Sniping Back At Knee Jerk Liberals

by Mark Hahn

“Extremism is so easy. You’ve got your position, and that’s it. It doesn’t take much thought. And when you go far enough to the right you meet the same idiots coming around from the left.” -Clint Eastwood

I was initially annoyed by Clint Eastwood’s new film, American Sniper, but now, after reading much of the overblown hate he is getting for it, I seem to be even more annoyed by the inflammatory knee jerk liberal response. No, I didn’t expect it to be a scathing and critical political critique of the war in Iraq. No, I didn’t expect it to be a movie critical of the military or their personnel. I expected it to be a middle of the road war movie by Clint Eastwood which is exactly what it is. Within this context, I think he did a decent job bringing some important questions and issues to the masses though – and at it’s core, it is a movie for the masses.

Obviously, this is not the movie most activist liberals want to see made, but that movie would also never be the successful movie for the masses that this one is. If you look back, how many Americans actually went out to see Armadillo (the critically acclaimed documentary on the war in Afghanistan)? I saw it. It was great. A lot greater than American Sniper, but last weekend, Americans flooded to the malls to see American Sniper. That’s why we’re all talking about it today.

So while I watched American Sniper, I thought about all the things that angered me about it – at a number of different levels, it feels fairly exploitive, but it’s meant to be a Hollywood blockbuster. What else would you expect? Then, after reading the growing number of scathing articles slamming the movie and Clint, I felt someone from the Left should stand up and give Clint some credit for what he did manage to insert into his carefully crafted “support the troops” war in Iraq movie (with his nod of support to PTSD sufferers – an aspect of war that Eastwood captures very effectively in a number of short, subtle and understated scenes). The movie is based on an autobiography by Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) and real events. Clint chose to work within these constraints.

Clint doesn’t try to spoon feed us any obvious dogma in the film, which is probably why the most militant liberals seem to hate it so much. I’m surprised that so far there doesn’t seem to be any Right Wingers taking similar offense to the subversive undertones in the film, but maybe Eastwood was too careful in how he included them or maybe they are just too subtle for the knee jerk conservatives to notice. People seem to respond to this movie without thinking about it very hard. This is too bad, because I think Eastwood does cautiously raise important questions in the movie. These are all larger questions than whether or not Kyle is the hero many people see him as or whether he was just another Texas redneck. An obvious question you are left with is, “What does ‘hero’ even mean in a misguided war like our war in Iraq anyway?”

He’s been heavily criticized for it, but Clint completely ignores the political aspects of the war. This makes sense to me. Most of the people I’ve talked to who have served have told me that when you’re in a war, that all the political talk-talk is meaningless to you. You just have to survive. This is probably similar to poor people not showing up to participate in elections that could clearly have an impact on their life – something that always confounds easy-chair liberals. When your immediate world is dominated by intense struggle and difficulties, you have to focus on them. These people rarely have the leisure time to sit back and reflect on the abstract bigger picture.

During an in depth conversation with an ex-military man about being deployed during the first Gulf War, I was told that once things ‘get real’ and you understand the scale of the danger that you’re in and the all-consuming horribleness of the war around you that everyone changes. Something inside snaps and pure instinct takes over. He said he arrived in Kuwait one week before the United States Army barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia were hit by a Scud missile. When they got the news of the deaths, everyone had to swallow it down inside and try to process their own fear, grief and mortality somehow – they all knew from that moment on that any minute could be their last. He said it suddenly all came down to: “doing your job,” fighting, fucking and shitting – all the while, hoping you’d make it out somehow. There wasn’t time for abstract or moral thoughts, just making it. I haven’t talked with any Vets about this movie yet, but from what I’ve been told, it seems that Clint does a decent job of capturing the immersive environment of war. In the movie, he then effectively contrasts this with our pampered disconnected lives back in the USA – this is often cited as one of the hardest things for Vets to come to terms with after they return.

In line with this, a powerful anti-war moment in Sniper is when Kyle tells his wife Taya (played by Sienna Miller), “People are dying and I’m going to the shopping mall.” This isn’t just an indictment of Kyle himself, but really an indictment of all Americans. We send our young people off to a war that we convince ourselves is justified and then our lives go on. We put little flags on our cars and drive to the shopping malls and drink lattes at Starbucks. Who in this country can say they didn’t look the other way and continue on with their lives while US soldiers were being killed in Iraq? We don’t have a real choice. We are here and they are there.

Yes, Chris Kyle was apparently an overly patriotic and aggressive Texas redneck, but most people in the military are there because of the opportunities they see – it is often the easiest way out of poverty. This country has really messed up priorities. The military is one of the few viable routes to bettering yourself when you don’t have a rich family to lean on.

I returned to college right before the first Gulf War started. During the first semester of the war, I lost numerous friends who had been going to college under GI Bill tuition benefits. These were just kids looking for a way to get ahead. They hadn’t expected to go to Iraq. They hadn’t expected to fight.They got caught up in the war machine. After they were gone, the rest of us went on with our studies — struggling with our finals and looking forward to better futures.

While not stated explicitly, Chris Kyle’s tragedy is that he buys into the idea of “American hero.” He doesn’t see the reality of what he is doing. He doesn’t see the big picture. He is just going from moment to moment doing what he thinks is right. It’s an instinct driven by pride and vengeance. He dehumanizes the Iraqi fighters because he sees Americans killed by them. The “Us vs. Them” instinct is built right into all of our human DNA.

