Where “American Sniper” Fails

ZNet, February 5, 2015. So I’ve finally gone to see “American Sniper,” the Clint Eastwood flick that has generated so much heated commentary left and right.  As everyone knows by now, the movie tells the story of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEALS sniper who registered a US record 160 “enemy kills” during four tours of “duty” in the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq.  I’d give it two stars.

It’s a real and expertly crafted blood and guts shoot-em-up, that’s for sure, as one should expect from Eastwood.  If you like seeing people’s brains – especially but not exclusively the brains of Arabs – splattered against walls and streets in spectacular fashion, then this movie is for you.  The squeamish should not attend.

As a longtime leftist who marched repeatedly against the Iraq invasion, I muttered to myself repeatedly during the movie. I recoiled when Kyle justified his kill shots by saying that “those [the US troops his targets were trying to attack] are American soldiers” and that “they are trying to kill Marines.” “Yes,” I thought to myself, “they are soldiers and Marines engaged in the monumentally criminal and imperial invasion of a nation whose people did absolutely nothing to the US and who had no involvement whatsoever in the 9/11 jetliner attacks that many of the US occupiers (Kyle included) thought they were avenging in Iraq.  Of course Iraqis were trying to kill them, just like Kyle would be trying to kill invading Chinese or Russian soldiers marching in the streets of his Texas hometown. That is what you get when you think that the United States owns the world.”

I shuddered when Kyle repeatedly referred to Iraqi resistance fighters in Fallujah and other unnamed locations as “savages” and when the movie presented the Iraqi anti-occupation militias (the real heroes of the Iraq “war” [invasion and occupation]in my opinion) as vicious, sociopathic torturers. “If you want to see real savagery,” I thought to myself, “look at the torture chambers of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, and countless other Hellholes of ‘enhanced interrogation’ the US operated in the wake of 9/11.  Look at the villages and wedding parties the US has bombed in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Look at the broad mass-murderous essence of the US invasion of Iraq, which killed perhaps a million Iraqis, and at the two US assaults on Fallujah, in which the ‘good guy’ Americans attacked ambulances and hospitals and deployed radioactive ordnance in a sadistic effort to practically level an entire city.”

Imperial America has been calling those who dare to resist its murderous expansions “savages” since the colonial and early revolutionary eras, when white settlers demonized North America’s indigenous people as barbarians because those people dared to oppose the bloody theft of their lands.  How chilling to see that telling frontier Indian-fighting term still in use by the Empire’s gendarmes 228 years after the nation’s founding.

Still, “American Sniper” is not really a pro-war propaganda film. Eastwood says he opposed the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Wolfowitz-Hillary Clinton invasion of Iraq on practical grounds.  He didn’t think US policymakers had a serious idea of what they were getting into either in Iraq or in Afghanistan.  In an interview before hundreds of Oscar voters last December, Eastwood criticized “the arrogance of wanting just to burst into war and not really researching the value of it and the tragic ending it’s going to be for so many people.” He reflected on the futility of the Korean and Vietnam Wars. “Contrary to public opinion,” Eastwood added. “I abhor violence.”

I believe him on both scores after seeing “American Sniper.”  Violence takes a terrible toll on numerous characters in the movie, including Kyle, who returns home numb from Iraq with a serious case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He visits a number of seriously injured Iraq invasion veterans and gets killed by a fellow veteran he was trying to help recover from his war experience.

“American Sniper” portrays the “war” (invasion and occupation) as a doomed and ill-conceived policy in which simple God and Country soldiers who wanted to defeat “evil,” avenge 9/11, and protect their brothers in arms are sacrificed for unclear ends.  Soldiers and survivors and their family members are shown questioning the war in light of the horror they witness, experience, sense, and/or perpetrate.

“This shit is biblical,” one soldier tells Kyle as the movie nears its end with a large-scale insurgent attack conducted as a giant sandstorm approaches. You can almost hear Eastwood saying “Like I thought, another Korea, another Vietnam.”

