AMERICAN SNIPER: What Makes A Soldier Go Back For More … And More

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper tells the story of parental directives that live on long past childhood just as much it tells the horrors of war and its psychological costs. Chris Kyle can’t be a sheep and he certainly can’t be a wolf preying on the innocent – his dad would kill him for that. But, “finishing” the boy who picked on his brother? That’s what his dad expects: “Good. Then you know your purpose.”

His purpose: to be a sheepdog hunting down the enemy. Not a sheep. A sheep is weak. Weakness is not tolerated – not inside Chris Kyle. At least the Chris Kyle played by Bradley Cooper in American Sniper. Any kind of weakness, any kind of failure to cut down those vicious wolves in their tracks, is the worst thing imaginable. This is the fight that drives him back to Iraq again and again.

Taya, his wife (Sienna Miller), called it when she met him, this thing that won’t let him go: “Pretty arrogant of you to think you can protect all of us.” Yet that’s exactly what Chris thinks he must do. That’s how he took his father’s expectations. And, this is who he has to be. No one under his watch should be shot. Certainly not killed. He should be able to see everything. He should make no mistakes. That’s pretty near humanly impossible. Yet, not in Chris’ book. His rage is not only at the enemy he’s tracking in Iraq. It’s at his human limitations.

There’s a war going on to be sure. A war that’s brutal, that takes its hostages, that demands its sacrifices. Chris Kyle may seem untouchable. But, he’s a hostage too; of a war inside him that’s just as big as the war he fights overseas. His war is against human feelings. For a man with such a weighty mission and singular purpose, feelings can seem weak. Or weakening. We see it in the faces of the soldiers at Mark’s funeral. Tough. Stone. To win this war, Chris must turn away – more and more – from human touch, from love, from anything that might soften him.

Questions. Doubts. Fear. He can’t give in to those. They’re what kill, he believes. They’re what weaken him and other soldiers. The only way: to chalk up the number of kills. Each kill means he’s not a sheep. He’s done his duty. He’s used his aggression well. Or so he must believe. This slowly but surely tears him apart. When he starts to feel, when he believes he’s failed to protect his friends, he can’t do it anymore and has to come home.

Why does Chris lose it at the newborn nursery where his daughter’s cries are being ignored? It’s because he’s ignored his own feelings and needs for far too long. Feelings are human. We all have them. Sometimes, though, we try to disown them when we think they’re weak. But, feelings are more powerful than the walls erected against them and sooner or later they come out in explosions, depression, PTSD, anxieties, or physical symptoms. Again, as Taya wisely tells him: “If you think this war’s not changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.”

Chris Kyle tries to stop circling. But, he can’t. Those early expectations are engraved so deeply they won’t let up. Even after he leaves the line of duty, he still has to save the ones he couldn’t save in war. The ones, like him, who made it back – wounded psychologically. The real wound, though, is the belief he has to be the legend to his father’s legacy. This is too much for the man, just as it was too much for the boy.

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