When his Seal buddy, Marc Lee (Played by Luke Grimes) questions Kyle if he really thinks what they are doing is right, Kyle invokes a God, Country and Family line of justifications and says they’re just there killing, “bad guys.” Lee calls Kyle on the fact that he has never seen him read his Bible – questioning his faith. We also know that Kyle has deserted his family in order to fight in this war. The actions of his country are also questioned in the movie. The entirety of Kyle’s dogma of war is shattered in this one scene. Kyle is not acting out of faith while he is out killing Iraqis. The question of whether what the US is doing in Iraq is right is questioned and clearly, Kyle is not putting his family first. Just what is the meaning of God, Country and Family under these circumstances? Then to punctuate the tragic uselessness of this whole war and what is doing to everyone involved, Marc Lee is killed during a following misguided offensive. Eastwood destroys the basis of patriotic jingoism here that is based on the chant of “God, Country and Family.” If there is any uncertainty for the viewer about anti-war undertones, when Marc’s mother reads his last letter – which is highly critical of the war – over his coffin, it should be put to rest. You are being asked to question everything about this war in this movie.

Also, when Kyle says, “We’re just killing bad guys,” it’s hard to watch the American actions, even in the context of this movie, and not question who the bad guys are. It’s not a simple black or white question.

When Kyle is questioned about one of his kills and dismisses the Iraqi’s wife’s version (saying her husband was carrying a Karan and not an AK-47) Eastwood highlights just how little accountability there was in this war. A man was shot dead by Kyle and there was no investigation. While Eastwood doesn’t turn this scene into a preachy Lefty speech telling you what to think, just by including it, raises serious questions. I think the point of this movie is just to raise the questions, not spoon feed us the answers. It is up to us as a nation to answer these questions.

Later, when Chris crosses paths with his younger brother Jeff (played by Keir O’Donnell), when he is being redeployed in Iraq and his brother is leaving, we see that his younger brother is obviously suffering extreme PTSD from the hell that he had just lived through during his tour of duty. Chris tries giving his brother the same worthless pep talk that he had been giving himself all along, “We’re all proud of you. Dad’s proud of you. Your country is proud of you.” Jeff just looks in disbelief at how much Chris doesn’t ‘get it’ and then says, “Fuck this place!” Chris asks him to repeat it. “Fuck this place!” Jeff might just as well have said, “Fuck this war,” or even more generally, “Fuck war!” I wonder where all the liberal critics who paint this movie as being just a propaganda flick aimed at glorifying the US war sitting during this scene?

The issues surrounding this war are complicated. Even the idea of “supporting the troops” is complicated. One facebook friend of mine who has two sons that served in this war took issue with my criticism of the war because she mistook it as a condemnation of her sons. I was strongly against this war from day one, but blaming military personnel is in no way my intent. If one of my children decided to join the military, I would be behind them 100%. I would still be against war and if they were sent into action, but I would support them with every bit of my love for them and not sleep until they returned safe and sound. Everyone in the military is an individual. Very few are decorated heroes or “legends” like Chris Kyle. In a way, when Eastwood contrasts the focus on Chris Kyle as “legend” with his “nobody” little brother, it lends a sense of reality vs. fantasy to the movie. There is something completely unreal about Chris. If I had been drafted into any war when I was young and forced to serve, I’m sure I would be the one coming back much like Jeff Kyle – completely broken by the experience – and would not be like his “hero” brother. Fuck the war!

Probably the most effective sequence in the movie in terms of dismantling the image of America as savior and “good guy” comes when Kyle and a group of Marines invades an Iraqi’s home. He brutalized the occupants, threating one with death while yelling, “This is an evacuation zone, why are you still here?” The terrified man, trying to keep his young son safe, cries out, “This is my home!” Americans, as individualists pride their sense of home and property probably more than anything else. I couldn’t help thinking, what would Americans do if our country was occupied by an invading army and we were told to leave our homes. How many would actually let themselves be herded into compliance and how many would live up to the unofficial American slogan, “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands?”

Kyle, thinking he has both the power of God and Country on his side, convinces the man to help the Americans. He gives the man his solemn oath that if he helps the Americans that he will be protected. Chris gives him “his word.” That is supposed to mean a lot in Texas. Of course, Chris is unable to keep his word in this case. The man is forced to watch his young son brutally murdered in front of him just before being murdered himself. Kyle is helplessly pinned down on a rooftop at the time. How many times throughout history has a America made promises that it cannot keep or worse yet, never intended on keeping?

I thought it was effective was how on the surface, Eastwood shows the separation between soldier and Iraqi civilians. Kyle never sees them as actual people, but just enemies and “savages.” For me, this was effective because you go along watching it through Kyle’s eyes and then you are given brief glimpses of the Iraqis as being just other people. Throughout the whole movie, the enemy sniper Mustafa (played by Sammy Sheik) is portrayed as a soulless “savage,” or even a machine, but in the final scene, right when he leaves his wife for the last time, you see a moment of tenderness exchanged between them. This is where he lives and his real life exists, between the two of them.  He is just fighting the war that he is caught up in like everyone else, including Kyle. In this glance, while we don’t know anything more about Mustafa, we can see that he is human and has emotions just like any of us.

I think the main reason Eastwood is getting so much flak for this movie is because it is so middle of the road. Everyone can wish that it tipped more clearly toward their own personal viewpoint or was more decisive in its message, but it isn’t.  It was certainly a huge letdown for me, even though I went in with pretty low expectations, but instead of attacking Eastwood for it, in the larger picture, I think it is better to use this movie as a springboard for opening up discussions of what is wrong with this country’s priorities and our misguided acceptance of war. Legends are just messed up stories that corrupt how people perceive the things around them and lead them into doing things they never should have done.

This movie is a tragedy plain and simple.

Since it is his story, I’ll finish up with (a highly selective) quote from the real Chris Kyle:

“War is hell. Hollywood fantasizes about it and makes it look good… war sucks.” -Chris Kyle