Countrymen and countrywomen, we have got to be smarter about this whole American Sniper thing.
Without question, the film has tapped into that ever-elusive cultural zeitgeist, and think pieces are hardly the only metric proving it. The film has a slew of Oscar nominations, and a $105.3 million long weekend opening, a January box-office record. Surrounding these successes is a lot of rancorous noise and debate, not just about the film itself, but what its’ box-office impact signifies for us as a nation and as a citizenry. Maybe people do care about Iraq and Afghanistan, and the stories emerging from those places, after all—or at least care for a certain type of story from those places.
Before and since its release, a lot of shrill, binary outrage had surrounded American Sniper. Some of it was due to its director Clint Eastwood, and his politics. Some of it was grounded in its subject—Chris Kyle (at least the Chris Kyle who presented himself publicly before Bradley Cooper sanitized him) was crude and unabashed about how many people he’d killed in Iraq, and what he thought of those people and their culture. And some of it was actually based on the film itself, which, in its pursuit of capturing the singularity of Kyle’s worldview, leaves a lot to be desired in terms of ambiguity and America’s dark, awful legacy in Iraq as a whole.
Pithy takes like the one posted to Twitter by actor Seth Rogen, who kinda/sorta compared the movie to Nazi propaganda, have added to the din.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the first “big” movie about a war that was politically divisive from the start, more than a decade ago, would splinter into fractiousness.
The 2003 debates about uranium and yellowcake seem like a long time ago, and yet it’s still either-or, red or blue, good or bad. (Or “badasses” or “pussies,” to use Kyle’s terminology.) It’s not just the movies, either—on a book tour in 2011, I was called a hippie and a warmonger, on sequential evenings, after reading from the same exact passage.
Modern war, both in reality and its chronicles, tends to be complex and jagged and dissonant. Yet too often, our collective interpretation of these wars feels stuck in a 1968 dorm room argument about Vietnam. We’re all to blame for that, whether we carried a gun in combat or not, whether we voted for war in the chambers of Congress or not, whether we even paid our taxes that fund the American war machine or not.
There’s also a side debate about the nature of soldiering that’s emerged since American Sniper’s release. Anthropologist Ken MacLeish put it succinctly, asking “Do civilians demand that soldiers feel guilt about their work?”
On one hand, Kyle’s own words in his memoir makes it easy, even inevitable, that he’d be labeled a “hate-filled killer,” as he was in the headline of a piece in The Guardian. Yellow-ribbon patriots insisting Kyle be viewed only through the hero prism are playing into an awful jingoistic caricature—democratic citizens owe their military both gratitude and skepticism. Giving individuals the right to execute violence on a society’s behalf is no small thing, and deserves scrutiny, whatever the cause.
And yet—the man’s job, his purpose, was to kill in the name of country, for his fellow service members. How can anyone with a rudimentary understanding of humanity’s enduring relationship to armed conflict be surprised that this would alter a human soul profoundly, to something recognizable only by others placed in similar situations?
Internet outrage is at its worst when it’s put into tidy containers and stripped of context, and there’s a lot of that out there now, nominally spewed at Kyle, but sometimes more broadly at anyone who has or would volunteer for military service. It’s a mode of argument best summed up as choosing sides in Star Wars. Rebels good. Stormtroopers bad. And everyone thinks they’re on the righteous side of the rebels gunning for the evil emperor.
The “Rebels,” of the Internet and otherwise, would be wise to remember that if they loathe Kyle, they’re at least partly responsible for creating him, by allowing the Iraq War to occur, then to continue. Like it or not, that’s how it works in a representative democracy—we are all culpable. Meanwhile, the loud, proud Stormtroopers of the homeland might want to stop their fantastical projections upon Kyle, and look inward to ask themselves why the man answered his nation’s call when they didn’t.
Interestingly, one prominent feature of post-9/11 America has actually receded during all this. The much-vaunted, omnipresent divide between the military and civilians swirls whenever the subjects of war and conflict intersect with American culture. That the 99% would find different camps post-American Sniper was to be expected—but a split within the military and vets’ community? That’s exactly what’s happened, though.
Over at The Guardian, Alex Horton made the case that American Sniper will further distort America’s understanding of contemporary warfare. Meanwhile, in Variety, my former boss Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, lauded it, and its potential for bringing popular awareness to our wars’ ravages. Both pieces (and others) have been propped up by a litany of talking heads and agendas, as evidence of “WHAT VETERANS REALLY THINK.” Who’s right, who’s wrong? Personally, I don’t care—I just think it’s great that vets are playing a prominent role in an important cultural debate, rather than being used as nameless, voiceless props. That’s progress, to my mind.
As for the film itself (#Hottake inbound!)—I found parts of American Sniper well done, and other parts of it silly. (Slowmo sniper bullet was … so … slow … mooooo.) It was overbearingly, and sometimes cringingly, American-centric. (There were, in fact, many Iraqi children in the country who weren’t children of insurgents or insurgents themselves.) Parts of it rang true or whatever, and parts of it didn’t, which is fine, because my Iraq was not every soldier’s Iraq and certainly not Kyle’s Iraq. And as troubling as the hero myth propagated by the film’s version of Kyle is, human beings need both heroes and myths. Frankly, anyone who can’t separate Kyle the man from Kyle the movie star shouldn’t be watching R-rated war dramas in the first place, because they’re fifth-graders.
Were he still alive, I wouldn’t have much in common with the real Kyle, philosophically or otherwise. His fabrications about punching out Jesse Ventura and sniping looters in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina reveal a man not totally at ease with himself. And I was deeply troubled by parts of his book, particularly some passages regarding Iraqi civilians.
All that said, I am damn glad Kyle wore the same flag on his shoulder overseas that I did, because he brought home men and women who probably wouldn’t have made it without him. He was a complicated man, even if that wasn’t always true of his worldview. That’s how I’m choosing to remember Chris Kyle, warts and all. And judging by the palpable, stone-cold silence at the closing sequence of American Sniper by a sold-out crowd in liberal, hipster Williamsburg over the weekend, I doubt I’m the only one. For that one theater at least, in that moment, polemics had been set aside.
A former U.S. Army cavalry officer, Matt Gallagher is the author of the Iraq memoir Kaboom and the novel Youngblood, forthcoming from Atria/Simon & Schuster.