Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Quiet American

Steven Johnston
is author of American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics, forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

American Sniper has racked up $500 million in global receipts, including over $100 million overseas. It was nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor, and it won for best sound editing. American Sniper has also generated impassioned debate to match its half a billion dollar sales. An article from The Guardian is titled, “The real American sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?The New Republic published a piece that stated, “The Real ‘American Sniper’ Had No Remorse About the Iraqis He Killed.” Salon disclosed what it called “7 heinous lies ‘American Sniper’ is telling America.” These responses appear mild by comparison to many other reviews found on the Internet. The film is not without its admirers, of course. A.O. Scott in The New York Times praises much about the film (it is almost a great movie), though he also expresses serious reservations—which he doesn’t care to develop or emphasize. Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post argues that the divergent reactions the film has engendered testify to its quality as a film.

What made American Sniper the highest grossing film of 2014 as well as the highest grossing war movie ever made, surpassing Steven Spielberg’s romantic war porn epic Saving Private Ryan? Many Americans love to affix yellow ribbons to their cars and hang flags from their houses; the same faux sacrificial gesture leads them to buy movie tickets to support their troops. But Eastwood did something American audiences desperately wanted in a contemporary war film of a violent unstable world they do not understand and cannot abide. He enacted an America that takes for granted its essential, unquestioned goodness. This is not to deny that Eastwood folds a bit of moral nuance into the film, especially through Chris Kyle’s cinematic double (Bradley Cooper). Eastwood’s departures from Kyle’s memoir, a fairly basic Hollywood whitewashing, were necessary to make the idea of a movie based on Kyle’s service palatable. No one wants to watch a war movie about a racist psychopath. Yet Eastwood’s introduction of minimal moral complexity serves a much greater political master, American thoughtlessness, which is one key to the maintenance of America’s national self-conception, its way of life, and self-assigned role in the world.

The film opens with Kyle on the roof of a building in an Iraqi city providing protection for American troops on the streets below. In a post-apocalyptic landscape, what appear to be a mother and son emerge from a building in the path of slowly advancing American forces. She looks suspicious to Kyle and he is right. She is concealing a grenade which she hands to her son who then makes a move toward Kyle’s comrades. He has no hope of success whether or not Kyle is watching. Nevertheless, Kyle drops him. The mother picks up the grenade and Kyle drops her, too. These kills impress Kyle’s bodyguard, but not Kyle. He wants no plaudits for what he’s just done. This is his duty, his profession. He’s supposed to be good at it. Circumstances alone dictate how his skills will be deployed. Kyle’s modesty, moreover, enables American audiences to take undue pride in what he does. Throughout the film, Kyle merely tolerates the praise that he generates and the reputation he earns. His nickname, the Legend, does not seem to please him very much. Again, the more he seems unimpressed, the more an American audience will insist that he is a true American hero. He saves American lives. No criticism can trump that brute fact. Of course, German snipers protected their own soldiers during World War II in the foreign cities the Wehrmacht invaded and conquered and they don’t tend to be subjects of admiration, as far as I know.

Yet American Sniper has touched a (raw) nerve in American audiences. We are effectively forced to see Iraq through Chris Kyle’s apparent God’s-eye view. Without warning we find ourselves thrown onto a rooftop looking through his sniper scope. The spatially superior position mimics and reinforces the moral superiority we (Americans) feel. The scope also induces a sense of claustrophobia. This is unlike Apocalypse Now, which folds dissonance into the operatic assault that launches the film when the eye of the helicopters joined to Wagner’s “Die Walküre” is punctuated by another view of the villagers as the attack is about to commence. Coppola disconcerts: are we appalled by a thrilling attack or thrilled by an appalling attack?  In American Sniper the world seen through the rifle scope is reduced to a simple matter of life or death, where violence must be employed for good (for life, for American life). A split second before Kyle registers his first kill shot, Eastwood pauses to offer Chris’s backstory. The interruption feels interminable. We know we’re being manipulated. American troops are in mortal danger. We want the war to continue. We want him to pull the trigger—now. We feel the urgent necessity of violence. Eastwood has seized hold of us at a visceral level, no matter what we think of the war.

Since Kyle is credited with 160 kills, we know what’s coming next. But Eastwood makes us experience it right along with Kyle—often as Kyle. We see what he sees. We hear what he hears. We breathe when he breathes. We’re calm if he’s calm. We’re tense if he’s tense. We decide as he decides. We kill as he kills. Eastwood draws us in cinematically, forcing us to identify with Kyle. He also forces us to react. We anticipate Kyle’s kill shots. In his baptism of fire, having killed the son, we can’t believe he hasn’t shot the mother already. What is he waiting for? Shoot! She actually manages to throw the grenade in the direction of American troops. That was (too) close. He’d better do better next time, we say to ourselves. To make sure of it, as he watches over American troops, we watch over him. The film is called American Sniper, after all. It refers to Kyle, but only to Kyle?

Either way, one function of the opening scene is to disclose the tactics to which the enemy resorts. It’s matched by a later scene of the Butcher, a resistance leader fighting American occupation, disciplining with a power drill Iraqis who collaborate with the invaders. What kind of upside down world has America entered? What kind of people does these things to their own? Kyle refers to Iraqis as savages and speaks of the evil he sees. Kyle tolerates no criticism of America, of the occupation, of his commitment to his calling and saving American lives, including from his wife. He even blames one fellow soldier’s death on a letter he wrote home that was dubious of the American war.  Kyle’s narcissistic callousness is so profound that he routinely talks to his wife while in combat, a sadistic habit that on more than one occasion leaves her wondering whether she’s listening to his death, especially when he’s unable to respond to her pleas to know what’s happening and if he’s alright. He is an unthinking patriot. His shallowness poses no problem, however, because he is right. America is the greatest country in the world. What we do is justified because we decided to do it, anywhere in the world. Do you actually need to think to reach these self-evident positions? Indeed, thought might get in the way and complicate things. Chris Kyle is one degree separated from Forrest Gump.

Kyle served four tours in Iraq out of a burning hatred for a world that does not recognize, let alone appreciate, American exceptionalism. While the bombings of American embassies in eastern Africa in the 1ate 1990s may have triggered Kyle’s enlistment, the September 11 attacks on the United States extracted a more visceral reaction from him. Having just learned the news, while his wife is in tears, he stares at the television screen—not unmoved but enraged, no doubt thinking that someone has to answer for these attacks on America. He will make sure of it. Kyle is the right man for the job. He has been hunting and killing living creatures since he was a young boy with his father unmoved by the taking of life. His father divides the world into three: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. He insists that his son be a sheepdog, a protector, but he has raised a wolf, a predator. Does the military make him a serial killer? Or does the killer in him find a home in the military? A moment of undecidability in the film.

What does seem certain is that the likes of Chris Kyle make it possible for the United States to fight imperial wars, which means that the putative warrior class to which he aspires does not serve American democracy but routinely endangers and compromises it. Not only do they unthinkingly serve their imperial overlords; they also reflexively support them at the ballot box to keep them in office and in position to wage their wars. The true democratic heroes of this era were those young people like Ehren Watada, who refused to serve in Iraq and risked court martial and jail as a result. As William James once remarked, it doesn’t take much to rush into battle and kill when you are joined by tens of thousands of others hell-bent on doing exactly the same thing. Refusing to join the military herd and participate in its depredations, on the other hand, is a genuine act of civic courage, perhaps one that a democracy should value above all others.

Not Eastwood, though. The American military has been assigned a task, perhaps an impossible one, and it will execute it to the best of its ability. If it finds itself in distant urban wastelands, don’t ask how it is that cities have been emptied in the wake of America’s liberation. It doesn’t matter. Eastwood focuses the narrative on narrowly defined missions—clear Iraqi cities of murderous fanatics house by house and kill them; locate the Butcher, an al-Qaeda in Iraq leader of those fanatics, and kill him; hunt Mustafa, Kyle’s rival superhero sniper hunting American soldiers, and kill him, too—the war is reduced (and distorted) to simple, immediate terms: us or them. In this context, Kyle represents American military power and efficiency on full display. Thanks to several tense battle scenes, America can let itself believe it is winning a war it should not have waged in the first place and “concluded” disastrously. And even though American forces suffer some horrific casualties, they succeed in their assignments and, in Kyle’s last, most daring and dangerous mission, escape in the nick of time. It has all the characteristics of a classic western with a reluctant hero.

Like John McCain in Vietnam, however, Chris Kyle in Iraq is no hero. He can’t be. The illegality and illegitimacy of the Iraq aggression won’t allow it. But Eastwood’s film is structured to allow American audiences to reach that conclusion anyway at a visceral level. One veteran who runs into Kyle in Texas thanks him for saving his life and makes a point of telling Kyle’s son that his father is a hero. Once again, Kyle is uncomfortable with any such praise. This only means the audience has to do the work of accepting it for him, which Eastwood arranges. On his last tour he is once again faced with the prospect of shooting a young boy, this one perhaps only 6 or 7 years old. That he does not have to impose the penalty of death to which all Iraqi males have been tentatively sentenced on another child provides him with a deep sense of relief. The war has taken its toll on him and he is no longer capable of fighting it. Nor is he comfortable with what he has had to do to win it, his bluster to the contrary notwithstanding. We have to do terrible things to protect our country and those who defend it, but we suffer moral loss in having to do them. American goodness shines through even heinous actions. American Sniper thus approaches a limited grandeur and simultaneously sabotages it. Perhaps most important of all, accordingly, whatever damage war does to the people who fight it, they soon recover, as Chris Kyle did. Having shown signs of PTSD, they soon disappear as he spends time with other vets who revel in his mere presence. They heal each other. Thus, neither the country nor its mercenaries have to live very long with the consequences of their morally problematic actions. Any sense of moral loss is temporary, which is not how moral loss works. The film plays with moral complexity but ultimately privileges comforting resolutions, that is, thoughtlessness.

Would it occur to American audiences that Kyle’s beloved country had laid waste to a sovereign nation for no good reason, that it put him in a position to murder mothers and sons and treat it as self-defense? Would it occur to an American audience that Kyle’s first victims were right to do whatever they could to resist and inflict damage on the foreign army that occupies but cannot conquer their country? Would it occur to an American audience that while Chris Kyle may be protecting his fellow soldiers he is also an active participant in a sequence of war crimes against the Iraqi people for which he will pay a price but not those who sent him there? Would it occur to an American audience, accordingly, that they are on the wrong side and “rooting” for the villains, that Mustafa is the real anti-hero of American Sniper? What do the numbers say?



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