The reaction to the Clint Eastwood film, American Sniper, may, in the long run, be more consequential than the film itself. Immediately after the film received a wide release in the US, praise began pouring in, with Chris Kyle being anointed a hero defending the freedoms of America. Amid the praise, two tweets stood out in seeming defiance against the universal acclaim that raised the ire of the legion of pro-military pundits and politicians, who never miss a chance to harangue anyone who voices the slightest criticism of the military.
While not commenting directly on the film itself, Moore made the relatively uncontroversial comment that "snipers are cowards". In response, Newt Gingrich urged Moore to hole up with ISIS, and Sarah Palin made a charming sign declaring,"F you Michael Moore". On January 18th, Seth Rogen tweeted: "American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds." Anyone who has seen Basterds knows the film-within-a-film of Daniel Bruhl’s character gunning down the charging enemy horde. The backlash was swift and severe. All manner of threats and insults were hurled at these two deviants, for breaking the taboo against military criticism.
But taboos must be trodden on, especially when life and liberty is at stake. A lot can be gleaned from nation by finding out what that nation judges as heroism.
The release of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper could not have been more perfectly timed. The film received a wide release on January 16th, nine days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, adding a dose of nitro glycerin to a steadily increasing rumble of bloodthirsty nationalism among the American public.
Whether Eastwood intended to tap into this murderous nationalism is irrelevant. It was only too obvious how the movie would have been perceived. Civilization versus the savages, heroism versus terrorism, Good versus Evil. Never mind that Iraq was invaded under false pretense, and that the reaction of the native population was what one would expect. How would Americans react to a foreign invasion, complete with drones and snipers? And how would we react if, years later, a film was made depicting the foreign sniper having a momentary moral crisis before blowing apart an American mother and child? Is it inconceivable to believe that we brand the sniper a coward and murderer, and do everything in our power to eliminate the invading horde? Who would the savages be, in our eyes?
By blindly valorizing the actions of Chris Kyle, the true heroism in our midst is cheapened and ignored. The whistleblowers, the journalists, the antiwar activists, these are true defenders of liberty. These are the heroes that deserve to have their story told, but their story won’t be told, because their story delegitimizes the very institution that gives an arena to the Chris Kyles of the world. The State has everything to gain from the gung-ho jingoism saturating the rhetoric of politicians and members of the media.
We must learn when to recognize heroism where it truly exists: the heroism of putting one’s life and liberty on the line to expose the lies of war, and the lies of the warmongers. Kyle’s story was low-hanging fruit for Eastwood. It was obvious that his story would appeal to the militant nationalism boiling just below the surface. Much more so than the Iraqi viewpoint of the US invasion, or the sectarian violence that seemed to go nova after their "liberation".
Sinclair Lewis is believed to have said that if fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross. Fascism latches on to national symbols, and twists the emotional hardware that has adhered to these symbols to fit its purposes. The State’s purposes, that is. The virulent nationalism on display in defense of Chris Kyle has a proto-fascist tone, this type of nationalism really being nothing more than fascism running around with the shell on its head. It also has a sort of Veteran’s Day aspect to it, the same distant, unquestioningly devoted attitude that Lucy Steigerwald refers to in her most recent column. By refusing discussion, and refusing to allow discussion, on the grounds that it trods too closely to the sanctity of military heroism, we inadvertently ensure a perpetual recurrence of the types of conflicts that give rise to stories like Kyle’s.
The lesson of Chris Kyle’s story seems to be how the theater of war can draw out the beast in our nature. We all have the potential to murder, rape, and pillage, but relative peace and relative freedom have a civilizing effect on us, making it easier to suppress this instinct. To ignore this, and to instead revel in the depicted slaughter, is to embrace the beast in our nature, the primitive barbarism that surfaces from time to time, as illustrated in Timothy Snyder’s book, Bloodlands.
Why does it always seem that the most important matters of the day are so wrapped up in an emotional fog? It’s hard enough for us humans to think past stage one as it is, and when our all-too-human emotional baggage is tacked on, it seems to preclude any reasonable discussion of things such as war and peace, issues that urgently require rational debate. Instead of debate, we get the mindless backlash in response to Michael Moore and Seth Rogen. To even question whether Kyle was less than an absolute hero, fighting for our freedoms, is to invite a deluge of threats, slander, and revenge fantasies. If we can’t openly discuss this, if we can’t let our minds break past the mental barrier erected by decades of military deification, we hold open the path for the next war, the next group of soldiers dead, the next handful of journalists harassed and jailed, the next conscientious objectors branded as ‘Anti-American’. Holding up Chris Kyle as a hero dishonors true heroes, glorifies the State, and perpetuates war. Events like this seem to act like a thermometer, and highlight where we are most infirm as a nation. A correct diagnosis could lead to correct treatment, and we could walk away from the emotional haze surrounding discussion of military might and its role in the world.
Shane Smith lives in Norman, Oklahoma and writes for Red Dirt Report.