When I began teaching in Baltimore, a ton of people recommended that I watch The Wire. Everyone raved about it. If you’ve ever been a new teacher, you know that you listen to everyone’s advice… and also that you don’t have too much time to enact any of it. It took me a while (and a free month of HBO) to actually sit down and view it.
I turned it off within the first episode.
For me, the story line and characters weren’t abstractions. They were real. I had driven through streets that had no streetlights. I had students tell me not to circle the block again after I dropped them off– someone would probably shoot at me. Or that I shouldn’t stop at red lights on deserted streets at night. I attended the funeral of a student who died, in part, because she didn’t have adequate health care. I taught homeless students, students who had been abused, students who had been raped, students who were working jobs to keep their families off the street. One of my students was shot and paralyzed during gang wars. More than one of my students were pregnant or were getting ready to become fathers.
I just couldn’t watch The Wire because it was too close to what my students dealt with every day. It was too close to the issues and the problems that faced my school every day. They were the same issues that I couldn’t shake when I left work, that I cried about later that night, that bothered me for days… weeks… years.
That’s the same reason I won’t watch American Sniper.
Don’t get me wrong– I am a fan of military movies. Ones of other wars set in other time periods, ones of wars that look nothing like our modern ones. To be quite honest, even since John’s deployment, I haven’t gotten the same satisfaction from watching standbys like Band of Brothers and others.
I knew I didn’t want to see it the first time I saw the first ad for it. “Nope,” I said to John, and looked away.
I know I’m in the minority. American Sniper has broken box office records and made cash hand over fist. I’ve seen the chatter on social media– a lot of military families have seen it and have loved it.
But I won’t be buying a ticket.
I already know what it’s like to have someone you love deeply deployed to a warzone. I know what it’s like to be on the computer and hear rocket alarms ringing in the background. I know what it’s like to read articles about attacks on your loved one’s base and not be able to contact him for endless hours or days. I know what the goodbye at the MAC terminal feels like, how desperately you want to stop everything and are entirely powerless to do so. I know what the last few hours before deployment are like, too. How even almost two years after deployment, just typing those sentences brings tears to my eyes.
There are other spouses who aren’t seeing it either. I felt totally vindicated in my emotional reaction when I stumbled across a thread of spouses who didn’t want to for one reason or another. And that’s okay. It’s okay to be part of the military community and not want to see it, just like it’s okay to question the movie itself.
As a military spouse, I’m glad that there has been a vocal critique of American Sniper. We should look critically at the way we portray the military in popular culture and how those portrayals shape the way we, as a country and culture, think about the institution. We should question the wisdom and necessity of putting a nation at war for endless years. For the continual cycle of deployment and reintegration and what it does to families and those individuals serving. For the morality of war itself. For the treatment of our vets. It’s wholly and uniquely American to voice your dissent and question the powers-that-be, the powers that are greater than you, the powers that– in other countries– could throw you in jail or a gulag or have you summarily executed. We have the freedom of speech and the ability to critique any part of our government– including every single branch of the military, its motives, policies, and actions. After all, it’s so important to our society that that right is written into our founding documents.
There have also been strong arguments for American Sniper, too. Apparently Bradley Cooper is amazing (and duh, why wouldn’t he be? It’s Bradley Cooper.) and that it’s a realistic portrayal of the Iraq War and the experience of military families– especially military spouses. And that’s a very, very good thing. The civilian-military divide is deep; movies like this can help to give a window into the realities of some of the most difficult parts of being a military family. It can offer a point of common connection, a beginning place for concrete discussions about … well, pretty much all of the controversial topics in the former paragraph. That is necessary and vital to our national conversation surrounding the military, military families, war, and deployment, too. And for many of those reasons, American Sniper is valuable our discourse.
It could be a great movie– and by the sounds of it, it is. But I won’t be watching it.
Not any time soon.