I grew up 10 miles from Quantico Marine base in Stafford, Virginia. The Protestant church my family attended counted several veterans among its membership, and a number of acquaintances in our community had served actively as well. So, I am more than a little familiar with the cultural values that Navy SEAL Chris Kyle‘s parents raised him to embody in American Sniper, a critically-heralded film that has incited much controversy over what Rolling Stone describes as a “Hollywoodian one-note fairy tale set in the middle of the insane moral morass.”
Opponents of the film say it glorifies the devastation of war, specifically in the context of the Iraqi War, which we know in retrospect was waged upon groundless claims and fraught with hidden agendas. Some, like Dennis Jett who writes for New Republic, say the movie irresponsibly celebrates Kyle as a hero when his autobiography admits that he found pleasure in killing Iraqis and regretted having not killed more.
Though I am in the camp that condemns war in most cases, and certainly when it is as convoluted as the Iraqi War, I noticed that many of those who are outspoken against American Sniper (including Mr. Jett) hadn’t even seen it. I wanted to judge the film for myself, so last night I did. What I saw was a film that illustrates real and prevalent perspectives of war as much as it reduces war to a pathetically simple bifurcation of good versus evil.
An early scene in the movie depicts young Chris at the dinner table with his family. His younger brother had been beaten up by a bully, and the boys’ father takes the scenario as an opportunity to teach them a life lesson.
“There are three types of people in the world,” he says. “Sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe evil doesn’t exist in the world. They are the sheep.”
The boy Chris listens intently as his father describes wolves as the evil people in society who lay in wait to destroy the sheep. But, good for them, there are also sheepdogs whose duty is to sniff out evil so that they may alert and protect the flock. Chris and his brother, their father tells them, are sheepdogs.
That rudimentary assessment of humankind sculpts Chris’s worldview and, years later, his moral praxis as a Navy SEAL deployed to Iraq.
I have not read Chris Kyle’s autobiography, and the point of this review is not to determine how well American Sniper portrays his actual character and intentions. However, Bradley Cooper’s on-screen depiction of the man who owns the distinction of “deadliest sniper in U.S. military history” is one that shows firm commitment to his Biblical faith and fierce devotion to his country and family. I’ve witnessed that kind of absolute and unquestioning loyalty firsthand, particularly in rural and conservative circles that have had limited exposure to foreign belief systems or credible instruction in world politics. They are often comprised of individuals whose present decisions are feverishly influenced by fear of future possibilities, untempered by any rational approach to risk management or historical awareness. They are often some of the best-intentioned, most-genuine people, with one prevailing flaw:
they don’t know what they don’t know,
and they don’t know that they don’t know it.
Granted, it takes a broad vantage and meticulous study to grasp the murky nuances of most international conflicts, a complex territory that few outside of academia have the resources to investigate. By the time those disputes trickle down to battlefield frontlines, it is too late for soldiers from either side to ponder the validity of the war they are fighting. By then, the actors are not sovereign nations with conflicting ideologies and economic interests; rather, they are employed individuals hired to complete a mission, confronted with adrenaline-inducing physical threats from an opposing force. There is no room for dissenting opinion. By then, lives are at stake.
Kyle meets his obligations as a sniper with single-minded focus. He is a fortress of conviction in his unit, particularly in comparison to other soldiers who begin to doubt the integrity of the war. One who goes by Mark questions what the point of it all is.
“There’s evil here,” Kyle states.
“There’s evil everywhere,” Mark counters, to which Kyle reminds him of the families and citizens counting on them back home.
“We’re protecting more than just this dirt.”
Indeed, Iraqi civilians are treated as little more than dirt by Kyle and his fellow troops. Their houses are thoughtlessly invaded with shouts of “I don’t give a fuck if it’s your home — this is a war zone!” and their lives are given scant regard apart from the clues they can provide to Al-Qaeda members’ whereabouts. The film justifies this modus operandi inasmuch as it tells the story from the limited perspective of a single protagonist, which is pretty standard in literature and drama. Further, it is how we as individuals see the world when viewed through the lens of our own egos.
As a collective audience, we know that in any story of life, love or war there are at least two sides. However, this movie’s purpose was to tell that of Chris Kyle, a man who did his job and did it well. His job? To indiscriminately kill anyone who matched the description his superiors dictated to him. For his skillful and courageous fulfillment of that objective, in the eyes of his family, comrades, and the political office that sent him to war, he is indeed and will always be a hero.
Those of us with more compassion for humanity and deeper understanding of moral relativism may be tempted to villainize Kyle for the atrocities of war he represents and the political injustices perpetrated by the country he served. However, in doing that we succumb to the same extremism of thought that characterizes war in the first place.
In villainizing Kyle for the atrocities of war he represents […] we succumb to the same extremism of thought that characterizes war in the first place.
What Kyle represented to me, more than any grand debate for or against war, was a culture and mindset that is common to many Americans. It is a culture of men looking for belonging, respect, and purpose. It is a mindset that views the world in absolute terms of good versus evil, that treats their gun as family, and stands ready to defend their property and values at any cost.
And there are great costs, which the film doesn’t ignore. In American Sniper we see Kyle’s relationship with his wife strained by his absence. We see him deprived of opportunities to be present in his kids’ lives while fighting overseas. We see him traumatized after watching his comrades shot before his eyes. For him and thousands, hundreds of thousands — nay, millions of soldiers like him throughout history, the horror of armed combat has offered few consolation prizes beyond the mental hope that their sacrifice was for a greater good, and that they will be remembered for their roles as “sheepdogs.”
But how do you tell a wolf from a sheep? Can you be a bad guy if you’re on the hero’s team, or a hero if you fight for bad guys? Kyle never thought to ask his father these questions in the movie. Doing so could have saved his life, because in the end it wasn’t an Al-Qaeda extremist or Iraqi “savage” who killed him; it was one of his fellow veterans struggling with PTSD.
Acknowledging the sacrifice of individual soldiers does not automatically glorify the political systems that create war, nor does villainizing the actions of individual soldiers necessarily condemn it. American Sniper reminded me of that, and noticing that difference can help the rest of us better communicate our critique of warfare while still empathizing with the soldiers who are also victims of its mental and physical carnage. We who have been privileged with a liberal education and open mind may favor a heart of diplomacy, but for others the world can indeed look like a dangerous place.
Especially when it is viewed through the crosshairs of a rifle scope.