Wednesday, February 4, 2015

American Sniper: A 21st-Century Crusades Romance?

I’ve always considered myself a bit of an odd duck in the various circles in which I run, in part because I inhabit several of them, and not all of them mesh in easy ways. I am, on the one hand, a left-of-center feminist scholar who regularly harbors mixed feelings about the recent wars our country has waged and who regularly takes issue with the way in which Muslims are depicted in Europe and America. By the same token, I am a proud member of a large military family. I have seen my brother go off to war, and I spent time every night while he was gone pleading with the powers that be for his safe return. And I now live for the opportunities I can get to Skype with him and with my sister (also in the military), both of whom are stationed far away from me. As a little one, I saw my father get called up for yet another deployment when I was not quite four, my sister was not quite two, and my mother was five months pregnant with my brother. She gave birth via c-section while my father was at sea. He found out my brother was born, and that he had a son, via a brief morse code message that contained little aside from my brother’s name. I remember vividly my father coming home a couple of months early and the way we ceremoniously clipped each one of the cardboard paper links in the chain we’d created to mark the time he was away. The chain had a different color for each month, and I don’t think I’d ever been so excited to take a pair of scissors to so much paper. And truly, I doubt I would be the scholar that I am today were it not for my father’s service. The time we spent in Europe instilled in me a deep fascination with the Middle Ages, and it is no exaggeration to say that it contributed in a large way to my decision to make a career out of studying that time period.

It can be hard to explain – to both family and to my friends -- how I can simultaneously be deeply proud of (and grateful for) my family’s service while taking issue with the very conflicts in which they have fought. What I know, however, is that these wars are far from simple: that the people who fight in them are not the same people who launch them, and that those on the ground – more often than not – are people like my family members. Smart, capable, and good people who do their jobs thoughtfully and with the very best of intentions. I also know, both from the family in which I was raised and from the many accounts I’ve read, that servicepersons  harbor complex and varied feelings about the recent conflicts in the Middle East, and that the damage that those wars have wreaked is immeasurable. 

The reason I’m telling you this before I get to my thoughts on American Sniper is rather simple: I wish, as someone who has grown up in and around military families, that the film had focused squarely on that kind of damage. As a member of a large military family, I went to the theater hoping to see a film that would shed light on the struggles that servicewomen and men – especially those who see combat – face when they try to reintegrate into civilian life. I know, from all of the stories I’ve heard over the years, this issue is a hugely important one, and based on what both Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper had expressed in recent interviews — namely that they hoped the film would encourage people to sympathize with contemporary vets — I was optimistic that the film would be focused on those struggles. Sadly, while certain parts of the film gestured in that area, it was not. Parts of the film do examine Chris Kyle’s actual experiences abroad and his actual struggles at home, but in large part the film seems invested in creating a hero that can easily be read as infallible. As Brian Turner has said so well, that’s just not the kind of war film we need. 

Since I saw the film, I’ve found myself struggling to come to terms with it. On the one hand, I all but forgot that I was watching Bradley Cooper playing Chris Kyle — he thoroughly gave himself up to that role, and I was beyond impressed with his convincing performance. And to be fair, the parts of the film that focus on Kyle’s struggles — even inability — to reintegrate struck me as both sincere and incredibly well-wrought. And for the record, I DO think that those involved with the film were sincere in their attempts to address the quieter tragedies of war, especially PTSD. Hall explains as much in a recent interview and says, in the end that he was only trying to promote discussion:
To me, the point of art is to promote discussion — and this film is doing that. It's time that we had this discussion, that we understand the sacrifice of these warriors. We didn't set out to explore the archetype of war; we set out to explore the archetype of the warrior. We did that from one man's point of view. While the movie is being criticized for not providing a larger context, this point was to explore war through the eyes of this person. That's the POV we used. It's a character study.

Fair enough. But as I always stress to my students, your intentions and the way in which your actions/writing/speech are interpreted will not always be mutually inclusive, and as a result it’s your responsibility — if you're trying to make a particular point — to make sure you’re being as transparent as possible. I can certainly agree with Hall that making a film about a single person's experience all but guarantees that you can't widen the lens overmuch. But if he really wanted to do a character study, as he says above, why the insistence on white-washing so much of said character and fictionalizing a good deal as well? Why resort to tired stereotypes of the enemy? Why try so hard to ensure that audiences resist questioning Kyle and his worldview?

