Why ‘American Sniper’ Applauds the Soldier But Condemns the War

Annie Castellani

 

A handful of protests last month against university showings of “American Sniper,” director Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated portrait of Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, are just another reminder that it has become a lightning rod in a polarized society. Regrettably, voices on both sides of the aisle have used the film – which resurrects deep wounds from the George W. Bush era and resonates with the current debate about American engagement in the Middle East – to reinforce barriers. But as with many controversies today, the truth about “American Sniper” may reside somewhere in the middle. 

 

The film profiles the military and civilian life of Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL, whom many describe as the deadliest sniper in American history. Kyle survived four tours in Iraq and went on to write a best-selling memoir. He was killed in 2013 when a fellow veteran Kyle was trying to help with PTSD fatally shot him and a friend, Chad Littlefield, at a Texas gun range. Kyle left behind a wife and two children. 

 

As with perspectives on the war and the Bush presidency, reactions to the film have varied. In one corner sit the diehard patriots who applaud this tribute to a great American hero and refuse to apologize for his efforts to keep America safe and free. Some at Fox News agree. Others condemn it as racist propaganda that ignores the truth about America’s occupation. A particularly scathing piece in Rolling Stone comes to mind. Perhaps the only common ground between its proponents and critics is that they are fixated on grounding “American Sniper” in the nation’s politics and culture wars. 

 

Regrettably, these Americans refuse to see the film for what it is. To be sure, “American Sniper” is a personal narrative about a tough-as-nails soldier’s harrowing experiences. But it is just as much about the widespread and immeasurable costs of his obsession with a futile, unjust war that has no end in sight.

 

The film depicts the immense courage members of the US military possess, as well as the profound personal sacrifices they make in pursuit of what they believe to be a noble goal. And it gives voice to veterans dealing with PTSD and the broken homes they leave behind. At the same time, this intimate look at an American soldier in the midst of an unwinnable conflict – one who is singularly focused on protecting his brothers-in-arms to the detriment of everything sacred in his life – sends a cautionary message. Indeed, it often seems that the only way out of the panic-inducing quagmire is by death or disfigurement. 

 

 

In this way, “American Sniper” applauds the soldier but condemns the war. And director Eastwood eschews hammering a message that fits comfortably into the agendas of Americans on the right or left. The film is at once pro-warrior and anti-war. Eastwood himself has described it in a similar fashion. 

 

For instance, much has been made about the way the film supposedly links 9/11 to the Iraq War. It is true that Eastwood depicts Chris Kyle’s justification for the war with the familiar televised image of planes hitting the World Trade Center. This post-9/11 call to arms undoubtedly strikes a chord with many Americans who were motivated by the same events. Yet, while the film portrays this viewpoint – after all, this version of Kyle’s story is based on the veteran’s memoir – Eastwood does not try to make a case for it. There are no speeches from Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld suggesting links between 9/11 and Iraq or scenes of a president rallying the masses against the bad guys and those harboring terrorists. And there is no anti-American al Qaeda rhetoric to justify the invasion and calm consciences.

 

Rather, Eastwood’s approach highlights the glib rush to judgment that brought America to war. Chris Kyle’s emotional reaction to 9/11 and his unwavering conviction about the Iraq War underscores its hollow premises. His act of hubris is particularly tragic when juxtaposed against the ensuing horror that Kyle, his family, fellow soldiers and Iraqi civilians endure. And the film makes no attempt to hide these sacrifices.

 

 

This brief but seminal moment becomes a dividing line between Kyle’s domestic sphere, illustrated by his budding romance and growing family, and the gruesome world that he encounters in combat. It magnifies the despondency that accompanies the unraveling of the lives of a father, his wife and two small children (not to mention the lives of countless innocent Iraqis). In this way, we see Kyle’s actions for what they truly are -- heroic and well intentioned, yet entirely misplaced and misinformed acts that come at a great cost to humanity.  

 

In the end, Eastwood’s intentionally cautious treatment of the topics in "American Sniper" begs the question: can’t we all agree that Chris Kyle is exactly the type of courageous and infallible warrior we want fighting for America, while at the same time acknowledge that the Iraq War was a profound mistake with dire consequences for everyone involved? Difficult as it may be for either camp to make concessions, this approach may be the only way to make sense of the Bush era and its aftermath. In “American Sniper,” director Clint Eastwood skillfully and subtly nudges us in that direction. 

 

Author Bio:

 

Annie Castellani is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. Follow Castellani on Twitter: @TheSustainCapit    

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