Some people have said American Sniper is racist, a piece of propaganda, a movie full of hatred. But if you squint and tilt your head, you will see that it is actually a movie full of love and ignorance.
While most critics of “American Sniper” are on the right side of issues, it is worth remembering that love and hatred, much like “right side,” are all subjective concepts. It takes intellectual courage to understand that Chris Kyle essentially represents the best – if most misguided – American values. If political analysts continue to ignore that it may well be love that motivates the individual soldier – love of family, nation, brotherhood, god – it will be harder to fight the militarism and false sense of honor instilled in the minds of American children from birth.
Before I continue, two caveats: First, I am not interested in how much the movie is or isn’t faithful to the book; I’m talking about the movie itself. Also, I am not judging its artistic merits, if for nothing else because my benchmarks in cinema are Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick – the former for the best movie treatises on morality and the volatility of good & evil, and the latter for what are probably the two greatest war movies ever made.* It would be awfully unfair of me to compare Eastwood to those men.
In one of the most commendable critiques of “American Sniper,” credited by some with ruining its Oscars chances, Rania Khalek writes that the “immeasurable suffering” of the Iraqi people is “completely erased from the narrative presented in ‘American Sniper’.” She is right, of course, but that is not dishonest of Eastwood, on the contrary. “American Sniper” is valuable precisely because its lack of nuance is also the lack of nuance in real life, and the Iraqi suffering absent from the film is also absent from the minds of each aspiring Chris Kyle. The slit of truth shown in “American Sniper,” distressingly narrow as it is, will be the whole truth most Americans will ever get. As it happens, the first victims of American politics are born in the United States.
But you may have a hard time knowing Chris Kyle was a victim. For the film, he was a hero; for the critics, he was a murderer. You wouldn’t learn it either from the average, jargon-minded left-wing commentator, always ready to defend the oppressed but only if the roles of The Powerful and The Weak correspond to those in his manual. It’s easy to see that happen, for example, when the discussion is apostasy and blasphemy. Those are two of the most oppressive ideas ever conceived, omnipotent weapons for the control and oppression of whole populations who become permanently terrorized to perform the most essential of human traits – thinking.
The tormentors, in this case, are mostly Muslim rulers, dictators, monarchs. But you will hardly hear a peep from Sitting Compassionate, because his manual already told him that The Powerful is a role that is never played by a Muslim (or a woman, a black person, an immigrant. Please refer to manual for assigned roles). So when both the tormentor and the victims are Muslims, Sitting Compassionate cannot make sense of his pre-programming, and his few synaptic connections start to short-circuit. The Charlie Hebdo killing is a case in point. Though many one-note-samba analysts went through great lengths to appreciate the hidden reasons behind the killings, they will not take a minute to examine the engendering of a Chris Kyle. The Sitting Compassionate will spend hours of psychoanalysis and political history tracing the source of that rage back to the womb or The Crusades, dissecting the entrails of every slight ever inflicted upon the victims – the perpetrators – but will never do the same for Chris Kyle. We must grant the average American the same chance we concede to that further Other; we must allow him the same time we give the ISIS convert to explain the genealogy of his morals, so we can finally realize that Kyle, too, was a victim of American militarism and corporatocracy.
You are forgiven if you are surprised to know that Boeing Defense sponsors a hockey team. It makes one wonder who there at the arena watching the game could purchase a 250-million-dollar Globemaster CIII. Shouldn’t Boeing target weapons dealers, politicians, contractors? They don’t need to. While wars are essentially motivated by money and decided by the few holding it, wars are mostly validated by the approving masses. Boeing didn’t waste money advertising to irrelevant Joe Doe, on the contrary. The individual – who in his singularity is worth nothing and never profits from war – is a key piece of the herd that becomes the war’s final guarantor. In a democracy, even a false one, it’s the individual and his million iterations who will turn their thumb down before the execution, validating within a multitude a decision taken by the profiting few. For that, it is crucial that the multitude be formed by quasi-automatons.
And it’s not hard to be one.
A recent example comes from a report by Jim Naureckas. In it, he shows that none of the five most prominent newspapers in the USA mentioned Israel’s nuclear weapons when reporting on Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. Who needs religious scriptures when you have the U.S. mainstream media?
“American Sniper” doesn’t talk about the Lockheeds and Halliburtons who push for wars and profit from them, nor does it discuss the role of government, well described by Frank Zappa as “the entertainment division of the military-industrial complex.” But the film is great at showing the many tools used to rouse the average American and herd each one of them into a ratifying mass. We see Kyle putting the New Testament inside his uniform pocket; we listen to the mantra “God, country and family”; we hear the metaphor, told by Kyle’s father, of how he should neither be a sheep, nor a wolf abusing the weak, but a sheepdog conducting the righteous. We also get a bit of the biopsychology that moves so many men when the soldiers reminisce about how, as children, they would compete to see who would keep his hand for longer on the electrical fence. We see, at a glance, one of a million men in the vastness of our existential desert searching for a purpose, for that non-material motivation, for the mysterious force that assails or empowers the most sophisticated and simplest alike – an inherent enthusiasm that corporatocracy has managed to dull into nonexistence or channel to less worthy/more profitable ends.
The film shows with sad beauty the simplicity of the values cherished by Kyle, and the infinite horrors it unwittingly endorses. The fact that Kyle fought for the “winning” side does not make him any less of a victim. As individuals, all those soldiers are losers, and not because the average suicide rate of a U.S. war veteran is estimated at 22 a day. They are losers because they live like most Americans do, without proper health insurance, holidays, paid education or a decent retirement. They are losers because they are led to do incredible evil in the name of good, and they kill to enrich men who lack the physical fortitude to stand an arm-wrestling match.
They are losers because they don’t even know they are.
To blame the film for the negative effect it may have on the simple-minded is misguided – we should be analyzing why there are still so many simple-minded people in the Greatest Nation on Earth ™. The United States is a country where the teaching of Philosophy is almost completely absent from schools. Critical thinking is becoming virtually non-existent. And nationalism, without any critical thinking, becomes yet another sentiment whose least harmful consequence is having to watch Beyoncé sing the national anthem at a baseball game. Meanwhile, competition is a “value” inculcated in kids before they even learn how to speak.
The other day I was walking in Copacabana and saw a wall sculpture that paid homage to frescobol. Frescobol is a game invented in the 40s in Rio de Janeiro. The written sign on the sculpture explained why it deserved praise – because Frescobol has no winners. Instead of promoting competition, it is played with the objective of keeping the game going the longest time possible, each player helping the other catch the ball and keep the fun going, both sides winning.
When you call Chris Kyle a hateful murderer, you are alienating potential allies in a war where all the warring sides are losing, while the same 1 percent is always, always winning. We play right into their hands when we pretend the remaining 99 percent are revelers in the same victory party.
*Ride the High Country, Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, by Peckinpah; Full Metal-Jacket and Paths of Glory, by Kubrick, since you ask.