The film had so many chances to be self-reflective in ways that Kyle’s autobiography — given his insistence on his own worldview, one that cannot seem to allow for or conceive of an enemy more complex than a two-dimensional, intrinsically evil Other — cannot be. It had so many opportunities to point out the limitations of his worldview and, to a certain extent, its tragic inevitability. As Suzanne Akbari observed in a recent Facebook conversation — and as I’ve heard more than one serviceperson express, and not without some ruefulness — the belief that your enemy is simply evil is a tempting one to espouse when in combat. How else can you possibly pull the trigger if you don’t at some level dehumanize the person in your crosshairs? How else do you live with yourself afterwards?

But instead of taking a reflective approach and trying to encourage an audience to problematize Kyle’s worldview, the film seemed to be trying to endorse it instead. Rather than sticking closely (or at least close enough) to accounts of Kyle’s actual experiences on his four tours, Eastwood and Hall felt the need to impose a more dramatic/cinematic narrative on Kyle’s tours in Iraq and their respective motivations. Whereas his reasons for going to war and returning to war were on the more predictable/mundane side according to his autobiography, in the film he feels compelled to enlist because of terrorist attacks on American embassies and his first tour in Iraq appears to be directly tied to the events on 9/11 (even though, as many have observed, the terrorist attacks had no bearing on his decision to enlist and the complex “connections” between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq are completely white-washed in the film). And while in his autobiography he does admit to feeling pressure to return to war, in the film Kyle is drawn back to Iraq because of the continued presence of two specific villains: a child-torturing insurgent known as “The Butcher” (who is only loosely based on an actual person who, as it turns out, Kyle never encountered during any of his four tours) and a Syrian marksman/sniper. The sniper, at least, is described briefly in Kyle’s autobiography, but Kyle never hunted him down and/or fixated on him in the way that he does in the film. 

It’s one thing simply to acknowledge that Kyle views his enemies as two-dimensional savages, but it is another thing entirely to validate that worldview (however accidentally) through the construction of fictional, stereotyped villains. The film reaches its low point in this regard in the child-torture scene, where The Butcher takes a power drill to an Iraqi child’s leg and head in full view of his family and Kyle (because the father of that family had talked to the Americans and helped them). The scene is beyond disturbing, not only because of its content but because of its obvious attempt to force audiences to see the Iraqis as, at best, nameless collateral damage and, at worst, as the savages Kyle believes them to be. I remember scribbling angrily in my notebook as I watched the scene that I needed to find out whether or not this had even happened during any of Kyle’s tours.

It hadn’t.

This kind of revelation happened again and again as I researched the differences between the film and the actual events of Kyle's life. In this way, the film's persistent rewriting of history continuously reminded me of the narrative mechanics of the crusades romances I study. Richard Coer de Lion (RCL) kept coming to mind in particular because it, like, American Sniper, focuses on an actual warrior — a warrior who reached legendary status in his own lifetime, no less (Kyle was, after all, nicknamed “Legend” during the course of his four tours in Iraq). Both stories elide crucial historical details in order to tell a very particular, and consistently flattering, story about a Christian hero. 

Compare, for instance the way in which Richard in RCL has near-supernatural power and authority. He wields a virtually magical (and, as Akbari has observed, very “English”) battle-ax, capable of cleaving a massive chain in two – which allows his fleet entry into a Levantine harbor. He consistently proves himself superior even to his own men on the killing fields, and regularly kills multiple men with single blows. Chris Kyle enjoys similar prestige in American Sniper. One of his fellow soldiers in the film half-jokingly praises him for killing a hundred men in a single blow, and he is repeatedly reminded (far more somberly/seriously) of the courage he gives to the men whenever they know he’s hidden somewhere above them with his rifle and his scope. As one soldier quipped, they feel invincible when they know he’s watching out for them. Kyle also carries a bible that takes on near reliquary status. Someone even asks him at one point — again half-jokingly — whether it’s bullet-proof. At the end, in the (completely fictional) final firefight of his military career, he barely escapes with his life and (accidentally?) leaves both his bullet and the fabled bible in the dust, signifying perhaps, that he’s done his duty to both God and Country and that Family (which had always been third on his list of priorities) might finally get a somewhat higher billing. But I had to wonder, given that his Bible becomes a sort of talisman, whether or not its loss is the first cinematic “hint” at Kyle’s tragic death. Regardless, it struck me that the film version of Kyle and the Richard of RCL are indelibly tied to and defined by their faith, and are imbued with near impossible amounts of strength and charisma. 

