American Sniper – Scene tension

I watched American Sniper last night, and was impressed with some things I saw.

Spoiler alert blah blah blah.

There is a scene where Chris is providing overwatch on an area where there is a humvee parked and some soldiers talking to people. We see him on the roof, then there’s a camera shot of a little boy (maybe 5-6 yrs) sitting against a door and throwing rocks. He’s important, we’re coming back to him in a moment, but the camera shot introduces the character. It’s just a kid throwing rocks, right?  A taxi rushes down the road and makes a left into an alley a block from the humvee. Chris knows something is up and puts his crosshairs on the corner of the alley, since it is perpendicular from his field of fire and he can only see the end of the alley. A few seconds later, the taxi driver (though it could be passenger) arrives at the corner with an RPG, and raises it to his shoulder.  The crosshairs are on the left side of his back, and it is a foregone conclusion that taxi driver is about to be shot and die.

Chris squeezes the trigger and a shot rings out, and we see blood on the taxi driver’s back as he collapses to his side, dropping the RPG next to him. It was a routine sniper kill, if anything like that could ever be considered pedestrian. It’s routine to us, we’ve seen a lot of people die from sniper shots and this is no first kill. But then we see the point of the scene.

The rock throwing child walks over to the body and the RPG.  We know he probably doesn’t know the taxi driver, because the guy arrived in a taxi and chances are this isn’t his neighborhood. Is the kid curious about the dead body? No. He looks at the RPG.

Everyone in the theater is now thinking three words. Don’t do it. It’s an interesting dichotomy–we’ve all gone from a calloused “just shoot the rebel haji” to observing something forbidden: Children as propagators of war.  Moreover, there’s the tension of whether Chris is going to take the shot if the kid picks up the RPG, and we see reaction shots. This is clearly disturbing Chris.  Killing Hajis with AK47s is worthy because he is “Saving our guys” and “fighting to protect the best nation on earth.” Killing children… not so much.

The child struggles with the RPG. It weighs somewhere between 8-10 pounds (2.5 kg) and he tries to heft it to his shoulder. He knows how it’s supposed to be fired, and he gets it to his shoulder and tries to aim it at the humvee.

Rock throwing kid struggles some more with aiming, and we have a few seconds of indecision. Shoot child or no? Reaction shot showing the finger tensing up on the black trigger, and right before he squeezes tight, we see through the scope the child drop the RPG and run away.  Chris collapses with relief.

The tension of the scene was a combination of horror. We contemplate the extinguishing of an innocent (one scarred by war and taught an unrelenting hatred of an enemy) and we flinch. It is horrible.  We know the sniper can do it because we’ve seen him do it (his first kill was a young boy with a grenade/mortar round), but we would really rather he did not do it.

I think I need to read the book.

Go ahead, comment. It won’t kill you.  And, um, it’s not because I’m desperate. Because I’m not. I’m NOT! Just comment. If you comment, I’ll be your best friend!  C’mon. I’ll give you a cookie! Yeah, I love the “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” books, too.

Military non-fiction – first person accounts and what they’re not saying

I’ve read about 20% of They Were All Young Kids: The story of Lieutenant Jim Flowers and the first platoon, Company C, 712th Tank Battalion, on Hill 122 by Aaron Elson, and a few things leapt out at me.

First, this book is a compilation of first person accounts, mostly a transcript of interviews and it’s not quite as polished as, say, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.  And that lead me to a discussion about “Not all soldiers are authors” and “not many authors are soldiers” with my treasured spouse.  Oh! Logic! Hello, third grade. Let me Venn diagram this thing. Unbroken was written by an author who compiled many hours of questions/answers with witnesses and digging for information and you can see that process in the final product. This book was put together as a memoir of events by the author who was there and events narrated by other survivors surrounding an assault on hill 122 in Normandy during WWII.

Second, when recounting their experiences, soldiers don’t talk about the shooting of enemies so much.  Twenty, thirty years after this experience, they remember with clarity small odd events, conversations, and injuries.  And that’s the part they’re telling us.  The platoon leader, 2LT Flowers, for instance, is hit in one foot with shrapnel, crawls out of his tank, then gets shrapnel wounds in the other leg from an artillery barrage, and tourniquets that injury.  After a day lying in no man’s land and encounters with German Fallschirmjaeger troops, he makes it back to a field hospital, and is remembered decades later by a doctor who treated him because he was in really good shape for a guy who lost both legs.

