Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the last couple of weeks you’ve no doubt heard about the box office success of “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, based on the biography of the late Navy Seal Chris Kyle. At last count, the war flick raked in $107 million over the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, breaking records for a movie about a war that most Americans would rather not think too much about. There’s already Oscar buzz surrounding actor Bradley Cooper’s gritty portrayal of the film’s title character.
For those unfamiliar with the actual story, there are two basic ways to watch the movie. The first is naively – that is, accepting the narrative Eastwood lays out with little in the way of critical assessment or knowledge of the larger context in which the film takes place. In this type of viewing, the Chris Kyle Eastwood depicts comes across as something approaching a wronged hero – a man who abided by the rules of the macho martial virtues America is supposed to worship only to find that his country, while appreciative, doesn’t know how to support their veterans beyond parades and platitudes. (This theme is central to Eastwood’s 2006 war movie, “Flags of Our Fathers,” and most American war movies depicting conflict from the Vietnam War era forward.)
The message of this naïve viewing is that there is nothing inherently wrong with the values motivating the solider during wartime, or indeed with the broader patriotic virtues of faith, loyalty, love of God and country, and the desire to protect and defend one’s own from harm. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. From the first shots of the film we see such values being instilled in the young Kyle who, in one scene, is lectured by his father that there are three types of people in the world: wolves, sheep and the sheepdogs who protect the sheep from the wolves. By choosing to become a SEAL, then, Kyle seemingly chooses the life of the sheepdog and so sets down the path that would eventually lead him to Iraq and fame as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.
This spin implies that soldiers like Kyle are the true repositories of American virtue, and the larger country and civilian population they serve are corrupt and unfaithful — something alluded to early on in the movie when a pre-military Kyle finds his girlfriend and a male paramour in flagrante delicto after he was out practicing the manly arts of rodeo. Par for the course, then, which makes the movie little more than a well-done genre cliché.
Yet a more sophisticated viewing of “American Sniper” suggests something precisely the opposite. It leaves open the possibility that Eastwood may have actually made something quite different than what he intended – an American war movie that is not just anti-war, but anti-warrior, too.
Sniping from behind the fourth wall
Or, at least, anti the warrior ethos that motivates men like Chris Kyle to shelve reason and nuance and fight and die in places like Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad’s Sadr City. To see this, consider that an informed viewer of “American Sniper” is much more aware of the situation Kyle and his fellow SEALs find themselves in than the in-movie characters. Further, an informed viewer is also aware that the real Kyle is not a trustworthy narrator and has, in the real world, been found to be a fabricator of tall tales. Benefitting from this knowledge and the hindsight of history, the non-naïve viewer thus sees the war and the protagonist’s role in it for what they really are: a hopelessly mistaken effort to root out bad people from deeply troubled places that have been made much worse off by the American invasion.
Yet even here things are not so black and white. The brutality of the “bad” insurgents that Eastwood depicts can merely be shrugged off as what war is, no more and no less, and something to be expected in such situations in which a superior force like the U.S. military invades and occupies a much smaller and weaker country. The reality here is that in the case of Iraq it is we who are the aggressors, not the Iraqis. Furthermore, the informed viewer knows full well that our own brutality takes place well off screen in the form of torture camps at places like Abu Ghraib, the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, and various CIA-run black sites around the world. Bad, like good, is here, as everywhere, a matter of knowledge and perspective.
However, the enemy Kyle and his brother SEALs are fighting is never made very clear. The film tries to paint the invasion as coming in reaction to the 9/11 attacks, but the informed viewer by now knows the truth: There was, in fact, no connection between Saddam Hussein — a secular dictator — and the people who attacked America on that fateful day in 2001. Kyle and his friends might think so, and the film paints that as their point of view, but it simply is not the case. So from the very outset the legend Kyle builds for himself in Iraq as a fearsome warrior protector is mostly an exercise in ironic futility, a valiant display of prowess against what ultimately proves to be the wrong group of people — people who are, in fact, the victims of aggression, not the perpetrators of it. Kyle, it turns out, is the wolf, not the sheepdog.
Even the final shootout in the movie is something of a comedy of strategic error, as the wall being built by the engineers Kyle and his team are sent to protect is, in reality, being erected in order to separate Baghdad’s warring Sunni and Shiite factions, who, through U.S. mismanagement of the war and occupation, have become engaged in a bloody sectarian civil war. The understanding that Kyle has going into that final battle is that our engineers are being picked off by the mysterious Mustafa — an enemy sniper that has been Kyle’s bête noire since his first tour of duty in Fallujah early on in the war.
That seems unlikely, however, given that it is the Shiites, not the Sunnis, who are giving the engineers problems — seemingly an important distinction, considering Mustafa is allegedly Syrian. Tellingly, however, the officer in charge of the briefing tells Kyle and his team to believe that the enemy is, in fact, Mustafa “if that’s what he needs to do” in order to get the job done — a statement that effectively echoes the get-it-done make-believe that allows them to fight in Iraq in the first place. In the ensuing fight we are led to believe that the enemy sniper Kyle engages is in fact Mustafa, and killing him gives Kyle the closure he needs to finally go back home and return to civilian life.
