Learning From “American Sniper“

(Image:  Warner Bros.)(Image: Warner Bros.)Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, a movie about Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal who claimed to have killed more than 250 people, has been nominated for six Oscars. It has broken box-office records. Warner Brothers is calling the film a cultural phenomenon.

As a war resister, I felt somewhat of a duty to run out and see the film so I could write a scathing review. I was expecting to only add to the string of antiwar reviews that have condemned American Sniper for misrepresenting the true Chris Kyle, ignoring history, perpetuating Muslim stereotypes, denying the full range of experiences of American soldiers who have fought in Iraq, and inspiring reams of reactionary and racist responses to the film.

And American Sniper deserves every bit of criticism the Left throws at it. But the film’s racism and enthusiastic support for American empire shouldn’t blind us to its lessons about the sociological and ideological factors that have allowed the US to stay at war for fourteen years with at least the partial support of an all-volunteer military.

Many critical reviews of the movie have claimed the real Kyle was closer to a psychopath and a compulsive liar than the conflicted victim of PTSD the film depicts. In American Sniper, however, Kyle is a product of a domineering father and America’s genocidal past — as Eastwood reminds us with his regular references to cowboys and Westerns. But he is also a loving father, husband, and mentor to wounded Marines.

To simply write off Kyle as a monster would be to ignore the people, institutions, and history that helped create him. Indeed, if Eastwood portrayed Kyle as a psychopath, the Seal would be less interesting and less politically relevant.

While Kyle is rendered with more nuance than left critics have allowed, Iraqis are given no such courtesy. No Iraqi killed in American Sniper is portrayed as innocent. And there is no talk about the lies that put Kyle in the country in the first place, or that 70 percent of those killed in America’s illegal war in Iraq have been civilians.

Of course, it would be inaccurate to have it otherwise. To spend time dealing with the horror of civilian deaths or the lies of the Iraq war would be to ruminate on subjects that, as far as we can tell, hardly crossed Kyle’s mind. As he says in his memoir, “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis” and “If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see.”

The Kyle played by Bradley Cooper is similar to the one that comes through in his memoir. Cooper refers to Iraqis as “savages” throughout; Kyle sees the entire population of Iraq as the enemy.

It’s a worldview that’s ingrained in Kyle from a young age. In the early scenes of the film, Kyle’s father is lecturing Chris and his younger brother — who has just been beaten up on the playground — at the dinner table. The father’s comments, which could just as easily have been uttered by any of Kyle’s drill sergeants, are worth quoting at length. They are a window not just into Kyle, but the pathological mentality, that is partially responsible for keeping the US at war for a decade and a half with an all-volunteer military:

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to think that evil doesn’t exist in the world. If there were ever dark on their doorsteps, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep.

Then you have predators who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re wolves. Then there are those who are blessed with the gift of aggression with an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheep dog.

We are not raising any sheep in this family. [The father takes off his belt, throws it on the table, and moves toward Chris and his brother]. I will whoop your ass if you turn into a wolf.

For Kyle, the choice is hardly a choice at all: he must become an aggressive, wooly-eyed sheepdog if he wants to retain his father’s love.

When the father pulls off his belt at the table, it foreshadows a scene near the end of the movie. Kyle is on leave between his third and fourth tour. He is in the backyard and sees the family dog mock-fighting with his son. Kyle pulls off his own belt to attack the dog. However, it’s really the sheep dog — the symbolic representation of himself — that he tries to savage with the belt in the backyard. It is the sheep dog that poses the true threat to his family. We’re left with the sense that Kyle is confused about who the good and bad guys truly are. And that deep down he questions what he has been taught by his father and his chain of command.

The structure of the film reinforces the portrayal of Kyle’s personality type. Eastwood jumps between Kyle’s four tours and scenes of courtship, sex, children, and family stateside. In Kyle’s life there is nothing but war and family, life and death.

American Sniper also conveys how racism is reinforced in war. The killing and dying scenes feel dangerously real, and there is hardly time to take a safe breath between them. The special effects and the unyielding script drive home the acute stress soldiers experience in battle.

Eastwood also does a masterful job showing us how a soldier’s view of the world can be narrowed to the size of a rifle scope, of showing us how bonds between soldiers are formed: in combat, it seems the only people in the world are those standing to your left and right, keeping you alive. For someone like Kyle, all he sees beyond his fellow soldiers are wolves. After combat, particularly if a soldier loses a buddy, the racism that is used as a killing and survival tool can be hard to discard.

Towards the end of the movie, the mother of a fallen Seal is reading at her son’s funeral the letter he wrote before he was killed in Iraq. It questions war and its glorification. The mom stumbles through the letter and is cut off by Marines playing Taps.

The moment is easy to overlook, but it is disturbing for someone seeking broader political context. Driving home from the funeral with his wife Taya, Kyle blames the letter for the Seal’s death. Kyle thus shows that he is incapable of reflecting on the words of one of his closest friends. To do so would imperil his very identity. It would mean questioning his simplistic and wooden worldview that keeps him hungry for more kills and a sheep-dog defender of America’s wars. It would also mean becoming vulnerable in a combat zone.

The scene also reminds us that there are soldiers who question war and that there aren’t enough outlets that allow for a full accounting of these questions, and the few that exist are too often suppressed.

Like I myself did, many American teenagers join the military with good intentions. They hope to be protectors of noble values like freedom and democracy. They seek a meaningful life. They desire the pro-military adulation regularly on display at airports, concerts, athletic events. These teenagers want to show that they are capable not just of serving their immediate self interests but their community as a whole.

The majority of those who sign up for the military also come from alienated and exploited working-class families. Families that feel the pressing weight of an unprecedented wealth divide and a political system that defends the interests of a few at the expense of the majority.

The stress of living under capitalism often causes families to fracture, whether from financial hardship or some type of physical or emotional abuse. Under these circumstances, it becomes easy to blame the wrong people for such adversity.

The military capitalizes on this. Its disciplined structure can act as a substitute for what was lacking in a soldier’s family and community. In the military the anger and frustration built up at home can be “legally” released onto the “enemy.”

Jeff Sparrow sums this up nicely in a recent piece on rage killings at CounterPunch:

War presents the traditional values of the left, albeit in an inverted fashion. In combat, soldiers find excitement, meaning, purpose and camaraderie — alongside, of course, brutality, hierarchy, destruction and cruelty. To put it another way, the appeal of violence constitutes an indictment of a peacetime order in which so many people cannot find much worth living for.

American Sniper can help antiwar activists understand what continues to drive many American teenagers to the military. Yes, American Sniper is racist. Yes, it promotes an imperialist agenda. And yes, to distribute such a film in a country with a $700 billion annual military budget and an unwavering commitment to war without end is reckless.

But it is important to say more about the film than the obvious. We can start by asking why it is so successful and why it is appealing to large veteran organizations. In doing so we might learn how to communicate better with the many teenagers looking to personally sacrifice so much for what they think will be a better world.

As Vietnam taught us, if we want to build a successful antiwar movement, we have to engage the soldiers fighting the wars. American Sniper, if we take it seriously, might help us do just that.

Jacobin is a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.