There has been a lot of talk recently about American Sniper. In the midst of this controversial film and the firestrom it has created, I've been reading a book called On Killing by Dave Grossman. I really wanted to pair these two pieces together, so I decided to go see American Sniper with my friend Liam and then have a brief conversation with him about the film, where we will talk about how the film was controversial and how it was not.
So to start, Liam is a former member of the armed forces. He was a technician for fighter aircraft and served for six years. He is very knowledgeable of military history and also the impacts of war on society. We have bonded together talking about the HBO series Generation Kill, and he was kind enough to lend me On Killing. After powering through the book I decided that I would invite him out to see American Sniper so that we could talk about what's been deemed the most controversial film of 2015. As a note, the analysis of the film is not meant to be a conversation about the real Chris Kyle as he is nothing like the film makes him out to be.
I'll first start by providing my impressions of the film. I was expecting something far more egregious given all the intense commentary. While I found the film to be at the very least problematic, it was not the glorified piece of propaganda that had been suggested to me in my reading beforehand (as much as I love Noam Chomsky). I felt that, while I was supposed to deeply sympathise with the main character, Kyle, I didn't see the implication that what he did as necessarily honourable or dishonourable. I believe the film left a lot to the audience to figure out for itself, which again I was not expecting.
I brought up the question to Liam, who told me that he feels like the film, while Hollywoodised, portrayed with some accuracy the life of a sniper. As well, he said it touched on the ethical dilemmas soldiers are faced with in combat, some of which he has talked about with former colleagues. We talked about when killing was clearly honourable and not, and agreed that there is no clear definition for many cases that fall in between. Kyle's killing of civilians is meant to be a grey area and the audience is meant to see the internal conflict that a soldier faces when a split second evaluation needs to be made.
We also talked about what Michael Moore has said regarding snipers: he called them all cowards. I can see the propensity to believe that an enemy in hiding is dishonourable, but warfare has always relied on some form of deception and to think otherwise is to sugarcoat war. Snipers may be killing someone who does not know they are there, but snipers also expose themselves to greater danger by being deep within enemy territory. The film only aludes to this challenge, but Liam mentioned that snipers often spend days in one location in order to take only one shot. After they make it they have to run for their lives. While it is true that sniper are engaging their targets from a great distance, they are not the only ones to be doing so; in fact, they are one of the few hidden units that is still exposed to the enemy.
I would argue that those who fly bombers, direct movements from headquarters, or load artillery are both safer and further removed from the killing process. Are these acts not more cowardly or dishonourable? As Grossman mentions in On Killing, every foot of distance is a corresponding decrease in reality, meaning that as you get phsyically further from the target you are more likely to go carry out the kill and also to not feel guilty about it later. A good example of this is the use of drones in the US military. Controlled remotely, soldiers can kill a target thousands of kilometres away. I can't think of something more cowardly or detached. It seems strange to dote on the sniper when so many other parts of the military are removed from the combat arena.
I also think it's worthwhile pointing out a double-standard - snipers have most certainly been glorified in other contexts, not the least of which being in Enemy at the Gates, where our hero (a Red Army sniper) was in pursuit of his German counterpart. To me it seems to suggest that a sniper is only as "good" as the conflict he is fighting in.
We spent some time talking about the conflict in question: the second American invasion of Iraq. The film showed a man with little purpose finding his calling when terrorists strike. We see the 1998 attacks on the American embassies followed by a scene where he enlists. Of course we seem him sobered by the events of September 2001. Liam and I talked about this narrative and we both agreed it was blatant patriotism as a plot device. Liam felt that the film was meant to be purposefully hateful of jihadists and thus elicit sympathy for American intervention in the Middle East. I do agree to some degree with Liam here, if only for the fact that some of the first kills in the film were met with cheers from the audience, much to my horror (especially since they were civilians being shot). However, my impression of the situation was that it looked more like justification on the part of the character for his participation in the military.
We see that, as the film goes on, Kyle has deep troubles with his work. He struggles with killing as much as he does with losing his compatriots. While we see him detach from reality and develop a cold exterior, we see him experience great difficulty when faced with having to pull the trigger. In particular, there is a scene where he is faced with killing a boy who is carrying an RPG. He is shaking, praying that the boy puts down the RPG. He begins to squeeze the trigger, only to find that the boy has decided not to fire it. He is so full of relief he doubles over. To me this signals that a main message of the film is that war is awful and that it deeply affects those who participate in it.
This brought us to talking about how in On Killing soldiers have an aversion to killing, much unlike what we see in Hollywood. Through careful analysis of battles during the industrial period we can observe that the average person recruited for military service has minimal interest in killing, and will often go to extremes to avoid it. However, in the time since the end of the Second World War many militaries, specifically the United States, have adopted programmes designed to programme soldiers to get past this resistance. The effectiveness of these tricks was first truly demonstrated in Vietnam and has carried through to American action in Iraq. Liam points out that elements like dissociating the enemy is one of the key parts of these strategies. He noted that in the film the enemy was referred to as hajjis and other derogatory terms meant to turn the enemy into a cartoon character. While I agree that this is in fact how the US military works, I feel like the inclusion of this in the film was not to promote the xenophobic sentiment, but rather to show that it is embedded in the culture of the military. To illustrate this point, I'd note that Kyle (in the film) doesn't seem to participate in this villification of the enemy. Moreover, he gets visibly annoyed when a marine that is stationed with him displays these values. Beyond this, the word "evil" gets thrown around a fair amount, but it's always other characters talking about this morality.
Fundamentally, this film was worthwhile watching and certainly has made an impact. Was it offensive? Less so than I was expecting. Was it inaccurate? Absolutely. As Liam notes, the film includes the sniper making kills at obscene ranges and endangering his own units in the pursuit of an unrealistic kill. He also mentioned that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, which is completely right. It is, at the very least, misleading to have presented it this way. I also happen to feel that the film lacks the presence of good Arabs or good Muslims. I think that this film does a decent job of pointing out how military culture works in the United States. It most certainly is not the best exemple of a scathing exposé of abuse, but I also deeply feel that it is also not the propaganda that many have labelled it.