In the film, Kyle’s identity as a Christian —and as an unapologetically martial Christian at that— is also made clear in his decision to have a crusader cross tattooed on his arm. The actual Kyle did so as well, and he describes his motivations behind it in his autobiography:
On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I'd been fighting. I always will. They've taken so much from me. (American Sniper, Kindle edition)
In the film, no such explanation for the choice of tattoo is provided by Kyle or anyone else, and I noticed that the film makes this kind of move repeatedly – offering up clearly controversial/polarizing aspects of Kyle, his life, and his story (whether fictional or actual) and refusing to provide any kind of clear interpretation of them. Now, I’m not saying that a film necessarily needs to do so, or that it even should, but I do think that this refusal to explain (which happens on multiple occasions) points, at least in part, to why the film is so divisive. It is incredibly easy to come to wildly different conclusions about the implications of, say, this crusader cross tattoo (i.e. is the film saying it’s praiseworthy? Worthy of critique? Is it even aware of its implications?), when you aren’t getting clear clues from the film about its intentions in emphasizing it. 

This same problem crops up in the representation of the Iraqis in the film. Both the insurgents and the civilians are repeatedly referred to as “savages,” a term that Kyle himself uses regularly in his book. Interestingly, Kyle never uses that term in the film – it’s a term uttered only by those around him. I found this curious, because it seemed to suggest 
a)    that the creators of the film knew that having Kyle refer to them as such would risk problematizing him 
b)   they still felt a need to emphasize – and depict – Iraqi “savagery” (however hyperbolized/fictionalized). 
This is another instance, then, where the creators of the film elide history for the sake of the narrative they’re trying to construct. Kyle, based on the first few pages of his book alone, makes it clear that he views any and all of his enemies as savages, and he is unwilling/unable to see them any other way. Consider this excerpt from the prologue to his book, entitled "Evil in the Crosshairs," where he describes the female insurgent he shoots and kills:
It was clear that not only did she want to kill them, but she didn't care about anybody else nearby who would have been blown up by the grenade or killed in the firefight. Children on the street, people in the houses, maybe her child . . .  She was too blinded by evil to consider them.
My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were worth clearly more than that woman's twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day. 
 Savage, despicable evil. That's what we're fighting in Iraq. That's why a lot of people, myself included, call the enemy "savages." There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there. (American Sniper, Kindle edition).
Here, it's a bit difficult to tell whether Kyle sees the people as inherently evil, or whether he is trying to class only their actions as evil. What is clear, however, is that Kyle has created a stark hierarchy where Iraqis are "lesser" and, in the vast majority of cases, eventually outed as savages who need to be killed. He elaborates somewhat on this perspective in a later section of the book, entitled "Evil":
I had never known that much about Islam. Raised as a Christian, obviously I knew there had been religious conflicts for centuries. I knew about the Crusades, and I knew that there had been fighting and atrocities forever.
But I also knew that Christianity had evolved from the Middle Ages. We don't kill people because they're a different religion.
The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam's army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren't Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we'd just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did. 
Isn't religion supposed to teach tolerance?  (American Sniper, Kindle edition)
Here, then, Chris Kyle attempts to distance himself from the idea of holy war, implying that he and his fellow Christians have "evolved" while his Muslim enemies are still stuck in the Middle Ages. And this move is certainly a bit of a head-scratcher given his red-cross tattoo which, as he said in the quote above, he got so that everyone would know him to be a Christian. I was reminded, as I read these wildly conflicting passages, of Whitman: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes" ("Song of Myself," 51). As those lines suggest so well, our identities are rarely stable and coherent, and part of what struck me so much about Kyle's autobiography is its authenticity in that regard — how very clearly you can see him trying to make sense of himself and his ideals and not always succeeding in that endeavor.

