Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Sniper, Extraordinary and Ordinary Virtue

American Sniper is a wonderful movie that I hope is not overlooked at the Oscars for its somewhat politically incorrect moral clarity. Moral ambiguity is nowadays misunderstood as moral sophistication, and a film that draws clear lines between the good guys (Chris Kyle and his fellow American soldiers) and the bad guys (Islamic radicals) is seen as simplistic. But modern moral "sophistication" is really just an expression of the emptiness of contemporary secular ethics, which, failing to find a foundation for simple and obvious moral distinctions - like the distinction between terrorists who use children to deliver bombs, and the sniper who must decide whether to shoot that child before he succeeds - denies the obvious moral distinctions themselves.

But the failure of secular ethics is not my point here. Rather, while watching the film, I kept thinking about the extraordinariness of the heroism of Chris Kyle - his courage in facing down an enemy sniper nearly as lethal as himself, his patience in sitting hour after boring hour in the same position, scanning the horizon for threats to the Marines he was protecting, his prudence in making the split second decision whether to pull the trigger on a target that might be a dangerous terrorist - or might merely be a mother out for a walk with her child. And by extraordinary I don't mean the magnitude of his virtue (although there is that) but the simple fact that it was out of the ordinary - not the normal way in virtue is manifested.

Sniping in war is an extremely unusual occupation, and it is that because it is an unusual occupation in something that is itself unusual - war. War cannot be the norm because it is destructive, and you can only destroy what has first been created. So more fundamental than war must be the peace that allows that which would be destroyed or consumed in war to be created in the first place. This is but an instance of the more general metaphysical truth that good is more basic than evil.

We should keep this in mind if we are tempted by the idea that war somehow rips away a façade and reveals reality as it is. The fact that those who have experienced war have seen things very few of us have seen, and that it is easy to become complacent and fall into the mistake of thinking peace is self-sustaining rather than something that must be vigilantly protected, can lead us into this temptation. And if we have fallen for this temptation, then war might indeed be a process of disillusionment, but only of our mistake in thinking that that which is normal and fundamental therefore needs no effort to maintain. It is normal and fundamental that we breathe, but it would be a tragic mistake to think that we therefore need expend no effort in making sure the conditions are maintained in which we can in fact breathe; this is why we have smoke alarms in our homes, airplanes deploy oxygen masks in emergencies, we have clean air laws, and ships carry life preservers.

The extraordinary virtue of Chris Kyle in war, then, was for the sake of returning to or maintaining the ordinary. And from there we can say that the extraordinary virtue of Chris Kyle was for the sake of the ordinary virtue of normal life. Again, I do not intend extraordinary/ordinary as referring to a scale of magnitude - extraordinary being a lot of virtue and ordinary less - but as referring to their relative normalcy. Ordinary virtue happens all the time, extraordinary virtue only occurs in unusual circumstances like war or a natural disaster.

In some ways extraordinary virtue is more difficult than ordinary virtue, but in other ways it is less difficult. Extraordinary virtue tends to be concentrated in the moment and demands a supreme sacrifice of the individual. He is squarely faced with the choice to live up to his character or not; to charge the machine gun, run into the burning house to save a child, or face down the criminal pointing the gun at him. It tends to be, but is not always, highly visible and has clearly defined and immediate results. There might be glory attached in medals, news stories or even a feature film. There is almost certainly the gratitude of those who have immediately benefited, the buddy you dragged back to the aid station or the mother of the child you brought out of the burning house.

The clarity of the challenge involved in extraordinary virtue may be considered one of its "advantages", even if that isn't exactly the right word. The problem of meaning is eclipsed. The situation is clear and what is required is obvious: The only challenge is in doing what is necessary. Veterans have spoken of the horror of war and don't wish to repeat it, but they also sometimes speak of missing the existential clarity of combat. I remember one Easy Company veteran (from Band of Brothers) wistfully reflecting on the confidence and vigor he felt during the Second World War, something he lost as a civilian and never recovered. (I understand that war is not always morally clear - Vietnam comes to mind - but I am thinking here of the typical individual soldier in the moment of combat. The American GI in Vietnam may have wondered what he was doing there, but those doubts were forgotten when the VC were discovered infiltrating through the wire at 2:00 AM).

The challenges of ordinary virtue are almost never, individually speaking, as difficult in the moment as those of extraordinary virtue. They involve simple things like getting up every morning to be at work on time; doing well in your courses of study whether you enjoy them or not; spending time playing with your children in the evening even though you are tired and would rather not; getting up in the middle of the night to care for a sick infant; putting up with a difficult boss for the sake of making a living for your family; dealing with the rotten kids on the youth soccer team you coach, or taking care of a crotchety elderly relative (not you Dad if you are reading this!) In none of these instances are the individual acts in any real way "hard", certainly not hard in the way of Chris Kyle. But there is also no glory or immediate recognition or "payoff" with them. Your kid may not be grateful with you that you played with him, just annoyed you are making him go to bed. No one will give you a medal for getting up and going to work every day. And everyone thinks his kid is just a joy for you to coach.