According to a Hollywood reporter last December, the movie was “already provoking considerable debate, with some asserting that the movie…serves as a cautionary tale about the perils of war. But others have suggested that it is the politically conservative Eastwood’s attempt to glorify and defend the Iraq War that was initiated by fellow Republican George W. Bush.”

Having actually seen the movie, I’d say that the second suggestion (that “American Sniper” glorifies and defends the Iraq War”) is false.  The opening assertion of the movie’s defenders (that it’s “a cautionary tale on the perils of war”) is closer to the truth.

It’s true that “American Sniper,” taking its narrative from Chris Kyle’s published and bestselling memoir with the same title, tells its story largely from Kyle’s perspective – a nationalist, white, fundamentalist Christian, military, Texan, and Good American perspective wherein US soldiers are inherently “good guys” and those who want to kill them are “bad guys.” Still, I couldn’t help but pick up Eastwood’s sense that Kyle and other largely well-intentioned and mostly working- class US troops – “salt of the Earth” folks who can hardly be expected to have examined the long and tragic history of imperial war and counter-insurgency – were sent into Hell yet again (as in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan) on the orders or foolish and distant elites who didn’t really study their history either.  The troops who survive the poorly conceived mission return broken and battered to a society that is not morally or culturally equipped to “reintegrate” them.

Eastwood is absolutely right about all that, of course.  What’s missing above all, and this is  standard in mainstream US cinema and intellectual culture, is any remotely equivalent concern for – to take the title of an important book by John Tirman – The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s [criminal and imperial] Wars.(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Like the hit 1978 Vietnam War movie “The Deer Hunter” and numerous other Hollywood Vietnam portrayals, “American Sniper” reflects and reinforces (US of) Americans’ autistic and narcissistic sense that they are the leading and most authentic victims in the wars that Washington has undertaken in distant places like the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  The reality is that death, maiming, displacement, madness – suffering –is always imposed to a monumentally greater degree on the civilian populations of these criminally invaded lands.  As Tirman notes, “Between six and seven million people died in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq alone, the majority of them civilians.  And yet Americans devote little attention to these deaths.  Other countries, however, do pay attention,” something that helps explain “why there is so much anti-Americanism around the world…It is worth noting,” Tirman adds, “that ‘casualty aversion,’ a supposed result of the Vietnam War, has been mush discussed in academic and policy circles as a political factor in choosing intervention…but the casualties are only those of U.S. military personnel.  The ratio of those Americans killed to the dead of Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq is on the order of 1-100 (Korea), 1-40 (Vietnam), and 1-200 (Iraq.).”

Tirman rightly worries about this “absence of concern, the want of sympathy…so evident in Americans’ response to the human costs of war.”  One consequence of this “indifference or callousness” is that it “erodes U.S. standing” in the world.  Another is that “it permits more such [primarily civilian-killing] wars,” feeding further the vicious cycle of imperial violence and global alienation.

This – the issue of the far greater suffering experienced by the (in this case Muslim) Others – is where Eastwood’s latest movie comes up horribly short as “a cautionary tale about the perils of war.”

Paul Street’s latest book is The Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)



  1. avatar

    Paul Street February 5, 2015 5:13 pm  Reply

    But I want to add here a powerful reflection by Matthew Gosse of Concordia University, privately communicated and shared here with his permission: “To me it was less full-blown propaganda as it was a hokey and insincere melodrama punctuated with cartoonish action movie tropes. It wasn’t ‘Navy Seals,’ but it wasn’t made all that much better because of its Oscar-baiting elements.”

    “HOWEVER, it did serve to refresh the distortions of the American public’s collective memory (as many Hollywood films do). In this way it did deserve the charge of ‘propaganda.’”

    “In the film Kyle is depicted as being driven to enlist by the 1998 Embassy Bombings in Africa, giving as his reason ‘I want to kill terrorists.’ Not only is this not why he enlisted in real life, the manipulation of this creates somewhat of an anachronism. In 1998 the word ‘terrorist’ would not have been on the lips of some apolitical lunk like Kyle, certainly not because of a car bombing in Nairobi. The effect of the change is that it pits Kyle against al-Qaeda from day one.”