The film, however, tries to solve that "problem" by erasing any of these inconsistencies and, in the process, any aspect of Kyle that might seem distasteful. He rarely uses the word "evil" (I can only recall a single instance), and -- as I mentioned previously -- he never refers to the Iraqi insurgents as "savages." The film keeps him from using that problematic language while still trying to ensure that an audience becomes comfortable with its usage, and it does so by resorting to gross stereotypes. Medieval crusades romances do so with aplomb as well. Take, for instance, Sir Isumbras (the text I just can’t quit, no matter how hard I try!); the Saracens in that text are always, already villainous, guaranteed – even when they seem peaceable – to betray and/or malign and/or threaten the Christian heroes. The Sultan captures Isumbras’ wife and brutalizes Isumbras, and the Saracens over whom Isumbras eventually rules predictably betray him almost as soon as he comes to power, which requires their complete annihilation. American Sniper seems to proffer the same kind of message. Consider, for instance, the scene where they find guns in the house of the Iraqi family with whom they’re eating dinner. Consider, for instance, the (completely fictional) scene where they find guns in the house of the Iraqi family with whom they’re eating dinner. It starts off promisingly enough, with the family and the U.S. soldiers sharing a meal, conversing, etc. But Kyle eventually grows suspicious because of a bruise on his host’s elbow (?!?!?!) and eventually uncovers a weapons stash, which proves that the family supported the insurgents all along. To be clear, I am by NO means saying that this scenario isn’t believable or that similar ones never happened or could not have happened throughout the course of the war. But the fact that the scene in the film is fictional means that it was created to serve a point, namely that Iraqis (like the Saracens of crusades romances) can never be trusted, nor can they change. And like the Saracen, if they prove intractable they have to be destroyed. And that is exactly what happens to virtually all of the Iraqis we see on the screen in the film. We are given no other perspective. Now, some -- Jason Hall included -- have argued/suggested that we only see the Iraqis in the film this way because, as a film about one man’s experiences and perspectives on the war, to do anything else would be inauthentic. The thing is, though, the film is ALREADY wildly inauthentic, which makes it hard to legitimize that kind of stance. 

To make matters worse, the film seems to suggest (deliberately or indeliberately) that harboring any kind of ambivalence, uncertainty, or critical thoughts about the war is wrong and will at best make you weak and at worst get you killed. This worldview is established early on in the film, with Kyle’s father explaining that the world is made up of wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs (who must protect the sheep given their inability to believe that evil – i.e. wolves – exist). And it comes full circle with Kyle criticizing a dead comrade-in-arms for his criticism of the war. Marc Lee had written a letter shortly before his death warning against the dangers of glory and how it can lead one to launch an “ill-advised crusade.” In the film, the letter is read by Lee's mother at his funeral. But rather than allowing this to lead to a reflection/commentary on the war, the ensuing scene involves a conversation between Kyle and his wife Taya, in which he explains that the ideas in that letter are what killed his friend — that the letter “killed him and he paid the price for it.” As Courtney Duckworth points out in her Slate article, this is one instance when the actual Chris Kyle comes out looking more compassionate (in his autobiography, he has nothing but kind things to say about Lee and his letter, which does not seem to have contained any of the aforementioned criticism). And were it not for the fact that this conversation between Kyle and Taya seems obviously fabricated, I could believe the arguments that it’s attempting to achieve some measure of authenticity in its depiction of Kyle and his worldview. But since the scene is a fiction – like the aforementioned scenes with The Butcher and the Iraqi family – it seems instead to be crafted aspects of a "morality tale" (as Duckworth calls the film) that lionizes a black-and-white view of the world.

One of the tragedies of this film, then, is the very likely possibility that neither Clint Eastwood nor Jason Hall intended to create an anti-nuance morality tale in the first place. Eastwood himself has been open about his criticism of the Iraq war (however garbled/incoherent), and I believe Cooper when he’s spoken about his hope that the film would draw attention to the plight of vets in America. The film, however, did not need to strip away the complexities of the Iraq war and/or systematically open up opportunities for critical reflection only to shut them down in order to tell that kind of story. But by fabricating so many scenes pivotal to the narrative arc of American Sniper, those involved in the process created (however intentionally/unintentionally) a film that, at best, presents a wildly inaccurate account of Kyle’s experiences as a SEAL and at worst, promulgates a tragically simplistic ideology by failing to fully interrogate its limitations on screen. 

For these reasons, I am all but set on drawing American Sniper into the conclusion of my book. I certainly plan to teach it alongside Richard Coer de Lion and other crusades romances whenever I have the opportunity. Because, given all of the problems I’ve outlined above, it is alarming indeed to realize that these kinds of stories continue to be so enduringly popular.



  1. Your links are such an intense blue that I can't read them.

  2. Thanks, Steve! I actually noticed as much myself yesterday and have been trying (without success) to figure out why they've suddenly started to appear in this color and, more importantly, how to change the color! Hoping to get it all fixed by the end of the day.


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