It’s what they are not talking about that is interesting.  I understand that taking another life, in combat, is a huge deal, or should be. Most guys don’t want to talk about this. But to get the essence of that, in fiction writing, is that something that the writer needs to do?  I’m reminded of the scene in the Princess Bride where Count Rugen says to the Man in Black as he’s torturing him, “And remember, this is for posterity so be honest. How do you feel?” The absurdity of this person standing there with a clipboard recording the victim’s feelings about torture is kind of what I perceive the idea of delving into the personal experience of taking a life in combat.

Nevertheless, you bet your bottom dollar that if you don’t get those feelings written down correctly, someone with combat experience is going to call you on it, and probably give you a one star review and hate on you for a while.  After all, your character didn’t react like everyone else reacts when they deal with this.

Back to They were…

The third point, sort of subject to the second point, is that these soldiers all remembered in detail their injuries or the injuries that happened to others.  Those seem to be fair game for memoirs.  They don’t do it in a dishonorable way–some go out of their way to rain praise on all the soldiers they served with–but there is a considerable amount of detail on the personal experience of each soldier.  We hear what happened to him, how a hatch may have broken someone’s fingers, or the German medic who bandages a GI’s finger in the field, but didn’t have any water and turned his canteen upsidedown to demonstrate it, and so on.  The German medic was remembered by two different guys, and it struck me as odd that a German medic is helping allied personnel, in a sort of I’m-a-medic-and-you’re-injured-so-I-help-you kind of universal mankind helping each other.  Contrasted with the cause of the injury–the medic’s own people shooting at the allied soldiers–it seems to be… counterproductive, I guess?  You’re doing your best to kill the other side, and then when you’ve hurt a bunch of them, you’ve got your guys helping them.

I’m not trying to rag on the medic, it just struck me as strange and decently human, amidst the rest of the combat.

The fourth point is that in a book about war, there is little conflict in the writing.  That is, the way it’s written isn’t nail-biting what’s going to happen.  Perhaps that’s a product of intervening years and the mellowing of the people involved, so their accounts don’t have the gripping narrative, even though the events were quite horrific and there was people burning to death, tanks exploding, guys with terrible injuries and bullets flying, artillery exploding, and the hell that is war.  They talk about it, but it’s minimized and sanitized.

There is one conflict that we see: a tank commander sergeant, before the battle, claims that his tank threw a rod and can not move in reverse anymore, so the tank is sidelined for the battle. Forty years later, the platoon leader, at a reunion for the 712 Battalion, is angered by mention of the sergeant, and the veteran discussing it with him asks why.  The Pldr thought the sergeant didn’t honestly have a reverse problem and did it just to avoid the battle.  The veteran takes it on himself to correspond with some of the guys who know about the tank, and they vouch for the fact that the tank was really out of commission.  The veteran talks to the Pldr again and the sergeants memory is now vindicated: not a coward. Just a misunderstanding.

Tough Reviewers

Yeah, you think you’re going to write some best-selling military sci-fi.  There’s a picture in your head and you’re #1 on the Amazon best seller list and all is ducky with your book, the birds are singing, and so on.

Then this guy reviews your book.  He gives it. One. Star.

I’m curious about the ones who pan the military side of things. “Not realistic enough military scenes,” they say.  That’s fine, I may stay away from those books. But what’s your dream military book? What’s the book that is real, reflects the reality of combat, and makes combat vets say “this dude gets it”?

I stumbled into one reviewer, a Mr. Cary G. Anderson, who had something to say about J.W. Kurtz’s book “The Bellerophon: Ambush: Book 1 of The Captive Galaxy Series”.  I haven’t read your book yet, Mr. Kurtz, though I purchased a copy for later perusal.

On to Mr. Anderson’s comment.  He points out that the dialogue is too wordy in combat.  I thought, that’s fine, what earned your praise, then? And went on a search of his reviews, because those kind of comments are useful if you get them in, say, beta.  Before the book is published! And Mr. Anderson reviewed this book:
Dead Ice: A Dane and Bones Origins Story (Dane Maddock Origins Book 4) [Kindle Edition]

His review was not kind, but his points made me sit up. “What’s this?” I said, to no one in particular.  My children and wife ignored me.  “Combat in cold environments?”  That was something I was planning in the Great American Novel Not Yet Written.  Heck, most of space is a cold environment.  And Mr. Anderson points out a great book that totally gets the combat in cold environments thing, which is “Thunder of Erebus” by Payne Harrison.

So I bought that. 4 bucks. Not on kindle, so I have to wait for it get here.

I’ve also got “They were all Young Kids…” by Aaron Elson. It’s WWII accounts of combat (an assault on a hill with tanks) by the survivors.  I don’t know how it will read, but it was recommended by another tough reviewer.

Maybe I can get Mr. Anderson to read some of my initial drafts, and get the unpleasantness out of the way early on.