by Kathleen Goodwin
In the past few weeks I have heard and read a number of impassioned responses to Clint Eastwood's “American Sniper”, a film based on the memoir of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL with the highest number of confirmed sniper kills in U.S. history. A common assertion that amateur and professional reviewers are arguing is if the film glorifies an unjust war. This focus of the debate is puzzling because I believe that few Americans are clinging to the notion that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade and a half have been morally justified, or even logical. Yet, the “War on Terror” continues to be divisive—one of the points of tension is the way most civilians view the armed forces who fought and continue to fight in the name of American interests overseas. What the U.S. still has the ability to constructively consider is how to reconcile this war and the men and women who are fighting it with an American society that is sharply divided in its opinions. This is largely because the armed forces make up such a small percentage of the population that the majority of Americans are far enough removed to think of them in absolute terms, rather than as actual people. As James Fallows writes in his piece in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, “Among older Baby Boomers, those born before 1955, at least three-quarters have had an immediate family member—sibling, parent, spouse, child—who served in uniform. Of Americans born since 1980, the Millennials, about one in three is closely related to anyone with military experience.” This is a barrier that it is necessary to address before Americans can intelligently debate the role the U.S. will have in Iraq and Syria in the coming months, specifically how American forces should be engaging with the Islamic State, or any other extremist groups, from the air or on the ground.
The perceived “glorification” of Chris Kyle that results from “American Sniper” is the crux of the matter. I've observed that many Americans seem to vocalize opinions that fall on opposite sides of a spectrum when it comes to the armed forces. They tend to either praise U.S. troops as unequivocal heroes, or they equate the damages of an unjust war with the military as a whole and summarily disapprove. These views have become apparent in a number of the incendiary articles that have emerged during the ramp up to the Oscars, for which “American Sniper” is nominated in six categories. It is a perfect media storm—few institutions engage the American public like the Academy Awards while few things appear to rankle both staunch liberals and conservatives more than the U.S. military. It is yet another fault line along which Americans seem incapable of compromise and nuance. What I take issue with is the extremism of both sets of views— members of the U.S. armed forces are worthy of the respect of the American people for their willingness to protect our nation, but they should not be comprehensively lionized or vilified for their part in a conflict that was authorized by a president that American voters elected and entrusted with the role of Commander and Chief.
I saw “American Sniper” a few weeks after finishing Ben Fountain's 2012 National Book Award nominee, “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk”, a fictional account of the eight members of an army “squad” whose battle with Iraqi insurgents was caught by an embedded Fox News camera crew and broadcast across America. The book covers a single day in the “victory tour” of “Bravo squad” before they are unceremoniously shipped back to Iraq to complete their combat tour. The soldiers are being honored during halftime at a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving day game while simultaneously being courted by a Hollywood veteran, with at least one Oscar on his mantle, who has latched on to the squad in an attempt to set up a movie deal before they redeploy. The deal falls through for a variety of reasons including an explanation that is repeated throughout the novel- that movies about the war haven't been popular. This assertion seems counterintuitive considering the media circus and embarrassingly ardent admiration Bravo receives for their bravery in Iraq. Yet, the America that Bravo encounters, an entity that feels entirely foreign to them despite being only months removed from it, is quick to applaud the soldiers but has very little interest in engaging with the reality of the war itself. As Fallows writes, Americans have a “reverent but disengaged attitude toward the military—we love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them…”
Billy Lynn, the protagonist and youngest member of the squad, at 19, reflects:
“Why make a movie anyway? It seems pointless to go to all that trouble when the original is floating out there for all to see, easily available online…Would a more polished product serve better, one wonders—throw in some story arc, a good dose of character development, artful lighting, and multiple camera angles, plus a soundtrack to tee up the emotive cues. Nothing looks so real as a fake, apparently…”
“American Sniper” is precisely the kind of movie that would have been made about the heroism of the fictional Bravo squad. Hollywood diminishes the complicated story of Chris Kyle's life into a simplified battle of good versus evil—the film establishes Kyle as a beer-drinking American cowboy with a penchant for protecting little brothers and sad, beautiful women at bars. Kyle transitions seamlessly into a sniper singularly committed to protecting the lives of American soldiers, in the name of protecting Americans at home.
The film and Kyle himself do not explore the muddled political motivations that necessitated Kyle's four tours, a point fueling much of the criticism. As Matt Taibbi Rolling Stone writes, “We end up talking about Chris Kyle and his dilemmas, and not about the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain who put Kyle and his high-powered rifle on rooftops in Iraq and asked him to shoot women and children.” While I do find it troubling that Hollywood films tend to distil narratives into tales of good guys triumphing over villains, a trap that “American Sniper” certainly falls into, I counter that the film is important precisely because it explores Kyle's pre and post active duty life and personal dilemmas in Iraq. By presenting Kyle as a multi-dimensional man, as much as a hero, the average civilian viewer has at least some sense of nuance about the layered moral ambiguities of war.
Kyle was likely more flawed than he was portrayed in the film, a point that many critics are quick to point out as they contrast that more racist and violent quotes from his memoir with the character Bradley Cooper played. This strikes me as counter-productive to an extent. With “American Sniper” I see a chance for the American public to reflect on an important aspect of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the return of combat veterans to a society that doesn't support the wars, doesn't fully understand the role the U.S. military plays, and has very little emotional investment in the lives of the service men and women who have been fighting on their behalf. Eastwood's film touches on this struggle with Kyle's bewilderment between tours at returning to an oblivious and materialistic country where “There's a war going on, no one's even talking about it, and I'm heading to the mall.” But while the civilian audience has the chance to witness Kyle's auditory flashbacks to Iraq and the difficulty of the emotional and practical adjustments to American life after the trauma and exhilaration of combat, it avoids fully engaging with this crucial issue and Kyle's tragic death by a fellow veteran he was attempting to help rehabilitate.
Ultimately, I see validity in the arguments of both those who criticize and those who admire “American Sniper”. Eastwood had an obvious incentive to create a mainstream film that serves its primary purpose as entertainment rather than social commentary. However, I think its popularity and award nominations are an opportunity to consider the paradox inherent in modern American society— where the men and women who risk the most to protect the U.S. are divorced from mainstream life. With “American Sniper”, there is a catalyst for debate and reflection on this issue that will hopefully lead to tangible improvements in the divide between soldier and civilian.