In this photo is actor Bradley Cooper, star of the film American Sniper, during a scene in the movie.

In this photo is actor Bradley Cooper, star of the film American Sniper, during a scene in the movie. American Sniper via Warner Brothers

If Only America Cared About Actual Wars as Much as War Movies

America loves 'American Sniper,' but there are consequences when a nation is so disengaged with its own wars. By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

If only America cared as much about the actual wars men and women in uniform are fighting as the country does about the films depicting their heroic deeds. 

The film “American Sniper” about legendary Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle broke box office records this holiday season when the picture earned a million dollars in five days on only a handful of screens. Hollywood’s awards season may be just getting warmed up, but already American Sniper had the best opening in limited release after playing on fewer than 10 screens nationwide. 

In USA Today’s list of its most read articles of 2014, however, neither the war in Afghanistan nor the simmering fight in Iraq – to which U.S. troops are headed back – cleared the top 10. The same is true for Yahoo’s list of its most searched stories. No Iraq or Afghanistan in sight.  

Talk to American soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and their families and it is the same story: they notice that precious few people at home feel that we are a country at war. Part of the reason may be because, officially, we are not. President Barack Obama ended the Iraq War when American troops rolled out in December 2011.  Three years later, on December 28, 2014, the Afghanistan combat mission officially ended. “Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, our combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, and the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion,” the president said. 

Yet more than 10,000 American forces remain in Afghanistan and the count of U.S. troops back in Iraq is about to swell past 3,000.

The military may be fighting a war. Or wars.  But we, as a country, are not.

Both fights will continue alongside what senior military leaders continually worry is the divide between those who fight America’s wars and everyone else.

The military may be fighting a war. Or wars. But we, as a country, are not.

Part of the reason this comprehension gap matters is the stakes: Washington officials want choices when it comes to solving a pressing security problem while military leaders start by hunting for the goal. As conflicts around the world compete for America’s attention, the importance of speaking the same language about what is possible and who will execute that plan is becomes ever more urgent.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey addressed the issue last November at the Center for a New American Security, when he talked about finding ways to “bridge that gap between these two very different cultures and to also help educate our younger officers, the next generation of generals and admirals, because it can be a source of enormous frustration when we speak past each other about whether we start with options or we start with objectives.”

And then there is the human cost. It is nearly inconceivable but somehow true that in the 2013 government shutdown, death benefits for the families of those killed in action fighting for the United States also shut off. Defense One told that story and in the ensuing media uproar a solution was found. But that did not change the fact that America’s government had closed for business while the country was at war. That was made possible, in part, because so few people actually felt daily the force and the consequences of that conflict.

As Adm. Mike Mullen, former Joint Chiefs chairman, noted in his 2011 West Point commencement, “We in uniform do not have the luxury anymore of assuming that our fellow citizens understand” the sacrifices military services demand.

“I fear they do not comprehend the full weight of the burden we carry or the price we pay when we return from battle. This is important, because a people uninformed about what they are asking the military to endure is a people inevitably unable to fully grasp the scope of the responsibilities our Constitution levies upon them,” Mullen said at West Point. “We are a small force, rightly volunteers, and less than 1 percent of the population, scattered about the country due to base closings, and frequent and lengthy deployments.”

Finally, there is the issue of resources. Last year troops serving in Afghanistan received pink slips while deployed in war to a combat zone. Sequestration, said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, was to blame. Odierno has spoken frequently about the risks he sees of downsizing the Army and its training to meet sequestration’s demands while demanding more rotational deployments of soldiers in uniform.

“We made assumptions that we wouldn't be using Army forces in Europe the way we used to, we made assumptions that we wouldn't go back into Iraq — and here we are back in Iraq, here we are worried about Russia again," Odierno said at the Defense One Summit in November. “Our commitments have actually gone up in the last year.”

Odierno is arguing for a review of the planned downsizing of the Army to 450,000 troops. So far Congress and the American public have heard his appeals, but it is hard for most citizens to feel the day-to-day consequences of those scheduled cuts.

After all, as Pew Research Center has noted, “a smaller share of Americans currently serve in the U.S. Armed Forces than at any time since the peace-time era between World Wars I and II.”

That share – “less than 1 percent” of the nation – has done more than 13 years of fighting for 100 percent of America and yet its wars – America’s wars – rarely pierce the public’s imagination or attention.

We made assumptions that we wouldn't be using Army forces in Europe the way we used to, we made assumptions that we wouldn't go back into Iraq — and here we are back in Iraq, here we are worried about Russia again.
U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno

Even the 2012 presidential election saw precious little time or talk devoted to America’s longest-ever war, then still underway. The biggest mention came from the slogan that “Osama bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive.” Neither side wanted to talk much about what life looked and felt like for those who signed up to wear American military uniforms to work each day. The Republican challenger offered no alternative to the course in Iraq and Afghanistan Obama had set. And neither did the American public, which goes on about life as usual without feeling anything like a nation at war.

Except when it comes to the movie theaters. And then the country decides to stop all it is doing and go see a war story. 

But two hours before the big screen is not enough.

It is time we grappled with America’s actual wars and their real-time, life and death consequences, once again with as much dedication as we line up to watch them play out on the big screen.