“American Sniper” and being “anti-war”

Spoilers for the film American Sniper are going to be in here somewhere, I guess, I don’t really know what qualifies as a “spoiler.” Anyway, you were warned.

There’s a sequence maybe halfway through American Sniper where Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) is leading his men on a stakeout of a restaurant where a top Al-Qaeda in Iraq figure called “The Butcher” (loosely based on, from what I can tell, two different men: AQI’s “Butcher of Fallujah,” Ahmad Hashim Abd al-Isawi, and Abu Deraa, a Shiʿa warlord known for using a power drill to torture and murder his enemies) is meeting with his men. The Americans burst in and take over the home of a family across the street from the restaurant, and despite this terrifying intrusion they are invited to join the family for their Eid al-Adha meal.

As everyone is at the table — eating, joking, doing homework — Kyle (because he is essentially a superhero with superpowers as far as this film is concerned) realizes, based on the tiniest of clues, that the father of this family is in cahoots with AQI. Then, after only the briefest of searches, Kyle (again with the superpowers) manages to find this man’s massive weapons cache, and then threatens him with arrest unless he leads the Americans across the street and helps them gain entry into the restaurant. The man knocks on the door and convinces his fellow AQI fighter to open it, at which point the guy who opened the door is gunned down by the Americans. The father then grabs the fallen man’s weapon and begins firing at the Americans, before he too is dispatched, almost as an afterthought.

I’m not a film critic, plus I was predisposed to dislike this movie before I saw it, based on what I had read about the way it “whitewashes” the Iraq War. So you’re not going to get a quality movie review here. But bear with me for a few minutes, please. As I watched that part of the film with the Iraqi man and his family, I couldn’t help but imagine that there was another, more important, movie that somebody could have made about this (presumably fictionalized; as far as I know Chris Kyle didn’t have anything to do with taking down the real “Butcher of Fallujah,” and Abu Deraa was still alive the last time anybody checked) vignette. It’s a movie about that Iraqi man. It’s about what drove a man with a seemingly happy wife and several seemingly happy children to join a group like Al-Qaeda in Iraq in the first place. It’s about the terror he must have felt when those Americans barged into his home, and the embarrassing violation it must have been for that man to be ordered around in his own home, in front of his own family, by these invaders. It’s about the mindset that would drive somebody in his position to pick up the gun of his fallen comrade instead of just running away (as he could easily have done), knowing full well that picking up the weapon was the last thing he would ever do. That could have been not just a great movie, but also one that was important for an American audience to see, despite how uncomfortable it would have been to see it.

Clint Eastwood says that he made American Sniper to be an “anti-war film”:

“The biggest antiwar statement any film” can make is to show “the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did,” Clint Eastwood said at Saturday’s Producers Guild Award Nominees Breakfast, which took place at The Saban Theater in Beverly Hills.

The film’s screenwriter, Jason Hall, has made similar claims:

“The cost is man, the toll is man, and it’s this man and every other soldier that fights,” Hall says. “If we understand that, maybe we won’t be so hasty into jumping into war, and if we understand that, maybe we’ll find a way of welcoming [veterans] home better.”

I wouldn’t dispute these statements; the film certainly does show the physical, mental, and emotional toll that the war took on Kyle (at least as he’s portrayed here) and the other men and women who served in it. But it’s anti-war in the particularly self-absorbed way that most American anti-war films are “anti-war,” where the audience is told that war is bad because of what it does to the American soldiers who fight in them. This is obviously an important part of war that those who don’t serve in the military need to understand, but it’s still only part. As I was watching Eastwood’s anti-war film, I kept wondering if we’ll ever see the other anti-war film that needs to be made about Iraq, the one told from the perspective of the Iraqis. That’s the movie that would explore that Iraqi father’s story, or the story of Kyle’s nemesis, the barely one-dimensional enemy sniper “Mustafa,” whose real life beyond shooting Americans is hinted at by Eastwood, but just barely.

Where’s their story? Where’s the story of Abu Ghraib or the Blackwater shootings at Nisour Square in Baghdad in 2007? Where’s the story of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have unnecessarily died over the past 25 years because of American sanctions and American ordinance, or the millions of grieving loved ones they’ve left behind? It’s not hard to imagine that if it had been, say, the Russian army invading Iraq instead of the American army, we’d find in men like “Mustafa” or that ordinary Iraqi father some inspiring tales of courageous resistance to occupation at all costs. But when we’re the ones doing the invading, those same men are just “savages,” as Kyle liked to call them.

War is hell...on the guys doing the shooting. What's it like for the people getting shot?
War is hell…on the guy doing the shooting. What’s it like for the people getting shot?

