Columns

Mills ’15: ‘American Sniper’ not what we needed

By
Opinions Columnist
Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I recently had the chance to watch the new movie “American Sniper” about Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. It is, to use one of my Brown vocabulary words, “problematic.” A good versus evil story that doesn’t capture the muddied reality of the Iraq War, it paints Chris Kyle as a Texas cowboy hunting insurgents like they were coyotes back on the ranch. Disappointingly simple, “American Sniper” misses an opportunity to complicate the conflict and truly be a landmark film.

Only a tiny fraction — less than half a percent — of Americans have been to Iraq. Tens of millions of people have seen the movie in theaters already. If Americans at home think that our interventions in the Middle East were all simple ‘good guy’ versus ‘bad guy’ affairs, we have failed.

The movie has been a box office hit, netting over $105 million in its opening weekend and receiving widespread acclaim from commentators throughout the military and across the right wing of the political spectrum. But there has also been extremely critical backlash of the movie. Quite disturbingly, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee claims to have seen a significant increase in violent threats to Arab and Muslim Americans resulting from “how Arab and Muslims are depicted” in the film.

There are two elements at the heart of the commentary surrounding the film: the portrayal of Chris Kyle and Clint Eastwood’s direction.

In his book, Kyle presents himself as rough around the edges; hazing and bar fights feature prominently. Kyle also received a lot of criticism for referring to Iraqis as “savages.” In addition to being derogatory, the term also comes with racial and historical baggage. Writing in his biography that he “couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” Kyle is at worst a racist American killing Iraqis and loving every minute of it. At best, he is a good guy moved to hate by the horrors of his environment.

Chris Kyle is a hero to a lot of Americans, but he should not be lauded as a hero because of his kill count. It should not be spilling blood or shooting straight that marks our heroes. It should be selflessness and sacrifice. He should be lauded for his service, but that service should never exempt him from critique. Precisely because he is a national hero, he should be scrutinized. Our nation needs to be careful about whom we put on a pedestal because it says a lot about who we are and what we value.

As for the film itself, I was most disappointed with Eastwood’s white and black, light and dark portrayal of the war. It is a disservice to the reality of conflict and wars in general. The “bad guys” in the movie are all affiliates of Al Qaeda. This aggressively oversimplifies the combatants in the war, and it makes it far easier for the American public to root against them.

Certainly many combatants in the war were “bad guys,” but all of them? This may have been a move by Eastwood to focus the movie more on Kyle, but it is also a way of sidestepping the complexity of the conflict and dehumanizing the other side.

Future generations may look back at this movie, and it may shape their perceptions of the war. Like “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket” became two of the defining movies of the Vietnam War, will “American Sniper” define the Iraq War? I hope not. There was no muddying of the morals. No mentions of George Bush, Dick Cheney or the failed search for WMD’s.

Chris Kyle’s service and sacrifice should be celebrated, but his character demands a hard look before he can be idolized as a national hero. Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” falls short of the hype, missing an opportunity to create a movie that captures the reality of the Iraq War and drumming up Islamophobia at home. Nations write their own histories in myriad ways, and film is an important one. Don’t let our history read like a Western with cowboys riding into Baghdad, killing all the “savages” and riding off into the sunset as the dust settles. We all know the history is far more complicated than that, and we have a responsibility to future generations to depict it honestly, even if that means we don’t always get to be John Wayne.

Walker Mills ’15 plans on commissioning into the United States Marine Corps after graduation and would love to continue the conversation at walker_mills@brown.edu.

  • Keep It Simple

    It wasn’t about the war. It was about one guy in the war.

    Can nothing be micro around here? Good lord.

    • lol micro

      Tens of millions of people saw and were affected by this movie, dude! Art does things. It is right to talk about those things. The world is not fake.

  • also

    Dumb analysis. Great Brown touchy-feely angst.
    You want a more accurate picture of the war with ISIS and extreme Islam, then demand that Clint Eastwood stop sugar-coating the atrocities by our enemy in that war.

  • Eric

    Mills: “No mentions of George Bush, Dick Cheney or the failed search for WMD’s … Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” falls short of the hype, missing an opportunity to create a movie that captures the reality of the Iraq War…”

    As Keep It Simple said, ‘American Sniper’ is character story based on one man’s particular experience. It’s not an examination of the political context of Operation Iraqi Freedom, nor does it represent the whole American experience in Iraq. I look forward to a movie about Operation Iraqi Freedom as equally popular as ‘American Sniper’ about a mixed Civil Affairs team or a US Army infantry platoon partnered with an Iraqi company immersed in an Iraqi community in the heart of the Counterinsurgency “Surge” and Anbar Awakening.

    The success of the COIN “Surge” is one of the great peace-building achievements of American military history, yet few outside the military know anything about it.

    That being said, while ‘American Sniper’ is about a man at war rather than the war, the discussion about ‘American Sniper’ is an opportunity to correct prevalent misconceptions about the ‘why’ of Operation Iraqi Freedom. To set the record straight, an explanation of the law and policy, fact basis for Operation Iraqi Freedom.