Friday, January 23, 2015

Thoughts on "American Sniper"

Have you seen “American Sniper” yet?  Have you read the book?  I have done neither…the title/subject matter itself is not simply uninteresting to me, it’s downright repugnant.  But even in my relatively small online world, I have been able to pick up on the tug-of-war of opposing opinions surrounding the movie’s popularity.  And so of course I feel the need to weigh in.

I grew up in the sixties.  I am the proud product of a pop culture that was steadfastly anti-war.  We were anti-war because we, or our siblings, neighbors or classmates were conscripted into the military without much choice in the matter, and then sent to die by the hundreds in the stinking jungles of a tiny country thousands of miles away.  Or to return from those jungles irrevocably damaged—physically, emotionally, or both.  What was not to hate about that?  How do you not raise a keening wail of sadness and outrage about it?  How do you not grow up with a solid distrust for the military, international relations, and the economic and political forces that would send a generation of young men into hell for no credible reason?

Those were powerful lessons we learned as youngsters.  And many of us—I, at least—believed that these lessons had been learned for good and all.  We believed that the ignominious stalemate in Indochina bought with the lives of so many of our beloved would influence the actions of our nation for generations to come, if not forever. 

Forever?  Not so much.  Generations?  Well, maybe….not so much.

Forty years after the “end” of the Vietnam War, we’re still at it.  In Afghanistan.  In Iraq.  And creeping toward Iran, North Korea, and any other country our beer-swilling, gun-toting armchair warriors decide harbors “savages who hate Americans.”  These diligent patriots are egged on by media which are controlled by forces with enough money to make anything they want happen, anywhere they want, for their personal economic/political gain.

So now, in a world some of us so desperately, naively hoped was headed for peace, understanding and universal good will, we have “American Sniper.”

Here is what I know about Chris Kyle:  Kyle served in the military from 1999 to 2009.  He was handy with a long-range weapon.  So handy that he became the “go-to” sniper for the US in Iraq, charged with protecting the invading American forces in that region from the ambush tactics of the indigenous population.  According to Wikipedia, he killed between 160 and 250 men and women during his service in the war, for which he was copiously decorated by the military.   He left the Navy in 2009, and proceeded to produce a book about his exploits in Iraq—American Sniper.   In 2012, he was shot and killed by another Iraq war veteran at a recreational (!) shooting range somewhere in Texas.  (One report states that Kyle and another friend were attempting to help the killer work through his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  At a shooting range.)

Of course, somebody (Clint Eastwood.  Surprise.) had to make  his book into a movie.  Which has boosted Kyle’s standing to American Hero.  And Martyr.

On social media over the past couple of weeks, my more conservative friends have posted raves of the movie and the book, praises for Kyle as a bona fide hero, and suggestions that anyone who does not agree is not a “real” American.  I’ve avoided confrontations with these folks.  They’re entitled to their opinion.  I guess.

And for awhile, I was unable to articulate WHY the near-deification of such a man made me so damn uncomfortable.  Not without sounding like a self-righteous old fart, anyway.  But as happens to me so often of late, I was able to sort out my feelings in a comment thread on an internet article.  This particular article was a story about the word “murder” being scrawled across the bottom of an LA billboard touting the “American Sniper” movie. 

The question was, Hero or Villain?  Rather than re-create some decent off-the-cuff thinking, I’ll just print my part of the comment thread verbatim:

Me:  I don't think he's a villain. He may be a sort of hero, since he was decorated for his actions in uniform. There are probably young men alive today that would not be alive if Chris Kyle did not exist. But I think what I object to is that he sensationalized his service in his book. I don't know too many men who face the horrors of war then come home and basically brag about their service. Most men who have actually had to kill other human beings do not feel good about it. If they do, honestly, there is something wrong with them.

Reply #1:  more would be alive if they hadn't have signed up to fight and die for nothing

Reply #2:  It's funny: a guy comes home and is okay with what he did, and there's something wrong with him. A guy comes home and had night terrors about what he did, there's something wrong with him. I hope there is some happy medium but you're not leaving much room for it.