There’s a bit of a debate going on about whether Kyle was a “hero,” which I think misses the point. The issue isn’t whether Chris Kyle in particular was a “hero,” but about the nature of the word “hero” itself, about its subjectivity. I would never argue with a Marine whose life was saved by one of Chris Kyle’s bullets, or whose return to civilian life was eased by the work Kyle did after he left the Navy, calling Kyle a “hero,” but neither would I be able to argue with an Iraqi who thought that Kyle was simply a particularly lethal agent of a conquering army.

Nor would I argue with someone who watched the same movie I did and thought that the Iraqi man who picked up that gun was the real hero. That man was fighting for his family, his country, in resistance to an illegitimate occupation. Chris Kyle fought to protect the men and women he served with, yes, but they all went to Iraq on the basis of a series of lies and as part of the most illegitimate war our country has ever chosen to fight. Somebody should talk about what that war did to the people who suffered from it, who are still suffering from it, on a daily basis.

Eastwood clearly doesn’t want to trouble his American audience with any details about the war itself; if you’d been in a coma since the year 2000 and woke up just in time to see this film, you’d be convinced, for example, that the Iraq War was conducted in direct response to 9/11, and that every Arab in Iraq was just irrationally trying to kill American soldiers because they’re all crazed terrorists. Hell, Eastwood doesn’t even care to get the details of the combat right; he has Kyle moving from Fallujah to Sadr City chasing the same AQI bad guys, when in fact American forces were fighting Sunni militias (and AQI) in the former and Shiʿa militias in the latter. Was that Chris Kyle’s story, glossing over the details and dehumanizing the people he was fighting? Maybe, but it didn’t have to be Clint Eastwood’s story.

The thing is, I’m pretty sure Clint Eastwood understands the idea that there are two sides to every war. This is the director who made Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006, an honest attempt to tell a story of World War II from the perspective of the Japanese soldiers fighting against America. Maybe it’s easier to make a movie like that when the war in question has been over for 70 years, as opposed to a war that is effectively still ongoing, but the fact that it is ongoing makes telling the truth about it all that more important. Maybe it’s easier to tell a humanizing story about the perceived aggressors in war than it is to try to humanize the people who have themselves been victims of American aggression. The latter is a much more painful story for Americans to hear, but again I think is much, much more important.

2 thoughts on ““American Sniper” and being “anti-war”

  1. A “spoiler” is anything that gives away plot details of a work (movie, play, book etc.) you would not know without having seen or read it yourself. Therefore, saying Chris Kyle was murdered by a troubled vet he took shooting is not a spoiler, because that’s common knowledge from the news, but quoting from the “sheepdog speech”, which was made up strictly for the movie, is a spoiler.

    Normally the way we get to see the kind of anti-war film you referred to is when someone outside the major studios makes one. Eastwood is very much Hollywood establishment. He won’t make a film that directly portrays America as wrong for having engaged in a war. Looking back on the films critical of the war in Vietnam, they were usually metaphorical or symbolic versions like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now, or independent documentaries including Hearts and Minds (1972). The only (sort-of) studio film I can think of that was critical in detail toward the mission in Nam was Medium Cool. Having anti-war sentiments and scenes in “youth movies” like Alice’s Restaurant and The Strawberry Statement was using the war as a framing device, rather than the main subject.

    Watching American Sniper several times (we had a screener), I got the impression they had probably filmed a lot more rehab scenes and cut them out in favor of more time for combat. It felt incomplete and lopsided to me. The first time I saw the “he got killed” text at the end, I felt like, WTF? HOW did he get better? Why did he think giving a weapon to a guy with PTSD was a valid therapeutic activity? After calming down I guessed Eastwood didn’t care as much about scenes where men show vulnerability and break down in the process of readjustment to normal life. Or maybe that was Cooper’s call, since he was a main producer. Anyway, it’s a picture made for a mostly male audience (some of whom will drag their wives and girlfriends along), and they don’t want to see men cry.

    1. Thanks, this is a really great comment! I put the spoiler warning in mostly for the story about the Iraqi guy at the very beginning. You’re right on point with respect to anti-Vietnam films, which mostly stick to the effects the war had on the Americans fighting it. The Killing Fields was critical of the impact of Vietnam on the people of Cambodia, but that was a British film so they presumably felt freer to criticize America.

      The idea that they cut rehab scenes is interesting and I hadn’t considered that. I assumed they felt like they told as much of that story as they could around a figure like Kyle, who (based on second-hand details about his autobiography) genuinely doesn’t seem to have agonized too much about the things he did in Iraq.

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