Black and white and grey all over
“American Sniper” author Chris Kyle poses for this 2012 file photo. Photo: Paul Moseley/AP
Yet one must wonder if maybe this isn’t just self-deception and self-congratulation. Mustafa may be dead at this point, but there are others where he came from. And by the time Kyle finally goes home, the pointless war is lost. Not that Kyle would ever admit as such, though. He is firmly convinced of the justness of America’s cause throughout the film, despite hints by Eastwood that perhaps this should not really be his opinion. Indeed, his own brother points to this when Kyle encounters him, now a Marine serving in Iraq, before flying off with a colonel to survey the battlefield for an upcoming SEAL mission. After hugging his brother Kyle frowns when his sibling says, rather pointedly, “Fuck this place” – a feeling that must by then have been felt by the vast majority of Americans serving there.
Doubt even creeps into the ranks of Kyle’s own SEAL team. After one of them dies in combat, one of the dead SEAL’s letters home is read at his funeral, which lets slip the slain sailor’s feelings about the war. Instead of being completely convinced that they were fighting the good fight, the SEAL’s letter reveals the unmentionable: The war in Iraq was being fought for nothing, or, worse, for the wrong reasons and to the benefit of no one. To Kyle this is blasphemy, and he later explains to his wife, with whom he has an increasingly strained relationship due to the stress of constant combat deployments, that this Doubting Thomas was killed because of his loss of faith in the mission, not bad luck or poor leadership.
Yet the informed viewer by now can’t help but see this line of thinking as anything but a flimsy defense mechanism for a man psychologically damaged by the killing he is asked to do again and again. At this point in the movie we see that Kyle’s SEAL missions had devolved into little more than tit-for-tat revenge raids carried out against insurgents in retaliation for injuries and deaths suffered at their hands. In a particularly memorable scene one of Kyle’s comrades is killed and the team immediately goes back out for payback, only to suffer another terrible casualty as a result. And what’s more, it’s all for apparently very little purpose beyond the emotional need for retribution. It’s as fine a metaphor for the entire failed war as could possibly be imagined.
Citizen virtue versus warrior culture
All this subtly begins to point at something that Eastwood may or may not have intended to highlight, but which emerges nonetheless from the tale on screen – that what is ultimately wrong here in this war gone off the rails is not the country or the people that have asked Kyle to serve, but the values that Kyle and the other true believers in it bring to the fight as it goes on. Remember, after all, that their zeal is reinforcing what is itself a mistake: They are fighting the wrong enemy, in the wrong place, in what turns out to be the gravest foreign policy disaster in more than a generation.
After all, if it were not for Kyle’s unstinting loyalty to the mission and his unquestioning belief, instilled in him since childhood, that he is a protector – a sheepdog, as his father put it – he would not have found himself serving four tours in Iraq. He could have quit, honorably, after his first tour of duty and returned home to his family, as his wife implored him to do, but instead he chose to continue on out of a misplaced, or perhaps self-serving, sense of duty. He and his family suffer accordingly, as do the horrifically maimed veterans Kyle works with after he comes home from Iraq. But Kyle cannot prevent himself from seeing his actions and the war itself in anything other than the best possible light..
Although a sense of duty may be honorable, for Eastwood’s Chris Kyle it actually becomes little more than an escape mechanism that allows him to duck the big questions about both the war and his participation in it. Why does he fight? Because he does. Who does he fight? Whoever his country tells him to. Was it all worth it? Yes, because to answer otherwise would make a mockery of what Kyle devoted his life to.
While Eastwood’s Kyle gets to access this psychological bolt hole whenever the on-screen emotions get difficult, the informed viewer is forced to confront them rather more directly due to our knowledge of how the story ends. From our perspective, is what Kyle did worthwhile?
Answering that question honestly necessarily forces us to reconsider the broader utility of those virtues that Kyle represents. A Kyle who questioned, for instance, would not have been so easily manipulated by nationalistic propaganda. A Kyle less devoted to the martial virtues would have seen much more quickly that the killing he was being forced to do had no strategic purpose and so was immoral. A Kyle less enslaved to the idea of being a sheepdog would, paradoxically, have been much more likely to see the wolves in sheep’s clothing that were using his country’s flag as cover for a raid on the hen house. Kyle’s virtues, in other words, led to complete disaster when adopted by the nation as a whole after 9/11, suggesting that what makes a good warrior and a soldier do not, in the end, make for a good citizen, a responsible citizenry or a healthy democracy.
“American Sniper” thus presents the viewer with a reflection of what one brings to the film. There is certainly enough in the film for the unsophisticated to just see a simple war movie featuring good guys and bad guys tied together via a heavy dose of patriotic schmaltz, but beneath the cowboys-and-Indians routine lies a more sophisticated picture that poses deeper questions about war, masculinity and citizenship. True, they are not directly articulated nor does Eastwood’s Kyle, like the real one, ever hint that his answers to them are anything other than correct, but the viewer necessarily sits beyond the fourth wall and views Kyle’s war from an advantaged position. Given that perspective, Kyle’s answers seem not just small and uncompelling, but extremely dangerous.