American Sniper: Cultivating Ignorance as Dropping Bombs

The Iraq War was a protracted military conflict that began in 2003 when the Bush administration decided – unilaterally and without evidence – that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; were behind 9/11; and had a pretty crappy leader by the name of Saddam Hussein.

They decided that the best way to solve these problems was, well… to ignite a protracted military conflict. In the process killing a few hundred thousand people (the majority being Iraqi civilians); making a couple million more into refugees (or as we like to call them in Australia ‘boat people’); creating a power vacuum the likes of which has facilitated the rise of ISIS (you know, the guys beheading Western journalists, and recruiting teenage rangas on MSN); and Al-Qaeda (the guys Bush told us were in Iraq, but actually weren’t, and now definitely are); and just-because-America-is-the-greatest-country-on-earth engaging in the widespread and institutionalised torture of Iraqi detainees.

It was a very violent, very expensive, very avoidable chapter in America’s history and has been lamented as such by conservative and liberal commentators alike (albeit not unanimously). Australia’s unquestioning and unreserved diplomatic and military support has also proved to be asterisk on the resume of former Prime Minister John Howard and his political allies, with Howard himself conceding his “embarrassment” for sending our troops to fight an “enemy” who had not only had nothing to with the twin tower bombings, but turned out not to have any weapons either.

Enter “American Sniper”, the Hollywood action/drama film adaption of Iraq war veteran Chris Kyle’s best selling memoir.

Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, the film follows “America’s deadliest sniper” throughout his four harrowing tours in the Iraq conflict zone, his uncomfortable home life in between, and the broader plight of post-war veterans in their quest to re-enter society.

It provides a thought provoking portrayal of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and insight as to the enormous pressures placed on the families and friends of our armed forces. Cooper’s performance as Kyle is outstanding, and my inner film critic was awed by the ability of Eastwood to mesh gritty action sequences with the raw emotional trauma experienced by its participants. If this was fiction I’d be screaming “Oscar” louder than anyone.

But Iraq, and Kyle were not fictitious. This was a real war. And he was a real person.

We have a problem.

The tale that Kyle tells in his book, and which Eastwood, a known Republican, translated to the big screen, is very different to that surmised above. It provides a simplistic – dare I say binary – account of good (USA) battling evil (Iraq), where the only victims are US soldiers and all but three of the hundreds of Iraqi characters are labelled “savages”.

In the film, footage of 9/11 immediately precedes Kyle’s first tour in Iraq, implying to viewers that the culprits of this terrorism were Iraqis and completely omitting the whole Afghanistan-and-Osama-Bin-Laden-explicitly-taking-responsibility thing. To the politically astute, this exclusion is disturbing. But to the politically unengaged it’s downright insidious, feeding droves of moviegoers a narrative where America’s military aggression was a warranted and necessary response to an unprovoked attack.

Also troubling is Eastwood’s decision to include a number of factually inaccurate scenes that further ingrains a good-evil dichotomy consisting of US freedom fighters on the one hand, and radical, uncompromising, Islamic fundamentalists on the other.

For instance, in the opening scene of the film, Kyle is compelled to ‘snipe’ a young boy who attempts to assault a US platoon with a Russian grenade; and afterwards his Mother who tries to finish the job. The men later comment on the ‘evil’ that is manifest in Iraqis training children to be enemy insurgents, a notion the audience would be hard-done to disagree with given the preceding scene.

In reality however, Kyle’s first kill was a woman acting alone, and begs the question of what purpose such a hate inspiring subplot (anyone else remember Kony?) would serve given the already gut-wrenching story.

Oh, the whole “Iraq didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction” thing also didn’t make it to the big screen. Funny that.

Now let’s be clear about a few things. American Sniper tells the personal story of one American soldier who fought in Iraq. It does not seek to tell the story of all American combatants, nor does it present itself as a factual retelling of his every decision or interaction. One might rightly assert that the political context surrounding the conflict is less important in a dramatic film than say, a documentary or a history book, or that trying to include it would in all likelihood detract from its true purpose, which Eastwood claims was to illustrate the plight of post-war veterans.

These qualifications however do not justify the revisionist history that Eastwood engages in, nor do they mitigate the potentially devastating consequences this story will have on the public consciousness.

The fact is that in Australia (and the United States) political apathy is on the rise, with up to 3 million eligible voters opting out of our last Federal election. Whilst this sentiment can largely be attributed to the fact that the major parties are too similar and cater to vested interests over their constituencies, it still means that voters – especially young voters – are less and less informed about what our politicians are getting up to.

A serious problem emerges then if they rely on pop-culture flicks like American Sniper to fill in the gaps, which not only gloss over a lot of the inconvenient truths elaborated above, but actually glorify the role of soldiers who are fighting on behalf of the bad guys.

I mean if we can celebrate the bravery and heroism of Kyle fighting on behalf of Bush, what’s stopping us from doing the same for the millions of Nazi soldiers who fought on behalf of Hitler? I’m sure plenty of them were just doing their patriotic duty as well, so we can leave out the whole “killed six million Jews” thing. That would just detract from the story. Triumph of the Will 2 – coming soon to a theatre near you.

What’s that? The studios aren’t interested?

The Iraq war was a shameful episode in America’s history. The Bush government sent its soldiers to fight and die in an unprovoked war with a non-existent objective, and in so doing brought death and destruction on countless innocent men, women and children. The violence, and US occupation of Iraq, exists to this day, and many who fled this destruction now languish in offshore detention camps on the instruction of our own Prime Minister. There is no narrative where we are the good guys.

But I dare say that few members of the audience will remember that fact as they walk out of the cinema.

And you know what? I think that’s exactly what Eastwood intended.

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