Great art is always ambiguous. Rather than giving us answers, it forces us to ask new questions; complexity is its hallmark. None of this applies to American Sniper, a truly abhorrent film that cannot be confused with art, much less great art.
Yet I suspect that the already deafening praise the film has received will only grow as Chris Kyle’s image as a national “war hero” is amplified both by Bradley Cooper’s Oscar nomination and the ongoing trial of Kyle’s murderer, Eddie Routh, a veteran struggling with severe mental health problems who Kyle had reached out to after returning home.
When not articulated within hawkish narratives emphasizing the glory or necessity of war, the very real suffering of so many returning soldiers is largely framed within the familiar dovish critique of American imperialism — repeated by American Sniper — which casts the war as a misguided expenditure of “our” lives and resources.
My antipathy for American Sniper isn’t an unthinking revulsion toward any film I perceive to be conservative. It is certainly possible for reactionary films to be so skillfully and intelligently constructed that they are great works, even if the way they deal with their subject matter and the conclusions they draw from it are revolting.
Consider, for example, many of Lars von Trier’s mind-bending but often misogynist films, such as Dogville; or Stanley Kubrick’s artful affirmation of the bourgeois family in Eyes Wide Shut; or John Ford’s Stagecoach, a film that glorifies the massacre of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, but which was so well technically executed that Orson Welles claimed to have seen it forty times while making Citizen Kane.
It is doubtful Welles would find much to admire in American Sniper, which, formally, is a mix of Eastwood’s usual manipulative neoclassical “objectivity” and cliched ultra-realist handheld-shot combat scenes.
As in countless countries, and in countless wars, American Sniper attempts to construct a war hero for us to worship that is beyond politics. What we get instead is a hackneyed paean to brutish masculinity, and a film whose banality is lessened only by the shock of its whitewashing of the crimes of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq — even as it adopts a “dovish,” critical attitude toward the war.
Even leaving aside American Sniper’s depiction of the Iraq invasion as an understandable response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and its juxtaposition of the savagery of the Iraqi resistance to the well-intentioned heroism of American warriors, the film’s most immediate content is the obscene worship of masculinity.
Nearly every sequence builds up to some kind of cathartic release of gendered violence, which resolves whatever dramatic tension has accumulated. Even Kyle’s success in subduing PTSD finally allows him to become the great father and husband we always knew he could be is signaled such an act: he approaches his wife — who is, literally, in the kitchen — jokingly waving a toy gun in her direction. His decision to help other shattered veterans by training them to shoot also suggests that their only path to redemption is through violence.
To be sure, these soldiers and their families are shown to have suffered greatly as a result of the war, and thus Eastwood’s film does not depict violence as a one-sided “good.” Indeed, the film’s graphic depiction of gore is often shocking.
This is reminiscent of Eastwood’s best film, Unforgiven. The 1992 Western tries to de-mythologize the Western hero Eastwood famously played in Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy, suggesting that the violence he confronted and unleashed is not to be naively celebrated.
But, as in American Sniper, the effect of depicting violence in such a gruesome, realistic way amplifies the sense of awe around masculinity: a man is defined by his willingness to use violence when he must, an even more serious duty when such violence is shown in an unsanitized, realistic, gruesome way.
In Unforgiven, we learn that it was through brutality — carried out by people like Eastwood, who plays a yeoman farmer — that the West was won. Had no one stepped forward to tame the frontier (including corrupt and greedy public officials), we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the freedom and democracy we now have.
As Kyle’s dad tells him near the beginning of American Sniper, the world is divided into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. To be a man means neither to extol violence and bully others nor to be a sheep, unwilling to stand up and defend what’s right. Accordingly, the cruelty of the Iraqi resistance leaves no question as to which side it falls.
The use of the term “realism” to describe a movie is presumptuous. All filmmakers produce a certain “reality” and capture it on film. Since no film — even a documentary — is a reflection of the totality of the world transposed onto celluloid, but is rather an artistic imagining, those using such a label assume that they are able to perceive and depict objective reality, uncontaminated by ideology or subjectivity. Yet facts never speak for themselves. They are assigned meaning through the compositional and narrative structure of the film.
In this vein, perhaps most infuriating is American Sniper’s gritty depiction of the 2004 Battle of Fallujah, or “Operation Phantom Fury,” in which Chris Kyle participated. Nowhere in Eastwood’s view of the battle is there even the slightest hint of the criminal atrocities carried out by the US military.
Independent human rights groups estimate that 4,000 Iraqi civilians were killed, with 200,000 more displaced and much of the city left in ruins. And the effects of the “battle” are still ongoing, as the American military’s use of a range of illegal weaponry, including radioactive munitions, has resulted in a massive spike in birth defects.
These most commonly involve the heart and the nervous system but there have also been reported cases of babies being born with two heads, upper and lower limb defects and eye abnormalities. A 2010 study found that “dramatic increases in infant mortality, cancer, and leukemia in the Iraqi city of Fallujah . . . exceed those reported by survivors of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.”
In November 2004, Fallujah was declared a “free fire zone” by the US military and anyone in the city was fair game to attack. Snipers like Kyle fired at passersby in the streets, while American military units surrounding the city prevented men aged fifteen to fifty-five from leaving, exposing them to massive, indiscriminate attacks from air and land.
“We would just leave the dead Iraqis in the streets and they piled up,” said Zollie Goodman, a Navy officer who participated in the battle, “it was disgusting.” Even British military officers involved in the assault were reportedly appalled by the lack of concern for civilian casualties.” Though it initially denied the accusations, the US government later admitted that it used white phosphorous in the assault, while soldiers involved later testified that they employed MK-77, essentially a new and improved form of napalm.