Furthermore, ordinary virtue can seem easy or boring because "everyone does it", and extraordinary virtue glamorous because only a few are called on to perform it and those that are, are lionized. But this is partly an illusion based on the fact that we normally live in ordinary times and only occasionally in extraordinary times, so simply by the nature of things extraordinary virtue will be unusual. And in ordinary times, not everyone does in fact do it, but this fact itself becomes blasé, especially in our "non-judgmental" culture.

If the challenge of extraordinary virtue is to find the strength to do what is necessary in the extreme moment, the challenge of ordinary virtue is to discover a moral foundation that can support the unglamorous, repetitive, and perhaps boring ongoing life of ordinary virtue. This was a central concern of Kierkegaard, of course, and in his view, the life of ordinary virtue (the ethical life) is inherently unstable and tends to lead to a crisis that provides the occasion for genuine religious faith. The difference in the challenges of ordinary and extraordinary virtue is not always appreciated, and the man who discovers the strength to face the demands of combat may be confused as to why he finds ordinary civilian life so difficult. Combat is, superficially and immediately, a far more difficult situation than ordinary life. How could the latter pose a problem when one has successfully faced the former? It is because, as we have seen, the requirements of the two situations differ.

The key here is meaning. The immediacy of combat, or any life and death situation, eclipses the more general question of meaning and gives life an urgent and brutal purpose in the moment. There is a temptation to yearn for the clarity that combat gives to relieve oneself of the anxiety of the question of meaning; but that question is not answered in combat, only eclipsed, and the question will return once the extraordinary state of war ceases. For war is only for the purpose of restoring some sort of peace, and ultimately itself has meaning, and is justified, in terms of the meaning of the peace it aims to bring about.

Thus we may admire and appreciate the virtue and sacrifice of Chris Kyle, but we should see that his virtue, while necessary and important, is not the most important type of virtue, because it is a virtue that has meaning only in light of the ordinary virtue of the peace it defends. And that latter virtue should be honored at least as much as the former.

I sometimes wonder if the effusive honor and praise we  currently give veterans is a reflection of our guilty conscience, or our half-buried suspicion that we are not worthy of the sacrifices our soldiers make for us - that our ordinary virtue is not worthy of their extraordinary sacrifice. Do not misunderstand me, I believe veterans deserve to be honored, and surely some of the contemporary effusion is makeup for the disgraceful treatment Vietnam veterans received for many years. But there is a certain over-the-top quality to it, as when I am regularly "thanked for my service", although I only served in the late 1980's for a few years, not in a time of war, and I find it embarrassing to be lumped in with WW2 or Vietnam veterans. In the old days veterans were honored on Memorial and Veterans Days with parades and that was that.

The true way to honor veterans is to live well in the peace that they have provided; and I mean "live well" in the classical sense of a life of virtue lived to as much perfection as humanly possible. But we have lost sight of ordinary life as essentially a challenge in virtue. That is too "judgmental." We see the virtue of the soldier in combat from afar, however, and cannot help but admire it. If we cannot honor our soldiers by the lives we lead, at least we can honor them with parades and benefits.

Perhaps the extraordinary virtue of the soldier is the last virtue a civilization loses. Out of the morass of ordinary life, our nation still produces superlative soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, police officers and firemen. We admire the soldier who faces his fears in combat, and would both reject and be puzzled by one who shrank from the demands of combat merely on the grounds that he "wasn't up for that." On the other hand, many times I have been met with puzzled looks by individuals when they learn I raised three children, something that was commonplace and hardly extraordinary not so long ago. Isn't that just an awful lot of work and an unreasonable sacrifice, the question is asked (although not typically in those words)? The question is itself an indication that ordinary life is no longer seen as a challenge in ordinary virtue, for it is like asking the soldier why he charges up the hill. The soldier does it because it is what the situation calls for, and I did it because it was what my situation called for.

And I also wonder: How long can a nation that no longer puts ordinary virtue at its center, keep producing individuals capable of the extraordinary virtue required by its defense?

Here we are back to one of the central questions of Plato's Republic.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

D,
Great post and very well said.
M.

Anonymous said...

Greatly put. I follow your blog and wish you would publish more regularly.

Thank you for your great work!

Michael Beirne said...

Great post. Ordinary virtue is often a case of simply refraining from things. It's natural to yearn for the glamour of positive, dicey choices and to overlook the virtue of avoiding bad choices.

Dad said...

A timely (and virtuous) insertion of levity in a scholarly post.

David T. said...

Thank you for the kind words everyone.

Anon, my blogging philosophy is to only write something if I think I have something valuable to say. There's already too much noise on the internet, and I'd rather go weeks without posting than add to it.