We turn to ‘American Sniper’ for the military ‘experience’

Bradley Cooper portrays Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in a scene from “American Sniper.” The movie has divided liberals who say it glorifies violence and conservatives who say it depicts a great patriot.
Bradley Cooper portrays Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in a scene from “American Sniper.” The movie has divided liberals who say it glorifies violence and conservatives who say it depicts a great patriot. Warner Bros. Pictures

There is a “Peanuts” cartoon strip by the late Charles Schulz taped to my desk that shows Snoopy trudging over to Bill Mauldin’s house, as he does every Veterans’ Day, to quaff a few root beers with the legendary World War II newspaper cartoonist.

In the strip, Snoopy tells Mauldin that he has been to the library in search of something to read by Ernie Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning World War II newspaper correspondent.

“They never heard of him,” a sorrowful Snoopy says. “I don’t know, Bill. I just don’t know.”

We are not likely to ever again see another Ernie Pyle and Bill Mauldin, whose names became household words 70-plus years ago.

The kind of personal reporting done by Pyle and the famous series of “Willie and Joe” cartoons drawn by Mauldin touched a special kind of nerve with the American people for one simple reason: Virtually everybody in the country had a stake in World War II. They either had a family member or members serving in one of the branches of service or the Merchant Marine, or knew somebody who did, or were working in a defense plant building ships, tanks and planes, or knew somebody who was. My dad was in the Navy during WWII and served in the Pacific at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Now that we have an all-volunteer military and have abandoned the draft, a miniscule percentage of American families have any connection to the military or even know anyone who is in uniform.

I’ve watched the popularity of “American Sniper” and wondered whether it is such a hit because of our insatiable appetite for violence in movies, or whether it reflects a curiosity about the men and women now doing the fighting for us, providing a picture that isn’t found anywhere else.

Its portrayal of the life of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, is far from the life of a typical GI. Kyle wrote in his memoir that killing was “fun,” a fact sanitized in the Clint Eastwood-directed movie.

Liberal critics decry the film’s glorification of war; conservatives see it as the story of an American patriot. As with most issues in these polarized times, it reflects the absence of national purpose that existed in the time of Pyle and Mauldin.

Pyle made his name by writing about the lives of average GIs. He did so with a clarity that gripped his readers and made him a favorite of the men and women he was covering.

“Ernie Pyle covered World War II the way the infantry soldier fought it, on the ground and on the move, subject to fear, filth and the capricious fates that dealt death to one man, life to another,” author David Nichols wrote in an introduction to the book, “The Best of Ernie Pyle’s World War II Dispatches.”

Only rarely did he write about the so-called “big picture,” wrote Nichols. “Rather, Pyle focused on the individual combatant – how he lived, endured by turns battle and boredom, and sometimes how he died, far from home in a war whose origins he only vaguely understood.”

Mauldin’s cartoons gave Americans classic portraits of men at war, at times humorous and sad. He loved tweaking the officer corps, to the point that Gen. George Patton tried unsuccessfully to have him banned from the military newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

“Willie and Joe” became symbols for the worn-down, mud-splattered, unshaven infantrymen who bore the brunt of the fighting and still could find occasion to laugh at their predicament and poke fun at themselves and their leaders.

It’s not that we haven’t had good correspondents covering our recent wars. Some have given life and limb to bring us reports from the combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the world. But when a huge majority of the public is untouched by these conflicts, it is easy to ignore or forget those who are.

William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.