Thursday, August 20, 2015

American Sniper

I am pretty old.  I don’t always feel it, but I am.  There are a couple ways I can tell this.  First, in high school and college, I played a lot of basketball and volleyball.  The first year home from my mission I played a lot of basketball.  I remember playing for hours on end on the courts at BYU’s now-demolished Deseret Towers.  I could do that every day.  Nowadays, on the rare occasion that I even get to play decent basketball, my skills have atrophied and I feel the effects of a couple hours of running around when I wake up the next day.  Second, I remember sometimes running around the neighborhood with friends carrying plastic machine guns.  We were often policemen or soldiers as we stole around a corner or pushed or way through low-growing brush in an empty lot.  Nowadays, guns kill people, not the person pulling the trigger, and helicopter parents everywhere try to keep their kids from touching anything even remotely gun-like.  My current, mundane desk job is a far cry from the excitement imagined as a kid on the NBA hardwoods or as an elite soldier racing down a zip line suspended from a helicopter in enemy territory, but sometimes it’s interesting to re-visit those day dreams.

Book cover image.American Sniper by Chris Kyle (ISBN: 978-0-06-223886-3) is a book that does just that.  It also visits, in a very personal way, the other realities of being a soldier, such as separation from friends and family, and the stress that comes from that and from always being in such high-adrenaline situations in war zones.  The book is the first-hand account of a Navy SEAL and his experiences throughout his time in the service of his country and his fellow man.  It follows him from high school to his helping form a company to train other security professionals once he got out of the military.  Most of the details in the book come during his time as a sniper in Iraq.  He explains how the American soldiers went about their business in the hostile areas where they operated.  He explains what goes through a soldier’s mind before, during, and after action.  He goes through the extremely painful process of losing a friend in battle.  The book also describes the heroic efforts of those who were seriously injured to work hard to overcome their new disabilities and make something of their lives.  Readers are let in, to a certain degree, to the psyche of the author as he describes, mostly in general terms, his philosophy on life and on some of the things he did while in the Navy.  There’s a little fun along the way, but the journey is mostly hard work, a lot of sweat, and quite a bit of blood, too.

I remember hearing about the book a couple years ago, but not being super interested at the time.  Then someone decided to make a movie.  Books are always better than movies, so I got a copy of the book.  For the most part, it was pretty gripping.  It’s pretty much all action all the time (and includes all the typical foul language of a modern soldier’s memoir).  Even the parts where Kyle tells about being at home and dealing with his wife and children have an edge to them because he was on edge and not always dealing with his struggles in the best way.  In the end, he learns a lot from what he goes through and definitely becomes a better person, especially in his family life, and that was neat to read.  The war sequences are very interesting.  They are fascinating to me because I have never experienced anything like them.  Kyle makes a simple case for his belief that what he and the rest of the U.S. military were doing was right, and that was interesting to read, too.  It really had only two points.  First, by engaging America’s enemies on their home turf, they had little to no opportunity to engage us on ours.  Second, the people America was fighting against were people who wanted to kill Americans and subject others to their will.  The soldiers felt they were protecting Americans and helping the Iraqi people be able to live according to the desires of their consciences.  It was really that simple for him.  It’s that simple for us, too, and I am thankful that men like Chris Kyle were willing to put their lives on the line for the rest of us.  It is a sad subscript to the book that Kyle was killed a few years after writing the book by a former soldier he was trying to help, using his own experiences as something to learn from, re-adjust to civilian life.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Possessed

While in college at BYU, I took a Russian literature in translation course.  We read a number of books, most of which I thought were pretty good, a few of which I didn’t much care for.  One that I thought was a good book was Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.  I remembered that book to have dark, brooding, often just outright insane characters, yet it was a good read. A while back, one of my aunts was cleaning out some old junk and came across some books she read in college.  Some of them were Russian classics.  I took up her offer to become the owner of these books that cost under $1.00 back when they were published in the 1970s.

Small picture of the book cover.Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s the Possessed (often called Demons in more modern English translations), translated by Andrew MacAndrew, was one of those books.  The book is the story of a provincial town in late tsarist Russia that undergoes a short period of chaos when some sons of the town’s prominent citizens return from abroad, university studies, or time in Russia’s crown-jewel cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.  The young men come back with anarchist, atheist, and nihilist views and what seems like a role in an overarching plan to bring down the established government.  The young men play off the fears of the older members of the town’s citizenry, which aren’t really fears of government or the future, but more about their place in society and other more mundane fears.  Doing this, they wreak havoc messing with romances and balls, get involved with the town’s convicted felons, and even murder someone.  What was probably the saddest part of the novel was how after the murder, the victim’s wife and newborn son died.  All of it was caused by the anarchists working to spread their ideas and being willing to eliminate their opponents if necessary.  After the murder, the anarchists were mostly dealt with by the authorities and things fell back into their routine in the town after a shake-up in the government.  Other than the misery they caused, the atheist anarchists accomplished nothing, and that was probably Dostoyevsky’s point in writing the novel: atheism, anarchism, and nihilism are sure ways to bring about one’s destruction and the destruction of those around us.  He also noted, as another of the novel’s characters died, that a firm belief in God and Jesus Christ was a sure antidote to those negative philosophies.

As predicted, the novel had dark, brooding, misguided, and certifiably insane characters.  It was honestly kind of hard to get through at times.  It’s not the kind of book that you pick up one afternoon and finish later that evening because you just couldn’t put it down.  On the other hand, it’s very well written, and easy to follow the story, if not always the philosophy of some of the characters, which is probably just because the ideas of nihilism and anarchy are such fringe ideas in our current society.  By the end of the book, even with all of the death and destruction that many people consider to be hallmarks of Russian literature, I was a fan.  It showed very clearly the depths to which the philosophies of nihilism, atheism, and anarchism can lead people.  They lead to destruction on a personal and societal level.  They lead to spiritual and physical destruction.  While Dostoyevsky didn’t focus on the Christian message very much, he made the point clearly that to redeem oneself and to redeem the human condition, one must accept God and live by the standards that acceptance demands.  That is a message worth reading any time.

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This work, including all text, photographs, and other original work, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives 3.0 License and is copyrighted © MMXIV John Pruess.