"American Sniper" is about inventing a hero for the wrong war
The sudden box office success of Clint Eastwood's macho war flick "American Sniper" has sparked a frenzy of political commentary and vicious name calling. The participants are usually liberals who see the film as a glorification of imperialist war and carnage and conservatives who see any criticism of the movie as the equivalent of burning the flag. But analyzed closely and the film is clearly part of a general American symptom of avoiding "taking sides" while still taking them. For all the ranting and debating, "American Sniper" feels like a movie that doesn't even know what it wants to say even as it serves as a muscled salute to tough guys, guns and old glory.
Yes, it sounds strange, but it is a common feature of modern culture, if not the general, hypocritical nature of humans. For example, during the Bush years it was common to denounce the Iraq War and still "support the troops," eventhough those troops were mostly soldiers who voluntarily joined the army, knowing full well where they were going. In the Obama era it has been custom for liberals to slam Bush, yet still support Obama when it came to the bombing of Libya or the Edward Snowden NSA scandal, because now they have to root for their team and favored President.
This same logic applies to "American Sniper," which pretends to show that war is not good, but wants to lionize a mentally disturbed buffed guy because he killed 160 people with eagle eyes.
In the United States we tend to glorify the macho image of the armed forces for the sake of machoness. This is probably because we haven't experienced an actual land invasion since 1812 or full blown domestic conflict since the Civil War. The last truly moral war we fought was probably World War II, because there really wasn't much to celebrate in Vietnam, or the invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 or Grenada in 1983. There was nothing noble about those conflicts, or in the disastrous Iraq War of 2003, which essentially destroyed the country and laid the foundations for ISIS.
The real Kyle was a rodeo-riding tough guy with disturbing features. He had a Crusader cross tattooed on his arm, he wrote in his bestselling memoir that "“I loved killing bad guys. … I loved what I did. I still do … it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” About the Iraqis we were "liberating" he wrote “I never once fought for the Iraqis, I could give a flying fuck about them.”
But because it's not good for our national conscience to admit that our leaders and military have essentially waged wars of destruction that benefit no one, we have to keep making films like "American Sniper" which say "yes, maybe the war wasn't good, but Chris Kyle was awesome because of how skillful he was as a killer." It's a safe and dangerous form of thinking that impedes any self-reflection or progress as a society.
In the film Kyle (played with crazed eyes by Bradley Cooper), has various scenes where he's perched in his sniper's nest, with a Bible of course, and bites his lip when civilians walk into his scope sight. Whether it's an Iraqi woman or a child, Kyle is forced to take them out to cover troops patrolling the town of Fallujah. Incidentally, Fallujah was the site of a vicious attack by the U.S. Marines that left the town so bombed out, it was left more radiated than Hiroshima after the bomb. Today it is a horrific site of birth defects and illness as reported by journalists such as Robert Fisk.
In the film Kyle sits silently in his bunk, contemplating what his job makes him do, but what really irks him is the fact that he can't "save" more Marines by taking out more targets. In fact, in his book Kyle calls Iraqis "savages" and wishes he could have killed more than his registered belt notches. Indeed, the Iraq War was savage, as wars tend to be, but it gained ferocity because it was a classic case of the Melian Dialogue in action. Naturally guerrilla war broke out.
The answer to "American Sniper" should be Italian maestro Gillo Pontecorvo's superior and timeless film "The Battle Of Algiers" about the Algerian war against French occupation. It presents an intelligent, balanced portrait of a major power fighting an insurgency, giving us characters from both sides who are human and driven by clear motives.
Eastwood, a veteran of classic Hollywood filmmaking, gives us a villain in the form of an elite Arab sniper prowling around Iraq who becomes Kyles's great rival. Leaner, with a cool bandana, the Arab sniper is the "bad guy,"because of course he's shooting at American troops who happen to be on his soil. Here the film enters truly murky waters. Kyle is obviously being affected by the war, but we're still asked to cheer him on as he tries to take out the Arab sniper. When he's home on leave he obviously suffers from PTSD, and can't properly function at social events, meanwhile the sniper haunts his dreams.
But the script isn't clear. Should we blame the Bush administration for sending him to war and shredding his mind, or should we egg him on to kill more of those evil terrorists? The film even blurs the reasons for going to Iraq. In one scene Kyle is at home when his wife gasps at the September 11, 2001 attacks on their TV, cut to a wedding party in 2003 where Kyle is told by his buddies that the U.S. is going to Iraq, toasts all around. It's a big time leap that makes it seem as if the war was some kind of bloody, yet understandable response to 9/11, even though we know it had nothing to do with it.
In a sense Eastwood wants to tamper with history a bit in order to make his hero's mission have a purpose. Early in the film we see Kyle as a kid learning to hunt with his father who tells him over dinner that there are men "born with the gift of aggression" to defend the "sheep" from the "wolves." This kind of over-romanticized jargon supposedly sets the frame of Kyle as a "protector." The problem is the film again crashes against the hard truth about what Kyle did and where.
There is a stark difference between the character of Kyle and someone like Ernest Hemingway, whose heroism was based on actions such as fighting with the Spanish Republic against fascism, or Ben Linder, an American who went to Nicaragua to fight with the Sandinista rebels against the Somoza dictatorship. In a time devoid of ideas, where video game mentalities dominate the culture, simply being tough and armed in any context is considered attractive. There are many brave veterans who have come back from the Middle East scarred yet voicing their honest testimonies of what war in Iraq has really been like, and what it has left in its wake.
Yet in the press Eastwood has responded to criticisms about the movie by claiming with vague language that being "antiwar" means showing what war does to soldiers. We can all agree war, under any circumstances, is not great, but to distort history and simply glorify aggression is a disservice.
"American Sniper" might not be intentional propaganda, and it might not be an antiwar sentiment, but it exposes a void in our popular view of the wars we wage that insures we repeat mistakes like Iraq again and again.