Warning: This post includes spoilers
Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle had four tours of military service during the Iraq War. Alleged to have been the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, he had 160 confirmed kills during the war. Kyle took pride in his service and believed he was fighting for America’s safety and freedom. In his 2012 book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Kyle minced no words when justifying these kills, arguing that “I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. Savage, despicable, evil – that’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy savages.” The book was a success, and plans were eventually made to turn it into a film. Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of American Sniper–which is also called American Sniper–was released in January 2015 to much critical acclaim, but also a healthy dose of vocal criticism from various quarters. In this post I will address praises and criticisms of this film while also sharing my own reflections on American Sniper.
American Sniper claims to tell the story of Chris Kyle’s life and wartime experiences rather than providing a larger contextual framework for interpreting the Iraq War and the War on Terror. This narrow focus is simultaneously the film’s strongest and weakest point. On the one hand, viewers gain insights into one serviceman’s unique perspective and extraordinary experiences in a war that the vast majority of U.S. citizens never witnessed firsthand. We learn of Kyle’s Texas upbringing, his marriage and family life, his decision to join the U.S. military in 1999 following several al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa and Asia, and the horror he and his wife felt on the morning of September 11, 2001. Especially with the latter moment, many of us old enough to remember that day will recall our own shock, horror, and sadness at watching the World Trace Center Towers fall to the ground.
On the other hand, Chris Kyle’s wartime experiences in American Sniper are remarkably obtuse and two-dimensional. Because the film focuses exclusively on Kyle, the narrative rarely evolves or advances beyond his limited memories and experiences. For example, the film seamlessly transitions from footage of the World Trade Center falling to Kyle on the ground in Iraq, falsely implying that the Iraq war was a response to the September 11 attacks. There is no George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Saddam Hussein, United Nations, “Mission Accomplished,” Iraq coalition forces or government, Halliburton, or “Weapons of Mass Destruction” to speak of. There are no politics in American Sniper, which is itself a political act. The only active agent of leadership in the film is Kyle himself, pushing his sometimes reluctant troops and nation forward even when doubts about the war effort increase. American Sniper depicts a good versus evil battle for civilization with a self-described “sheepdog” fighting evil in a fallen, sinful world where too many “sheep” naively believe that evil doesn’t exist.
At first American Sniper comes off as too simplistic and eager to bind up a messy, complex war with a simple story of patriotism and sacrifice. The left-leaning website Vox has three separate reviews of the film here, here, and here, all of which criticize American Sniper for distorting the Iraq War and suggesting that because the men and women who fought over there were good soldiers, their cause must have been good too. A.O. Scott’s New York Times review is more positive, but he also criticizes the film for its absence of politics and suggests that Clint Eastwood “engages in his share of mythmaking” throughout. Libertarian-anarchist Noam Chomsky also gets in on the action, suggesting that the movie’s “sniper mentality” ignores “what is most clearly the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern history, if not ever . . . which is officially aimed at murdering people who are suspected of maybe someday planning to harm us.” Beyond Kyle himself, American Sniper is an indictment of the wrongness of the War on Terror, according to Chomsky, “because we’re all tarred by the same brush insofar as we tolerate or keep silent about official policy.” Meanwhile, the right-leaning National Review also acknowledges the simplistic nature of the film, but actively celebrates this simplicity: “American Sniper broke box-office records because it dared to be an old-fashioned movie about a modern hero, about good and evil, about an American war hero” who deserves the nation’s “reverence.”
I believe each of these film reviews provide important insights on how we should interpret American Sniper. That said, I think all of these reviews miss the forest for the trees.
At its core, American Sniper is fundamentally an anti-war film. Sure, there is a select minority that will bask in the violence of this film and view it as vindication for the Iraq war and continued violence against Muslims. Still more will leave the film embracing the reverential hero-complex that the National Review gushes about while never thinking about the context of the war itself. But make no mistake about it: American Sniper is a cautionary tale about war and its mental and physical consequences. Indications of Kyle’s mental toll and profound alienation from civilian society become more prevalent as the film progresses. Whereas Kyle speaks during his early enlistment about fighting “for the greatest country in the world,” his justification for future tours of duty are instead cloaked in the rhetoric of fighting for the soldiers in his unit. One time between tours when he expresses a desire to support his country to his wife, she instantly rebukes him, knowing that this claim is hollow and that his primary justification for leaving is to support his soldiers, even at the cost of abandoning his family for extended periods of time. In this sense American Sniper challenges us to consider the merits of whether or not the ideology of “supporting my fellow soldiers” alone is enough of a justification for leaving behind parents, spouses, and children for a controversial battlefield, sometimes permanently. It also shows us that soldiers enlist in the military for a wide range of reasons that go beyond political philosophy or patriotic sentiment.
The film also challenges us to think more critically about “the American way,” which in itself is a contradictory vision. We value strong, rugged individuals who take charge of tough situations, fight for good causes like “freedom” and “liberty,” and who lead by the example of their good deeds and strong words. At the same time, however, we also revere the U.S. military’s preaching of obedience to authority, nation, and flag – a selflessness that casts aside individual vision in favor of national interest. And if you watch close enough, you will notice moments in the film when Kyle’s individualism gets in the way of his desire to support his fellow soldiers and country. Take, for example, his killing of the fictionalized Syrian sniper “Mustafa.” Kyle chooses to fire on Mustafa even though his superiors tell him not to, and his decision to shoot blows his unit’s cover, puts other soldiers’ lives in danger, and ultimately ruins the entire operation. Kyle and most of troops get out of the operation alive, but I came away from this scene questioning Kyle’s individual decision to shoot. For all his braggadocio about killing bad guys and not regretting anything from the Iraq war, American Sniper shows Chris Kyle as a deeply troubled man alienated in both time and space, stuck in a place between the past and the present, between individual agenda and national pride, between war and peace, between the “home” of the Iraq battlefield and the “home” of his Texas house and family.
American Sniper is an interpretive depiction of one man’s experiences in Iraq. Any complex topic like the Iraq War necessarily calls for extended and deeper reflection beyond American Sniper through the use of films, literature, and scholarship. If we stop our analysis of Iraq with American Sniper and move on with our lives without thinking about this devastating war again, we’ve missed the point of the film. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and American Sniper is merely a sum of that whole narrative of the War on Terror.
One final point about Kyle’s use of the word “savage” to describe Iraqis:
As many of us know, the United States during the nineteenth century was marked by rapid territorial expansion and settlement to the west. As white settlers moved west, they faced hostile Indians who resented this oftentimes illegal encroachment on their lands. Sometimes these resentments boiled over into violence against settlers, including scalping and murder. Eastern newspapers picked up these stories and spun them to portray Indians as “savages” who mercilessly killed men, women, and children seeking a better life for themselves out west. “Savages” were portrayed as subhuman, inferior, and ignorant people unfit for citizenship in a civilized democracy. These narratives, however, rarely explored deeper questions about why these white settlers felt they had the right to move into these lands in the first place or how civilized it was to treat Indians as inferior beings unworthy of the land they lived on. I don’t propose to connect that narrative to American Sniper, but we should remember the fact that Kyle’s use of the word “savage” was deliberate and carried a meaning similar to its nineteenth century usage. Ultimately, American Sniper shows us that the line between civilized thought and savagery is often blurry.