The movie American Sniper, which opens this week, is the kind of film that is bound to draw attention and generate controversy. Directed by Clint Eastwood, it is based on the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who was the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.
Credited with over 160 kills, Kyle served four tours in Iraq. He finally returned to the United States, retired from the military, and became president of a security and training firm. He also worked to help other veterans affected by the war. It was one of those vets, reportedly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who killed Kyle when they went to a shooting range.
Critics have given the film favorable reviews, calling it “a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie”, “a tribute to the warrior and a lament for war” and “complex and ruminative.” Some reviewers have compared it to Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker because the hero can’t resist putting himself in harm’s way.
But another Bigelow film comes to mind. In Zero Dark Thirty, the use of torture in the "war on terror" is portrayed in such a way that supporters and opponents of the practice both left the theater believing their views were validated. The movie made the issue seem more complex and nuanced than it really is: Torture is a crime and it produces unreliable information, since someone being tortured will say anything to make it stop. And no matter how many government lawyers tell the president it is OK because he is commander-in-chief, or how many bureaucrats like CIA Director John Brennan are ready to do it again, it is still a crime.
I have not seen American Sniper. But if the trailer is any indication, Eastwood’s film, like Zero Dark Thirty, tries to make a straightforward situation more complex than it is.
Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle, seems beset by uncertainty and moral anxiety in the above scene. But anyone who has read Kyle’s autobiography of the same title knows that his bravado left no room for doubt. For him, the enemy are savages and despicably evil. His only regret is that he didn’t kill more. He laments that there were rules of engagement, or ROE, which he describes as being drafted by lawyers to protect generals from politicians. He argues instead for letting warriors loose to fight wars without their hands tied behind their backs. At another point, he boasts that the unofficial ROE were pretty simple: “If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ‘em. Kill every male you see.”
That kind of thinking, compared to Kyle's portrayal by Eastwood, prompted Lindy West to write an article for The Guardian asking, “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?” One answer to that question: Because many Americans are unable to accept that nothing was won in Iraq, and that the sacrifices Kyle and others made were not worth it. More fundamentally, treating Kyle as a patriot and ignoring any other possibility allows Americans to ignore the consequences of invading a country that had no weapons of mass destruction, had nothing to do with 9/11, and had no meaningful ties to Al Qaeda (our invasion, of course, changed that).
A recent study estimates there were 461,000 war-related "excess" deaths in Iraq between 2003 and mid-2011. If true, President George W. Bush may be responsible for the deaths of more Iraqi civilians than Saddam Hussein was. But Bush is not solely culpable. We live in a democracy where the people elect the government, and therefore citizens cannot escape the blame for what it does. In that sense, it is not just Kyle who pulled the trigger. We all did.
Correction: A previous version of this article featured the wrong byline. The author is Dennis Jett, not Dennis Ross.