Everyone Is Missing the Point About American Sniper

The debate about Chris Kyle is damaging the film’s message

As with most points of contention in modern American discourse, American Sniper finds itself sandwiched between two vocal factions, both of which manage to completely miss the point. On one side, critics arm themselves with snippets about the aftermath of hurricane Katrina and bar fights from a book that they have never read. They condemn the careless dehumanization of Iraqis in the film while simultaneously lending the same flattening treatment to Chris Kyle, labeling him a psychotic, pathological liar. On the other hand, patriots flock, in typical American fashion, to the defense of a hero who not only had the guts and the determination to do what he needed to, but also the intestinal fortitude to tell anyone who would disagree with his methods to go screw themselves. The viewer’s response, predictably, tends to fall neatly along political lines. I think that this division reflects something more than politics, though. It begins to highlight what the viewers are afraid of — because believe me, you don’t get this kind of response unless someone is scared.

I think that we have one sect of America that is scared to admit the existence of true evil. They don’t believe that it is out there, and as such they criticize Kyle for referring to Iraqis as savages. Or maybe they are worried about what the process of dehumanizing our enemies does to our fighting men and women. You will see them use words like, “complexity,” “nuance,” and “fully realized human beings,” in their arguments. They do their best to paint Kyle’s black-and-white characterization of the conflict as overly simplistic, as if being simplistic is grounds for being wrong.

When I hear these criticisms, they remind me of a late night (or early morning) out on the training grounds at West Point. I sat next to a staff sergeant who had been tasked to train the cadets in infantry tactics — he had been a Cavalry Scout since before 9/11 and the disparity between his time in service and his rank reflected a history of alcohol abuses, insubordination, hazing, and marital problems. I remember the way he casually mentioned seeing Al-Qaeda campfires across a river where fighters had kidnapped underage girls, raped them, and then skinned them alive, leaving them in the dirt. I remember how the rain dripping off my helmet and down my back didn’t bother me so much anymore. The sergeant took pleasure in killing those guys. Hell, I would too. Later, we talked about how his ex-wife, while he was deployed, had been telling his daughter that her father is a liar, a sociopath, and an alcoholic, and now she doesn’t even consider visiting him anymore. A man fights to rid the earth of the horror he sees and when he returns, society must shelter his children from him. There is evil out there, and no one that goes to fight it comes back unaffected. In the very truest sense of the term, those that we send to fight evil sacrifice their innocence.

The other faction seems to fear complexity. Perhaps they are discomforted by the notion that for over a decade we have been sending good men and women to die in an unjust war, or that they ardently supported a war resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths (we may never know the true number). More accurately, though, I think that this sect is afraid of what they believe acknowledging complexity will do to our fighting men and women. From their articles, arguments, and less vitriolic comments we hear them shout, “You don’t know what it’s like!” or we see them invoke Colonel Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men, who has neither the time nor the inclination to explain himself to those that sleep under the blanket of the freedom he provides, then question the manner in which he provides it. The problem with this take is that, by definition, it fails to accommodate the fact that the people we fight don’t necessarily hate America, or freedom, or democracy. We have learned the hard way over the last decade that the human dimension of our enemies is often the most important. Understanding that they may be fighting to help support their widowed mother, or that they may be launching mortars in protest of a contract that fell through has typically led to longer-lasting and more effective conflict resolutions than night raids and drone strikes. The positive effects of understanding the cultural terrain in which our military operates are heavily documented and widely supported. (While a topic in and of its own right, I would highly recommend Vanessa Gezari’s The Tender Soldier or David Kilcullen’s Out of the Mountains to the incredulous reader.)

So why would it ever be okay for a movie to over-simplify the lives of Iraqis? Simply put: It’s not. It’s not okay to ignore their situation — whether they are being victimized by extremists or killed in American airstrikes or by American snipers or being evicted from their homes. But our fighting men and women do “not okay” things all the time. They have to, because that’s how wars are fought. Is it “okay” for a lieutenant fresh out of college to order kids fresh out of high school to kill, or to die? No. Not for the domesticated, suburban mind. But by forcing the viewers to sit through something that is “not okay,” by forcing the viewer to see Iraq through that lens and then subsequently justify it, Eastwood grabs the viewer by the neck, throws them in the hot seat, and says, “This is what it’s like.” At least for some of us. This is what it’s like to rationalize. This is what it’s like to do it because you have to. The fact that going through that makes you uncomfortable, or disgusted, or angry, or swell with patriotic pride, or “hate muslims 1000x more,” as one Twitter user wrote, is exactly what needs to be done in a country where no more than 1% of the population has served in the military over the last 14 years, not because those feelings are right or wrong, but because those are the same feelings that our veterans are coping with.

