When I first laid eyes on the guest column Paul Rieckhoff wrote about “American Sniper,” I thought I’d read the byline wrong. This has to have been written by the Department of Defense, I thought, before scrolling back up. When I saw that the founder and chief executive officer of America’s largest corporately-sponsored veterans’ organization did indeed pen this post, it concerned me on a deep level. How could a veteran of his stature speak this favorably about a movie that many of my fellow veterans found completely disgusting, even propaganda-like in nature? The only unifying factor I found was that Rieckhoff and the DoD both seem to share a propensity for cleverly exploiting veterans. Here are six ways in which Rieckhoff, like the DoD, supports the oversimplification of the Iraq War and its effects on veterans and Iraqis.
1. He claims that when talking about the Iraq War, “simple is better”
“Simple is better when something is so overwhelming, so complicated, so distant,” Rieckhoff says of “American Sniper” blithely, with all the persuasive powers of the Ministry of Truth. In his opening paragraphs (if you can call them paragraphs), he announces that “the single best work of film about the Iraq War ever made” is “not a complex film.” He states unabashedly that, in his opinion, the Iraq War’s “best” cinematic telling thus far can be encapsulated for the American public through the “storytelling, action, emotion, production and performance, attention to detail and especially the frighteningly accurate soundscape” of a simple, “very black-and-white view” of the entire conflict. He goes on to say that this was not his view of the war, which apparently means that in his view, the “single best work of film about the Iraq War ever made” reflects essentially the same perspective that the government has been desperately pounding into American brains like so many weapons of mass destruction. Never mind the fact that Rieckhoff’s casually blowing off every single other work of film about the Iraq War – he’s actually calling for more of the black-and-white view that got the movie’s protagonist to buy into his mission in the first place. He names the “power” of the movie as its “focused simplicity.” He applauds director Clint Eastwood’s efforts to make his film just like one of the classic Hollywood Westerns – which is exactly nothing like the actual Iraq War.
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Every veteran knows that each of our war experiences are different. It’s vastly irresponsible for Rieckhoff, who makes a six-figure salary off the backs of the veterans in his organization, to fail to highlight the need for complexity and gray area when discussing a conflict that has been debated and protested by veterans and civilians alike for 13 years now. Now, more than ever, the complexity of the Iraq War and its context must be examined. Refusing to call for more context in a blockbuster film about an ongoing conflict only makes sense if Rieckhoff’s main interest is to keep recruiters’ hands full of young, prospective snipers, and keep his organization full of veterans whose needs were never intended to be met by the government that sent them off to war. Don’t think about the complexity of the war, he croons, just look at all the shiny pictures.
2. He wants Americans to be entertained by the Iraq War
“Most of America is tired of hearing about Iraq. But now, they’re at least open to being entertained by it.” The first sentence is an aggressively ignorant statement, considering that Rieckhoff can’t even claim to speak for “most” veterans, let alone “most” Americans. That’s bad enough for me to throw up in my mouth a little, but in the second sentence, when he implies that Americans ought to be “open to being entertained” by an ONGOING, U.S.-led conflict, he almost made me throw my computer at a wall. The exact opposite of what American veterans need is for our experience to be entertainment fodder for a deliberately-misinformed public. Our war experiences need to be examined critically for their permanent effect on our individual and societal psyche – not gaped at on a big screen for the financial benefit of Hollywood big shots. Claiming that going to see a big-budget action movie is an acceptable alternative to “hearing about Iraq” from news outlets and from actually listening to veterans’ accounts of widely varying combat experience is misguided at best, and deceptive at worst. The best way to keep Americans from being interested in the actual Iraq War is to tell them that a hyperviolent, oversimplified action flick about a sociopathic killer is the one movie that “may bring civilians closer to [veterans] than anything else.” For Rieckhoff to claim such a thing is to do a great disservice to every veteran who’s ever had a differing experience of the war, and yet still must return home to a nation full of people who can’t wait to ask us that most-hated question, “So … did you kill anyone?”
3. He doesn’t mention PTSD or military suicide
Rieckhoff calls the movie’s protagonist a “real-life super hero.” Aside from the numerous problems with defining as a super-hero a sniper who has been sent to another country by his government to kill people he doesn’t know for reasons he doesn’t know, Rieckhoff is implying that the heavily-documented psychological repercussions of combat are due to “heroic” actions. He fails to acknowledge that the very act of killing a person causes psychological trauma from which many veterans never recover, and although he mentions in passing that “every one of America’s newest generation of 2.8 million veterans is still processing the war ourselves,” he does so without once pausing to mention the fact that this conflict has lost more veterans to suicide than to combat. The very act of participating in the Iraq War has killed more Americans by their own hand than were killed by the terrorists on 9/11. Clearly these veterans did not consider themselves heroes – the fact that Kyle considered himself one should be the subject of a documentary on military-induced megalomania, not a “historical” feature film.
