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)