The viewer must remember that the American military is a cross section of the population as a whole, so the feelings of the viewer are undoubtedly reflected in a portion of the military as well. That also means that the feelings of your neighbor, or your Facebook friend, or that idiot who sits in class next to you are reflected in the veteran population, too. The emotions you feel when you watch a montage of five or six Iraqis gunned down on screen, without so much as a second thought, are a microcosm the same ones that many returning Soldiers and Marines are feeling. Knowing this, however, the viewers must be aware that at the end of the day, they are ultimately able to dissociate themselves from those feelings. After two and a half hours, we have the luxury of tearing American Sniper down, of rationalizing, of ignoring or enjoying it. This is a luxury that is not afforded to America’s trigger-pullers who have to live with their actions, inactions, and thoughts for the rest of their lives. This is a fact that escapes political definition.

Perhaps this is why America’s military has been uncharacteristically quiet about the film. While there seems to be healthy debate over whether or not Chris Kyle is a hero, there is an obvious dearth of dialogue on what this film means for the rehabilitation of veterans — you know, the purpose to which Kyle dedicated the last years of his life? I have not seen a single review mention the look on Jeff Kyle’s face as he redeploys from Iraq and says to his brother, “Fuck this place.” No one talks about the scene in the auto shop and the difficulty Chris had in accepting an invitation to go to the VA hospital. No one is talking about how he died. I think that a significant portion of the veteran population realizes that we need “psychos” (as some have characterized him) like Chris Kyle, but that we also need to bring them home, because by God if Kyle was a psychopath, then so am I, and so is my company commander, and my roommate, and any number of mentors and friends I’ve had.

This is not a new concept, and the difficulty America is having with digesting it highlights the growing divide between the American population and its military. Cyrus Trask, a Civil War veteran in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, despite being a pathological liar (as some have characterized Kyle), hints at this idea of what it means to go to war as his son prepares to join the Army,

Look now — in all of history men have been taught that killing of men is an evil thing not to be countenanced. Any man who kills must be destroyed because this is a great sin, maybe the worst sin we know. And then we take a soldier and put murder in his hands and we say to him, “Use it well, use it wisely.” We put no checks on him. Go out and kill as many of a certain kind or classification of your brothers as you can. And we will reward you for it because it is a violation of your early training.

That was written 60 years ago. Maybe now, in 2015, this film will help those Americans who have been detached from the conduct of our wars better understand what our nation’s sheepdogs have to go through, psychologically, in order to perform their job well. That warfare, at the end of the day, takes humans and damages or destroys them — on both sides. Or that we need to find a better way of incorporating people who have done “not okay” things back into the folds of society. Maybe the critiques of this film will help those who cannot accept criticism of US military action to confront the stark reality of what blind support for warfare or killing does to those who would carry out our nation’s will. But then again, maybe Americans don’t actually want to discuss these topics because there are no easy answers, so the question inevitably becomes, “who is responsible for helping our veterans?” And if there is anything that people hate more than their political rivals, it’s the thought of responsibility.

You don’t have to like Chris Kyle to appreciate American Sniper. You do not have to agree with the justifications for the Iraq War or think that Iraq is populated with savages in need of killing. At the end of the day, that is not what American Sniper is about. The film, even with all its factual inaccuracies or imposed political ideology, is about sitting the viewer down and forcing him to see warfare through the eyes of a warrior. To see that sometimes we have to do things or see things that are “not okay,” and that we have to find ways to live with ourselves afterwards. If that upsets you, then you are well on the way to empathizing with our fighting forces as we draw down from 15 years of conflict. If nothing else, Clint Eastwood’s film is important because it sparks discussion at a time when there is such a disconnect between civilians and the military that the president of the United States felt obligated to chastise “every CEO in America” during the State of the Union for the dismal hiring rate among former service members.

Edit: Since I began writing this article, a few other authors have begun to discuss similar points about empathy for and reintegration of veterans. Notably, Erik Gains of Forbes has a very thoughtful piece on the subject.

The points in this article are unofficial expressions of opinion; views are those of the author and not necessarily those of the US Military Academy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the US (or any other) government.

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