4. He blames the American public for veterans’ “sacrifice”
Rieckhoff talks about the “tough” times the sniper and his family endured, casually stating that “we’ve required our most elite service members and their families to sacrifice” (emphasis mine). Not only does this minimize the experience of every non-“elite” veteran, but it insinuates that the American people – who protested the Iraq War from its inception – have been the ones sending soldiers overseas all this time. He refers to former president George W. Bush as seeing the war as “black-and-white” even as Bush and his administration orchestrated the conflict, but fails to place any responsibility for its horrific outcome on Bush, former vice president Dick Cheney, or any of the wildly unpopular members of Bush’s Cabinet. Rieckhoff also tosses out the word sacrifice, as so many military commanders and politicians do, without any acknowledgment that all these veterans’ sacrifice – ostensibly for the routing out of “terror” – has been considered by all accounts to have been in vain. He then goes on to assert that we – the American public, not the American government – have created an “incomparable distance … (and irresponsibly allowed [it] to grow) in this country between what is now essentially a warrior class and everyone else.” In this single statement, Rieckhoff deepens that rift by assigning veterans our own “warrior class,” (gee, thanks Paul! “Warrior” sounds so much better than “soldier”!) and by blaming civilians for “allowing” the distance to grow – as though each member of the American public is somehow responsible for 14 years of a war machine that churns out veterans and spits us back into civilian life like used toothpaste (sorry to all the vets who were just reminded that our VA benefits don’t include dental care). Rieckhoff says that for “us,” the war has produced “more questions than answers,” but he asks none of those questions in this column, nor does he cite any of the well-known answers. If he truly wanted to speak on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, he would place the blame for our problems squarely on those who cause them – the operators of the American war machine – not on those who suffer from the same deceptive, manipulative, authoritarian leadership as we veterans do.
5. He completely blows off the Iraqis’ war experience
“‘American Sniper’ does not … address the overall complexity of the larger political issues surrounding the war — or the complexity of the Iraqi side of the experience. And that’s OK.” For Rieckhoff to entirely blow off the context of the Iraq War and its absolutely brutal effects on, you know, Iraqis who live there and are suffering every single day, is to endorse an image of the war that is completely one-sided and void of meaning. He’s reducing the whole conflict to a real-life video game: the sniper is the hero, every Iraqi is either a terrorist or acceptable collateral damage. He doesn’t remind the American public that in Iraq, nobody comes home from war – home is war. American snipers don’t appear as heroes to Iraqis; they often appear as villains. But Rieckhoff is “OK” with this gross lack of perspective. He’s content to perpetuate the idea that Iraqi lives don’t matter – that’s why we fight the war “over there,” according to the political hawks. The “larger political issues,” such as Americans’ flagrant disregard for the Iraqi people throughout the entire conflict, don’t need to be mentioned – Iraqis are just extras in the action scenes. Not only does this attitude reflect poorly on all veterans’ in Rieckhoff’s organization, but it encourages said veterans to think the same way he does. #Iraqlivesdontmatter, say Paul and the DoD.
6. He’s using his status for shameless self-promotion
Aside from his war-glorifying, PTSD-ignoring and victim-blaming or -ignoring, I’m disgusted by Rieckhoff’s completely un-subtle use of this column about his “thoughts” on the movie to not only promote his own, less successful, war-movie attempts, but to blast the efforts of other filmmakers in a truly juvenile way – arrogantly, and with no coherent critique. As though Rieckhoff is now magically a seasoned film critic, he leaps lightly back and forth between his condescending-yet-apparently-concerned-veteran trousers and the well-tailored slacks of a Hollywood smack-talker. He bashes other directors’ failure to “give back” to the veterans community, but Rieckhoff’s idea of “giving back” is to make $145,000 a year by running an organization that solicits donations from some of the same corporations who’ve profited from the Iraq War. Not only is Rieckhoff benefiting financially from the government’s failure to take care of the veterans it has created, but he’s also talking trash about other filmmakers (who, as opposed to him, make no pretense about their being aspiring filmmakers) by throwing out comments such as this one: “While the iconic supermarket scene is one of the most brilliant yet in depicting the modern struggles of a warrior returning home, in the end, the story of ‘Hurt Locker’ was more about Hollywood’s story (and director Kathryn Bigelow’s story) than it was about ours.”
I’m sorry, what? To claim that “American Sniper” is more or less “our” story than “Hurt Locker,” (while simultaneously praising “Hurt Locker” for its brilliance, oddly) is to claim that any film is representative of “our” – all veterans’ – story. That is actual crazy talk. Not only is Rieckhoff asserting his own, delusional status as a credible film critic, but he’s also asserting his status as an “everyvet” who has the authority to speak on behalf of all Iraq veterans. Rieckhoff, through his successful veteran-funded career, believes that he has earned the right to draw the lines when it comes to veteran-exploiting Hollywood films. The pot has met the kettle, and doesn’t consider it to be the right shade of black.
All of these points illustrate the larger issue that when veterans’ traumatic experiences are exploited as freely by veterans themselves as they are by the powerful few who send us to war, it’s a sign that we ourselves have internalized the destructive system that our bodies were used to support. Paul Rieckhoff and Chris Kyle are both acting as tools of the American military machine. One writes lucidly about the soldier’s heroic deeds, the other embodies the testosterone-steeped hero figure himself, but both efforts achieve the same dual purpose: the glorification of war, and the commodification of those who fight it. Fellow veterans, be careful who you trust – those who truly have our best interests at heart are those who refuse to capitalize on our trauma.