Editor’s Note: Karen Spears Zacharias is author of “After the Flag Has Been Folded” (William Morrow). Follow her on Twitter: @karenzach. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Karen Spears Zacharias: Hollywood should not glorify war and make it about "us" vs. "them"
She describes her father's death and a friend's serious injury in Vietnam War
When you've experienced effects of war firsthand, she says, you lose tolerance for mythmaking
“American Sniper” stormed the box office this past weekend with $105 million in ticket sales. Not since the Rambo movies have so many farmers and ranch hands buddy-upped to the popcorn counter. As much as I adore Bradley Cooper, I won’t be seeing the movie. I can’t see it.
And my reluctance to see it has nothing to do with Michael Moore’s flippant assertion that snipers are cowards (although he said he wasn’t talking about the movie). I was always taught that cowards are those who refuse to serve their country.
Friends who’ve seen the movie say I’m missing out. They say it is an accurate portrayal of what happens in war. One friend, who declares herself as a pacifist, urged me to go. “Far from glorifying war, it made war look brutal, and a means of destroying people for life,” she said.
What I keep wondering is why all these moviegoers weren’t lining up to volunteer for war.
Before his ironic death, Chris Kyle, on whom the movie is based, denounced Hollywood’s version of war. “Hollywood fantasizes about it and makes it look good. It – war sucks,” he told Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly in 2012.
Clint Eastwood deserves credit for the truth he does show. Women and children are killed more often than Americans like to consider. And good soldiers are always haunted by the comrades they couldn’t save.
I know. The surgeon who tried to save my soldier father in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley still considers July 24, 1966, one of the worst days of his life.
The men who were there that day tell me that my father grabbed Doc’s arm and begged him, “Don’t let me die.” Doc did his best to save my father. I have thanked him for that. Still, he regrets that he didn’t save him, and I hate that he lives with that.
Maybe that’s why I can’t see the movie. When you have experienced firsthand the multitude of ways war wreaks havoc on families, you have little tolerance for the mythmaking that war always seems to invoke. Not to mention the patriotic, almost nationalistic fervor that accompanies a flag-draped coffin.
Related: Why ‘American Sniper’ is a smash hit
When my father died there were no crowds gathered at Cowboys Stadium, no JumboTron displaying pictures of the family man my father was, and no front-page stories. There was just a broken family feeling very abandoned by an ungrateful nation.
The other reason I can’t see the movie is my friend Sgt. Gordon Wofford. Gordon was serving with 9th Infantry Regiment (Manchu), 25th Infantry Division when he was struck by a sniper’s bullet on May 28, 1970. The bullet took out his lower jaw and all of his teeth. The company medic, Spec. Ronald Krebsbach, was killed by the next bullet while yanking Gordon to safety. Gordon spent 19 months at Walter Reed relearning skills toddlers know: How to chew. How to talk. How not to slobber all over himself.
When I met him in 2005, Gordon was not getting help for his post-traumatic stress disorder. He didn’t think he deserved benefits. Before his death from cancer in 2009, Gordon and I forged a friendship from our experiences in war – his as a soldier, mine as a Gold Star daughter.
Every day as he went through the motions of putting in a set of false teeth, Gordon remembered the sniper he so longed to forget. Krebsbach, the medic, left behind a young pregnant wife. That always haunted Gordon. He felt bad that he had lived and Krebsbach had died.
I serve on a couple of boards of national organizations for veterans. I know by name the men and women who have suffered the aftermath of war. They are not fictional characters to me. Their numbers are in my cell phone. I have wept with them at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington and at graves at Arlington National Cemetery. I have buried my Gold Star mother beside the only man she ever loved, my father.
Why ‘American Sniper’ is a smash hit
Hollywood has a way of fictionalizing war, of making it all about “us” and “them.” “Ragheads” was one of the names Kyle gave to the Iraqi people. He said he didn’t give a “flying f**k about the Iraqis.” Kyle dehumanized them. He had to. That’s how the military trains snipers like him. “Every person I killed I strongly believe that they were bad,” Kyle told the BBC.
I have traveled to my father’s battlefield in Vietnam and I have befriended Vietnamese who lost even more than I did during the war. I have learned there is no “us” and “them.” There is only “us.”
Humanity. All of us.
I wish Hollywood would make a war movie that gets that point across.
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