Me:  I would feel much more comfortable being around someone who suffered night terrors for what he was called upon to do in combat than around someone who "was okay with what he did." If you can be okay with taking human life, it's probably because you are successful at dehumanizing the ones you kill. Kyle calls them "savages" in his book. Says he "wish(es) (he) would have killed more because the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives." This pretty neatly puts an entire group of people into the category of sub-human. And begs the question, "Who did the territory belong to? Americans? Or the "savages" out to kill the invaders?  And what would you have called yourself if the shoe was on the other foot?" What if a foreign army came to YOUR country to "spread freedom?" If you ran at them with a grenade in your hand, would you be a savage, or a hero? As I said, Kyle no doubt saved American lives while he was in Iraq. But that doesn't mean the Americans BELONGED in Iraq in the first place...

So yeah.  He did what he was paid to do.  He did it with great skill.  But when your “job” is to assassinate other human beings, you don’t come home and exploit it for personal gain.  If you have an ounce of humanity in your body, you make peace with what you did as a matter of performing the duty entrusted to you while you were in uniform in a combat zone.  And you leave it on the battlefield and walk away. 

Kyle did not do this.  He was a sociopath; a violent man who was singularly unashamed—even proud—of his record of homicidal violence.  

And he came to a violent end.  Was it justice?  Karma?  I’m not qualified to make that call.      

But I truly do not think he is deserving of the kind of sycophantic idolization being heaped upon his memory by some.  He was a killer.  Paid to kill.  We don’t need that kind of “hero” in the world today. 

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Contemplating "The End"

Yesterday I got word of the death of a distant friend who had fallen seriously ill right after Christmas.  He was not a close friend, but someone I’ve known for a long time.  He was a good man, a loving husband, a great dad, an engaged grandpa.  I don’t think anyone could say an unkind word about him.  And he was only 64 years old.

Funny how I think of a 60-something as young, nowadays.  Partly because these are the people I grew up with, and we can’t possibly be “old.”  Partly because I myself, though every morning I creak out of bed and grope for my glasses before I can start my day,  don’t feel old and used up—which is exactly how  I used to view anyone over the age of 55.

Still, it is an inescapable fact that with every year that passes, more people in my age bracket come to the ends of their lives.  People die.  Beloved animal companions die.  It’s been a tough journey, and promises to only get tougher.  I can’t remember when I haven’t been scared shitless by the idea of dying.  At this point, as the inevitability of it becomes obvious,  what can you do but sidle up to the idea and try to live with it… rather than running away screaming at the mere thought?  It doesn’t do to foul up the days remaining in this body, on this planet, living in pathological fear of something I cannot change.  Something I was not meant to change.

My understanding of All There Is, and my personal practice of acknowledgment and relationship to It, has nudged me closer to making some sense of death.  It’s funny, when I was a Christian, and then an agnostic, I felt no relationship to loved ones who had crossed over.  I felt that they were just…gone.  If they were “somewhere,” it was off my radar, out of my reach.  I didn’t carry on conversations with them in my head…didn’t visit the cemetery and talk to their tombstones.  I just left them behind (or did they leave me behind?) and kept walking.

But now that I have a concept of the Spirit—the Universe, All There IS—I know that we are all part of that energy,  that force.   While we inhabit our human bodies, we are...contained, restricted, maybe a little a butterfly in a mason jar.  And when our bodies drop off, we are released.  We return to an unfettered communion with All There Is.  How we get there, and what happens next, I have no idea.  But I believe it is all part of the flow of creation. 

Every morning when I’m home, I go out to my “coffee deck” with my morning beverage.  I sit and listen, and come as close to self-examination and meditation as my always-frenetic brain ever gets.  Yesterday,  I sat and contemplated the unwelcome news of my friend’s death. I was thinking about how sad his family was, and how well I understood that comfort in such a loss is so hard to come by. 

But this thought came to me…and it brought ME comfort, at least.

His family has lost a husband, father, grandfather, friend…   But they have gained an intimate connection to the infinite.  The energy of their loved one—his “soul,” if you will—now dances among the constellations, soars to the Universe.  And yet, is connected to them still.  How can that be an entirely bad thing?

