun) that argues Stanley Kubrick messed up the movie Full Metal Jacket (one of my favorites) by not sticking to some of the original plotlines in the novel it is based on, The Short-Timers. Mistakenly, I always thought that FMJ was based on Michael Herr’s Dispatches – it turns out that was Apocalypse Now.

As you can see, it all gets pretty confusing.

As a big fan of FMJ, I set out to read The Short-Timers and it totally sucked me in. Lots of the dialogue in FMJ is lifted right off the pages of The Short-Timers, and it was interesting to read the book with the images I already had of Joker, Cowboy, GySgt Gernheim, and Animal Mother in my head. In some cases this made the dialogue jump out at me, since I could hear Joker imitating John Wayne in a way I wouldn’t be able to if I was just reading the novel for the first time. But it also handicapped me in other ways. I loved Animal Mother in FMJ as a necessary evil. The guy you need in your squad, despite wanting to admit it. The “you need me on that wall” guy. In The Short-Timers, Animal Mother is hardly likable at all. He’s still a bad-ass, but he is a war criminal and a menace.

I’ve read a number of Vietnam books recently, and a lot of them were good. This book, however, really made me hate war. It was graphic and probably hyperbolic (it is a semi-autobiographical novel, after all). I found myself uncomfortable and disgusted reading it, but not able to stop.

Figuring that I was going to write a reaction blog to the book, I started to highlight a couple of passages that stuck out to me, because they were either similar to modern experiences or the opposite.

This is Cowboy talking to Joker about how the war is fucked up and why he can’t risk any more marines to try to take out a sniper that has already killed some of the squad. The whole dialogue is interesting, plus there’s the feeling of betrayal for not being able to hoist the American flag, something that was experienced in GWOT as well.

 Cowboy spits, his face a sweaty stone. “After the NVA pulled out, the lifers sent in the Arvin Black Panthers to take the Forbidden City. Shit. Nothing left but rearguard squads. We stomped the NVA and they stomped us and the lifers send in the Arvins, like the goddamn Arvins did it. Mr. Shortround said it was their country, said we was only helping out, said it would boost the morale of the Vietnamese people. Well, fuck the Vietnamese people. The horrible hogs in hard, hungry Hotel Company ran up an America flag. Like an Iwo Jima. But some poge officers ordered them to take it down. The snuffies had to run up the stinking Vietnamese flag, which is yellow, which is the right color for these chickenshit people. We’re getting slaughtered in this city. And we can’t even run up a fucking flag. I just can’t hack this shit, bro. My job is to get my people back to the World in one piece.” Cowboy coughs, spits, wipes his nose with the back of his hand. “Under fire, these are the best human beings in the world. All they need is for somebody to throw hand grenades at them for the rest of their lives… These guys depend on me. I can’t send my people out to get that sniper, Joker. I might lose the whole squad.”

Clearing roads for mines/IEDs. Not a new thing.

 I was writing a feature article about how the grunts at the Rock pile on Route Nine had to sweep the road for mines every morning before any traffic could use the road.

Probably one of my favorite lines from the book. This line is a part of a long stream of consciousness explanation of how Joker sees himself as part of the machine, his place in the war.

In the darkness I am one with Khe Sahn – a living cell of this place – this erupted pimple of sandbags and barbed wire on a bleak plateau surrounded by the end of the world.

I find myself fascinated more and more with Vietnam not because it seems familiar – which it does at times – but how completely foreign the experience seems from my own. It’s something I’ll need to write about later.

After finishing The Short-Timers, I came across a couple of related and interesting articles. Gustav Hasford, the author of the novel, died in 1993. Someone runs a blog in his honor that runs pieces by or about him from time to time. The lead was this one, titled VIETNAM MEANS NEVER HAVING TO SAY YOU’RE SORRY. It’s a railing against Hollywood and especially the depiction of Vietnam veterans a lá Rambo. It’s fantastic.

Then, while searching for the etymology of the phrase “Is that you John Wayne? Is this me?” which was used in both the movie and the book, I came across this scholarly article about myth and myth making in America from WWII through Vietnam. It’s really fascinating. John Wayne was the hero that simultaneously made war palpable to the Vietnam generation but was rejected when the reality of war – and homecoming – became apparent.

Who is the John Wayne of our generation?

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

“If the shit gets too thick I’ll go to the rifle.”

Time Magazine’s Battleland blog ran a photo gallery yesterday titled “I Shot 29 Bullets and 212 Images.” I imagine this is a quote from the combat photographer who took the pictures. The title immediately reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from Full Metal Jacket. It’s the scene where the marines had just taken Hue city and were giving interviews to the media. Most of the marines appear jaded, uncomfortable, sarcastic, or aggressive in front of the camera.

But not the “combat correspondent” who stands squarely in front of the camera, weapon held in the crook of his elbow so that he appears in complete control of it, camera hanging around his neck. He boasts:

“Well it depends on the situation, I mean, I’m here to take combat photos, but if the shit gets too thick, I mean, I’ll go to the rifle.”

Every other marine giving interviews was being honest. It is only the combat correspondent who said the words he thought he was supposed to say. Polished, with just enough aggressiveness to warrant praise but not so much to invite scorn. Whenever I hear someone boast about how brave or hard they are (or will be), I like to quote the combat correspondent.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.