    “The most egregious distortion of the timeline relates to 9/11 and Iraq. Less than two and a half minutes after (shirtlessly, with his beefy arms around his girlfriend) watching the collapse of the Twin Towers, Chris Kyle is seen on his first tour of Iraq. In reality FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY DAYS passed between 9/11 and the first bombs on Iraq. 555 days of the Bush Administration slowly turning America’s attention from scattered Islamists forces to the entirely unrelated target of Iraq. Not even the slightest hint that any time whatsoever passed between. Eastwood claims that his ‘omission’ of politics makes this film passive or unpolitical, but the decision again serves the status quo.”

    “The men that American soldiers fought in killed in Iraq were almost all (90-96%) Iraqis, yet Eastwood erases almost all mention that the U.S. occupation was profoundly unpopular and that it had helped ignite and encourage a hideous civil war. Instead of reflecting this reality, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall take their cues from White House propaganda that suggested to the American public that they were fighting ‘al-Qaeda’ and ‘foreign fighters’ in Iraq, greatly exaggerating the presence of outsiders (not counting the Coalition Forces themselves). ”

    “The film gives us a briefing up front that focuses on Jordanian al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist al-Zarqawi (who in real life had to enter Iraq to fight the Americans but was later likely ratted out by al-Qaeda leadership). Later they assure us that the evil terrorist sniper Musafa is a Syrian, and then the evil man known as The Butcher (who drills the hands of children), is also Jordanian. There are some interactions with Iraqi civilians in the film, but they are depicted as victims of these outsiders, desperately in need of American intervention. Mustafa (and the Butcher) are portrayed as the lynchpins of the Iraqi resistance, artificially injecting into the film an attainable ‘victory’ denied to America in reality.”

    “Other distortions could be chalked up to ‘the compression of time’, but the decision to make Iraq in 2003 appear the same as Iraq in 2008 helped reinforce the idea that the occupation would have been smooth if not for the ‘terrorists’ turning the people against them. ”

    “His first kill is depicted as a young boy, an invention of the screenwriter that serves to acclimatize the audience to all the killing that follows. Kyle reflects on the kill with regret, muttering ‘that’s evil like I have never seen before,’ suggesting that ‘evil’ had pushed the innocent child to try to kill the Marines Kyle was protecting. Kyle’s buddy reassures him that he did what he had to do. After this exchange (and the sacrifice of innocence of the child corrupted by evil itself) there is nothing that Kyle can do to lose the audience. The other Iraqis who turn on the Americans are also depicted as pawns of the ‘foreign fighters’ / al_Qaeda terrorists, all with tell-tale wounds from the power drill of The Butcher. ”

    “The horrific door-to-door raids wherein American troops would kick in doors and terrorize entire families, zip-tying the wrists of any fighting age males and disappear them into the night to be tortured and abuse and humiliated in jail cells, are depicted as minimal disruptions of the Iraqi quotidian. In the film women huddle in a corner and cry a little and the men are given ample opportunity to negotiate with the American authorities, leading eventually to a calm conversation over tea. In reality, hundreds of Iraqis were shot dead during such raids. ”

    “Eastwood has claimed that the film is ‘anti-war.’ He seems to be under the impression that only an explicit defence of the rationale for the invasion of Iraq could be rightfully construed as ‘pro-war.’ He does not seem to realize that a defence of the institutions of war, the artificial isolation and disassociation from politics that create war, the wholesale adoption of the forms of rhetoric and propaganda of the state to explain the dynamics of the war, all constitute a film that is pro-war. His film is, at best, a soap opera with battle scenes. It is far from anti-war.”

    Gosse offers here I think a significant correction to my downplaying (in this essay) of this film’s role as war propaganda.

    • avatar

      Joe Emersberger February 6, 2015 12:00 am  

      Zero Dark Thirty was more directly and flagrantly pro-torturer than it was pro-torture. To be precise it was pro-US-torturer.. But if you depict torturers as heroes sacrificing on “our” behalf, than the distinction becomes very minor. I suspect the same thing is at play with American Sniper but will watch it at some point.

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