The movie American Sniper has won widespread acclaim for its gripping depiction of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL considered to be the deadliest sniper in United States military history. American Sniper has also generated a moral controversy.
For those who considered the Iraq war to be illegal and immoral, it portrays the glorification of Americans killing Iraqis as part of an invasion. Others argue that Kyle was defending America from evil.
But as this debate rages on, we cannot lose sight of something upon which we should all agree: war takes a horrific physical and emotional toll on our soldiers and their families, and we are currently not providing them adequate care and support. As we argue about our discrepant perspectives of American Sniper and war in general, we must unite around our commitment not only to respect our soldiers, but also honor their service by adequately addressing their health and well-being.
The traumatic stress facing our soldiers and their families is extreme and the consequences to health are severe. Among those that survive, many veterans face a range of physical and mental health issues, such as traumatic brain injury, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, that cause suffering and limit functioning. These issues are often compounded by difficulty finding employment and associated financial stress. The dire consequence of the issues facing veterans is captured in the soaring rates of suicide among young veterans.
Further, while there is a long history of research demonstrating that military families adjust quite well to the stress of war, soldiers are now being deployed and redeployed at record rates. This further deprives families of the joy of spending time with their loved ones, increases the loss of the emotional and functional support of having a family member at home, and exacerbates the reality of loved ones possibly never returning home. And this increased strain has health consequences on military families. One study examining mental health in a sample of 250,626 Army wives found that wives with a deployed spouse reported higher rates of depressive (18-24 percent) and anxiety disorders than those without a deployed spouse. Further, higher rates of mental health issues were associated with longer deployments (more than 11 months).
Meanwhile, against the backdrop of these health consequences, evidence suggests that we are not devoting enough attention and support to care for our soldiers and their families. Veterans and their families often do not have adequate health insurance. Veterans often don't have access to care, having to travel hundreds of miles to reach a hospital. Serious questions remain as to whether the Veterans Administration remains properly funded. In the most extreme cases, veterans are often not appropriately treated, and many die as a result of insufficient care.
People would be less likely to demonize our soldiers if they understood the horrific and traumatic stress required to witness and partake in the atrocities of war -- justified or not. We must ask ourselves, "Could I keep my mental and moral focus while having to kill and witness killing?" We may also be less likely to glorify and sanitize war, or lead our country to war except in extreme circumstances of national defense if we understood the horrific health and economic consequences that would befall our soldiers and their families. We must ask ourselves, "Is this war worth sending my children to fight?" It may be easier for us to find common ground when we are all properly empathizing with the struggles and sacrifices of our soldiers and their families.
The servicemen and women who protect our country deserve our admiration and respect for their courage and sacrifice. Fully appreciating their degree of commitment means not only understanding the risks and struggles of soldiers on the battlefield, but also the stress experienced by military families, who often endure tremendous hardship when their loved ones are deployed. After all, every one of us is asking veterans and their families to sacrifice -- for us. And just as we could argue that soldiers are volunteers who "know what they are getting into," we can now safely say that if we accept the service of our soldiers, we also know what we are getting into.
So let the debate continue. But let us not lose our focus or priorities.
We must care for our veterans and their families.