But in American Sniper, these “realities” are not “real,” or at least not worthy of attention in the same way as Kyle’s personal drama. As with mainstream discussions of veterans’ traumas that have accompanied the Routh trial, hegemonic narratives that focus exclusively on “our” suffering conceal the much greater devastation visited on Iraqis.
Silencing the “Savages”
In American Sniper, the Iraqis themselves are totally silenced, and for much of the movie literally faceless. When an Iraqi man drives a truck of explosives into a US checkpoint, his face is cloaked in shadow. This routine is repeated many times.
The message is clear: a shadowy, barbaric assailant, whose motivations are vague if not incomprehensible, is attacking those who are trying to help his country. That the war was an act of American aggression is entirely omitted.
During one of American Sniper’s largely interchangeable battle sequences, the Iraqi resistance is metaphorically dissolved into a force of nature, as an insurgent offensive is amplified by a dust storm that threatens to overtake Kyle’s unit. “This shit is biblical,” says one soldier. Nature, both in the form of the insurgency and the dust storm, rebelled against the American soldiers, who were unprepared for the alien, hostile conditions into which they would be thrust, although they had the best of intentions.
Perhaps we had gone too far, risking the lives of good, honest, working-class heroes like Kyle. Perhaps we had become wolves. But then again, had we not gone into Iraq, we would have merely been sheep, allowing ourselves to get bullied by “the terrorists” on 9/11.
Thus while the invasion of Iraq was an understandable (if possibly mistaken) act carried out by rational, feeling human beings, resistance to it is essentially an incomprehensible act by a non-human, “natural” force. Framing such conflict in terms of civilization versus nature is an ideological construct as old as colonialism itself.
This is also consistent with the standard “dovish” narrative, generally replicated in American war movies and mainstream criticism of imperial adventures, in which foreign wars are bad because they cost us too much blood and treasure. The appropriate thing to do, it follows, is withdraw from this particular conflict or use different, more effective tactics.
We are cast as the primary — indeed the only — victims of the war; not just soldiers but the public at large, which has had to endure the trauma and upheaval of civil conflict (the anti-war movement thereby becomes the bad guy too).
The embodiment of this discourse is James Cameron’s Aliens (“Alien 2,” not to be confused with Ridley Scott’s masterpiece). The film clearly attempts to criticize the colonial violence of US empire, but does so strictly within the confines of the hegemonic liberal framework described above. It literally turns the colonized into alien beasts.
Cameron’s is a classic narrative of an ultra-high-tech, modern society confronting untamed nature, including violent and dangerous organisms that kill based on instinct. The soldiers begin very confident in their technological superiority, only to discover they are ill-adapted for combat in the “heart of darkness” into which they have been thrust.
There are no moral qualms with mowing down these — admittedly very sophisticated — drooling animals by the dozens or hundreds. The only question is whether it’s worth risking the lives of the colonists and soldiers in what is ultimately a project for the benefit of Weyland Industries to build better weapons systems and thus more successfully extract resources from distant worlds.
The parallel of expendability is apparent: Kyle even says near the end of American Sniper that his one regret is that he couldn’t “save more lives” as a sniper in Iraq — that is, the lives of Marines. Like the aliens, Iraqis’ lives are unimportant. Their motivations for resisting imperialism appear to stem from some bestial impulse, not out of a rational human desire for freedom and self-determination. This is also the depiction we get of Iraqis in Hurt Locker, as well as of the Vietnamese in Platoon and the indigenous peoples of the Americas in The Mission.
The lesson from the genre is that we must exercise restraint in our noble efforts to spread freedom and democracy in order to accommodate the realities of an imperfect and backward world. Thus is the tragedy of being the uniquely ordained provider of global peace, especially to the more barbarous regions.
It is also Kyle’s affliction: one of the veterans he’s helping ends up killing him. If Kyle has a flaw, it is his unrestrained desire to seek and secure justice. Just like the war itself, he may have gone too far. But it was a noble quest.
Possibly the best physical expression of this narrative is the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. The lives commemorated on “The Wall” are those of US soldiers, who were the victims of an unfortunate blunder, a strategic miscalculation that proved unfortunately ineffective. We (supposedly) lost the war, and we all suffered, but none more than these brave heroes.
The lives of the other victims — the two to four million innocent people in Southeast Asia whose flesh was incinerated by napalm or ripped apart by bullets, and who were starved in “strategic hamlets” (concentration camps) and bombarded with chemical weapons, in one of the most monstrous atrocities in modern history — are nowhere acknowledged.
Those who are commemorated are those who died carrying out the horrors, that is, the perpetrators. It is this logic which allowed President Jimmy Carter to refuse to apologize for the rampage in Indochina on the grounds that “both sides suffered.”
The Vietnam Memorial, which bears 58,000 names, is 8,000 square meters. A similar memorial for the Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian dead would require a 413,793 square meter wall — over 2.5 times the size of the University of Phoenix football stadium where this year’s Superbowl was held.
The release of American Sniper is as if the faux Nazi propaganda film that Tarantino concocted for Inglorious Basterds, “Nation’s Pride,” has actually become real. In “Nation’s Pride,” a lone German sniper, Friedrich Zoeller, singlehandedly fends off a substantial allied advance holed up in a church steeple.
This film, and others like it, turn Zoeller into a major star and national legend (just like Kyle), despite his inner torment over the violence he had committed, which we uncover as we get to know him. But, unknowingly, his delighted fans follow him around, begging him for autographs based on the depiction they saw on the screen: thus representation had become reality.
Similarly, revelations that Chris Kyle was a pathological liar who possibly made up large parts of his autobiography don’t matter: the war machine needs to manufacture its national heroes.