Of course, I would hardly walk up to a grieving family at a funeral and anoint them with this special secret as if I could dispel their sadness with a word.  But…I think this knowledge…attitude…belief…will certainly help me as I navigate the last decades of my own life, and the lives of those I love.  Heaven?  I don’t believe in it, in the sense that I will be seated at a banquet table with everyone I have ever known (those who were “good enough” to have made it, anyway.)  I believe there is a connection, to those who have gone before, and to those who are left behind, the nature of which I cannot even begin to fathom, but that is the perfectly natural transition from corporeal to incorporeal existence. 

And, maybe—back again. 

Who knows?    

In order to shuttle folks over to the blog to read my drivel, I shamelessly post links to the blog on Facebook.  What's been happening more and more is that any discussion/comment about the post ends up on Facebook, and not here.  I am going to try this as a remedy to the problem...screen shot of the Facebook discussion of the post.  Hope my friends don't mind...if you do, let me know and I will remove the screen shot.  


Wednesday, January 14, 2015


At some point in my spiritual journey, I came to realize that Goose had a special significance to my life. 

Tradition has it that Goose is a spirit connected to family, ancestors and home.  As I  look back at my life’s journey, I see Goose as a prominent presence, certainly from the time I was ten years old and I began to fully recognize my love for and connection to birds.  As a youngster in the Midwest, the great vees of migrating geese winging high overhead, calling so loudly that their voices would reach me far below, always stirred in me something wild and free—yet connected, somehow, to All There Is.   

When I was in junior high, my family “discovered” Horicon Marsh—a wildlife reserve a couple hours’ drive from our home.   There we experienced for the first time the wild melee of thousands of migrating Canada geese, hundreds-strong flocks rising, landing, circling calling…  We would pile in the car, and go to this place, and all of the contractions and explosions of a young family coming of age in turbulent times would calm.  It was a place you went to just BE in the presence of…we called it “Nature” then, but I know now it is so much more. 

Family.  Ours was complicated from the start…but whose isn’t?  We didn’t grow up “knowing” our paternal grandparents, partly because they were 2000 miles away, and partly because we had been brought up with a misty, non-specific knowledge that my mother had some issue with her in-laws, or they with her…or both.  Even so, in my eleventh year, my family made the trek from suburban Chicago to Grants Pass, Oregon, where Dad’s parents lived.  Turns out my Grandfather was a wonderful, gentle man, whom we could tell instantly had been saddened by the fact of the extreme distance between him and his son’s family.  He set out, in his quiet way, to let us know this (without overtly trampling upon the prejudices of the Matriarch, to whom he was selflessly devoted.)

By and by I came to understand that my love of the outdoors was passed down to me through this man.   I was enchanted by the birds he drew to his one-acre semi-rural property, and fascinated by his National Geographic “Song and Garden Birds” book and its accompanying album of bird song.  We left Oregon with that book, lovingly inscribed “to the junior B’s” tucked carefully among our photos and souvenirs of our trip. 

Four years later, my widowed Grandfather made the long cold trip to Illinois in November to spend Thanksgiving with the family (and his first great-grandchild, who had been born the previous spring.)  We took him to Horicon Marsh, where it was obvious that he, too, was awed—expanded and humbled at the same time—by the pure enveloping cacophony of it all. 

A decade would pass before I would be pierced by the first message I remember receiving straight from the Almighty to me personally.  I was driving home from work, and a vee of geese flew low overhead, silhouetted against the sunset.  And a voice in my head said, “This is what you are here for.”  At the time, I was a born-again fundamentalist Christian, so I didn’t fully understand the message.  Or I understood it to mean something else, something in line with the spirituality of that time in my life.  But now, I know it was so much more.

Some people go to a church to find peace and connection to the Spirit.  Some people go to the tops of mountains, some make pilgrimages to sites of religious significance.

When I want to feel the presence of the Almighty, the pure frenzied joy and chaotic connectedness, this is where I go: