Thing One and I went to see American Sniper last night in a packed theater. It’s an interesting movie and cultural artifact.
I can understand some of the consternation from people who think the movie whitewashes the Iraq war. What’s more, I can understand the criticism because a much better, deeper, more resonate movie lies just under the surface of the one Clint Eastwood decided to make. And that’s leaving aside the rather shoddy technical aspects of the film – obvious dolls for babies, fake looking blood.
The central “Sheep, Wolf and Sheepdog” metaphor that organized Chris Kyle’s life is an excellent example of the warrior’s code. Some people need protecting and those that can protect them have a duty to do that.
The movie, however, creates a simplistic image of Iraq where the American soldiers are sheep. One of Kyle’s closest mates slowly comes to think that maybe it’s the Americans who are the wolves, and he dies – in Kyle’s opinion – for entertaining that belief. Certainly from an Iraqi point of view, the invading Americans could be seen as Wolves.
Instead, the two main (and fictional) antagonists – Mustafa and “the Butcher” – are presented as one-dimensional villains. Iraqis are largely absent, except as targets in Kyle’s scope. The film misses an opportunity to explore one of the main problems with the Iraq War, that we invaded a country for bogus reasons. Instead, the movie shamelessly conflates the invasion of Iraq with 9/11.
It’s pretty apparent that Chris Kyle never lost his vision of being a Sheepdog to American soldiers. But he needed that clarity – as all soldiers do. It was the breakdown in that clarity that created such problems among many servicemen and the public at large. America has to think of itself as morally right, it is part of our national myth. Rather than wrestle with this, the movie simply creates an Iraq were almost every Iraqi character is “evil” and every American is “good”.
It’s a lost opportunity, but it’s probably also accounts for the film’s popularity.
Even if Eastwood wanted to avoid making a statement about the cause and consequences of invading Iraq, he came very close to making a more interesting movie about the cost of the war on those that served.
Kyle benefited from his moral clarity, and that is perhaps why he clung to it, after many others came to see the invasion of Iraq as a tragedy. It gave him an animating purpose. But the film touches on a very important problem that the war created. The long deployments, the constant state of threat created a generation of soldiers who are having a very hard time “coming home.”
Kyle struggled with this, too. He struggles to separate the warrior from the husband and father. He suffers from PTSD, though he refuses to admit that he does.
He ultimately finds his way back by becoming a mentor and ally for wounded soldiers. He becomes a different form of Sheepdog. It is in many ways the most heroic part of the Chris Kyle story. He was undeniably a masterful killer, the 160 confirmed kills is routinely considered to be half of the actual total. But to return to being a citizen, he had to become a healer. He had to protect other veterans from the Wolves they carried inside of him.
And it was THAT service that cost him his life. Not the multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, but helping out a troubled veteran who turned on him and killed him.
Kyle himself believed that American soldiers deserve the unquestioned support of the American people, because “they don’t choose the wars they fight in.” This is undeniably true, but a more honest depiction of the complexity of the invasion of Iraq would demonstrate the true moral costs and consequences of military service during America’s Long Wars.
The story of Chris Kyle is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy because the military took in a mentally troubled man who then became homicidal and who then killed Kyle. Kyle’s greatness was in his desire to protect his fellow servicemen, but he was left blind to the fact that Iraq turned some of his fellow servicemen into the very Wolves he thought he was fighting against. His steadfast belief in the righteousness of the American use of force created a blindspot that was filled by bullets from Eddie Ray Routh.
Tellingly, Eastwood leaves that entire scene off camera. No one knows precisely what happened that day when Kyle was killed, but so much of the film was already fictionalized, that there couldn’t have been any scruples against making stuff up. If Eastwood had explored that moment, he could have come closer to the nuanced portrait of violence that he offered up in Unforgiven.
The movie was intended as a memorial to Chris Kyle’s life and service, but by leaving out his death, it glosses over the true complexities of what happened. It elides the true cost that this war of choice had on people like Chris Kyle and Eddie Ray Routh.
The movie is, of course, popular because it tells a comforting fiction about our actions in Iraq and the heroism of men like Chris Kyle. But as good a genre example of war movie as it is – though not as good as Lone Survivor, I’d argue – it’s an incredible missed opportunity to tell the story of a man like Chris Kyle and the burdens we ask our soldiers to bear.