In a strange coincidence or twist of fate, there are two movies vying for best picture at the Academy Awards which deal with similar subject matter, in this case, what did you do in the war. American Sniper is the somewhat fictionalized account of Chris Kyle, considered the deadliest sniper to ever fight in a war, while The Imitation Game is the somewhat fictionalized account of the life of Alan Turing, one of the people most responsible for breaking the Nazi Enigma machine’s code and thereby shortening World War II according to most historians by two years and saving the lives of over four million more people. Both are now considered heroes. Do either of them deserve it?
Before I go any farther, let me state that I have not seen American Sniper and am torn about whether I should. What I have read about Chris Kyle makes me believe that he was a very capable soldier, nothing more, nothing less. The interviews I have read with Chris Kyle makes me believe that he did what he needed to do and did not really work to understand what or why he was doing what he did. There seems to be little introspection on his part whether or not his actions were done in a good cause or for the right reasons. At one point, he does say he thinks we went to Iraq to bring them Democracy, but it’s not as if he truly thought it through. It’s as though he was told that that is what we were doing and never questioned it. He was a good soldier. He was a blunt instrument with a subtle skill.
Was he a hero? Are all soldiers heroes? Old men with visions of grandeur who would never send their own children off to war send the children of those unlucky enough to be unable to avoid it off to war, filling their heads with visions of glory and honor, calling them heroes upon their undertaking and upon their return home, but forgetting about them soon after, leaving these scarred, inexorably changed young men and women to fend for themselves. Maybe most do not come back from war with PTSD, but none come back the same as when they left. Does being a hero mean surviving the trauma of war? Then they are all heroes. Just heroes we would rather not have to be reminded of should it bother our delicate sensibilities.
But to do their job, to kill others, because that is what soldiers do (though not the only thing they do), they have to leave some of their humanity behind. Chris Kyle admitted that he stopped thinking of Iraqis as people. They were all terrorists; all targets. They were the other, and he cared little nor even seemed to consider that it was we who invaded their country because of some questionable decisions by our leaders. So he would kill the enemy because that is what he was trained and told to do.
Then there was Alan Turing: the autistic, homosexual mathematical genius. Turing appeared to care little for war. He didn’t seem to be in it for the glory or the honor or in any way felt the need to save his country. He decided to try to defeat Enigma because it was one of the great puzzles of the world, and he loved puzzles. Is this true, or is this some fiction thought up to make the film about Turing more interesting. Only someone who was there would know for certain, though there are other stories about Turing that differ with the Turing in The Imitation Game. Yet even in these other stories, he is portrayed as someone who didn’t care much about the social niceties. Someone who just couldn’t decipher people, or if he could, just didn’t care to.
Obviously, Turing was not a warrior. He did not fight in the traditional sense of the word. Didn’t pick up a gun, Didn’t directly take a life. His was a battle of the wits, a war to see who was the more ingenious, who could out-think whom. Breaking the Enigma saved thousands, possibly millions of lives, yet Turing’s interest, at least at the start in the film, was with the puzzle, not it’s eventual outcome. Yet through his obsessiveness and despite his lack of social graces, he broke the code and did what a hero is supposed to do, saving thousand, possibly millions, even as he came to the horrific realization that many would have to be sacrificed to keep the Germans from ever knowing that their code was broken. Sacrifice hundreds to save thousands. What kind of toll does that put on a man’s psyche, I wonder. Does that make him a hero?
If we were looking at both films based only on Box Office, American Sniper is running away with it hands down. It is a film, after all, that seems to cue into that particularly American zeitgeist of the mythic quiet American who deals out justice from the end of a gun. We like the blunt instrument. We like thinking that every problem is a nail waiting to be hammered. Right now, the US is involved in over 102 different Special Operations around the world, while simultaneously, Congress looks to place more sanctions on Iran and possibly derail any diplomacy with that country, because as Americans, we want quick, decisive, no nonsense black-and-white solutions. We don’t like the idea that there are areas of grey.
So who’s the hero: Kyle or Turing? Both did their job; both contributed. Yet Kyle, with all his many kills, doesn’t come close to the number of lives Turing saved.
In the end, though, both men are left with nothing. Kyle, because he is sacrificed to an illegal and unpopular war; Turing, because he is sacrificed to the British attitude toward homosexuality following what many would consider a good war. Both are victims of their respective systems and the popular opinions of the time. Both die under a cloud. And even as we resurrect the reputations of both men, we are left wondering what makes a hero and who do we apply that term to.