The Resistance to “American Sniper”

As more than twenty-five million Americans now know, American Sniper dramatizes the life of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, who with 160 confirmed kills and 255 probables became the most lethal sniper in our history. An imperfectly-successful rodeo rider, Kyle enlisted at the age of thirty after hearing about Al Qaeda’s embassy bombings in 1998. Almost immediately after marrying he served four tours in Iraq, retired, contended with PTSD, and began helping other veterans by taking them shooting, one of whom murdered him. There is not even a whisper of a rumor that Kyle committed any war crimes in Iraq. This might have made American Sniper an unlikely film to have excited the savage moralizing that the newspapers began reporting within days of the its release (“How Clint Eastwood’s ‘American Sniper’ stoked the American culture wars”, in the Washington Post shortly after the film’s release, another such in the New York Times, and since then a lot more). Eastwood’s Americans neither commit atrocities which Eastwood then excuses—the charge leveled against Zero Dark Thirty—nor do they suffer any, real or invented, which might plausibly stoke Islamophobia. The only atrocities committed by Eastwood’s Iraqis are committed upon one another, and the only Iraqi atrocity we see committed is the punishment of an informer, clearly intended to discourage others. While very ugly—the scene shows a Sunni insurgent threatening a child and then murdering an adult with an electric drill—atrocious reprisals against informers are proverbial in most insurgencies. Kyle calls the insurgents ‘savages’, and although the word has provoked a lot of indignation it surely ranks pretty low on the scale of offensive things soldiers have called one another, and may not be absolutely unforgiveable in a character contending with child suicide bombers and electric drill murders.

Much has been made of the movie’s alleged inaccuracies. How serious are they? On the considerable authority of Dexter Filkins, torture with electric drills was almost exclusively a Shi’a rather than a Sunni practice, but Kyle fought against both Shi’a and Sunni insurgents, and one Sunni insurgent torturer known as ‘the Butcher of Ramadi’ (Amir Khalaf Fanus) did favor electric drills, and did operate in a city in which Kyle fought (Kyle was known to the insurgents as ‘the devil of Ramadi’). Both men have been described as in effect inventions, Kyle because of pretty minor bits of directorial license plus omissions of a few likely fibs about details of his post-war life. Fanus’s equivalent has been dismissed more baldly, in one case because the character modeled on him wears some black leather. The refusal to believe that people like the Butcher of Ramadi existed—and exist in Iraq today, on both sides of the current fighting—is disheartening. The objection to the black leather seems merely trivial, also unprovable—complete data on Fanus’ wardrobe does not exist.

No-one has yet caught Kyle in any exaggerations about what he did and suffered in Iraq, which is interesting, because soldiers are generally thought to remember with advantages. The film adds some details and subtracts others—on Kyle’s account there was no sniper duel, and he never shot a child, so Eastwood has added these two incidents. But if these additions change our view of Chris Kyle from what it would have been after a more accurate biopic, after learning of them our opinion of him almost certainly improves: after all, we now know that he declined to frame his combat experience as a scene out of a Western, with one gunslinger triumphing over another, and he never killed a child.

As for Eastwood’s possible artistic reasons for making these two changes, Kyle’s chief antagonist is another sniper, who uses the same methods and techniques, and is at least comparably skilled at his trade, since the insurgent, allegedly a Syrian volunteer, is reputed to have been an Olympic marksman. In the world outside the film Kyle neither killed this man nor spent much time thinking about him, but his presence in the film makes both men into something very old in heroic epic—two antagonists identically armed and profoundly skilled. Kyle and Mustafa are serving as recognizable versions of Achilles and Hector transformed into killers at a distance, in some senses morally identical, and logically deserving equal admiration for their prowess. But while the people who like the film have not objected to an Iraqi version of Hector, most people who are enraged by the film have barely noticed him. This is odd, because it is possible to imagine part of what Homer does with Hector as describing him defending his Middle Eastern society against Western aggressors who will eventually very disproportionately avenge a comparatively trivial wrong with both mass murder and the sexual enslavement of thousands. One would have thought that depicting an Iraqi insurgent as a Hector-surrogate would gratify critics with an intensely romantic view of the Iraqi insurgencies, but some people want even more egg in their beer. Adding the scene where Kyle in significant distress shoots a child, a combination of a human shield and a human sword who is preparing to kill Americans, is among other things a plausible way of dramatizing the horror of war against insurgents who disguise themselves as non-combatants. I doubt that this addition makes the prospect of protracted counterinsurgency warfare more appealing to the film’s viewers. Very soon, however, the objections weren’t even a footnote to the real news about the film (although they may remain one to the intellectual history of the Anglophone Left), because within two weeks of its release American Sniper became the highest-grossing war film in American history. People bought $110 million dollars worth of tickets during a late-January holiday weekend—a record—and over the next two weeks bought a lot more, so that by the 4th of February U.S. box offices had taken in more than a quarter billion dollars, with foreign sales racking up close to another hundred million more.

It’s almost impossible to determine the political import of any box office triumph because we know little if anything about why strangers go to movies, and it is almost as difficult to be confident about filmmakers’ intentions, but this has never stopped opinion-mongers from claiming the contrary. The ineffable Chris Hedges, in his characteristically-titled “Killing Ragheads for Jesus”, is certain about both the film maker’s intentions— “American Sniper lionizes the most despicable aspects of U.S. society“—and the people who went to see it: “There is no shortage of simpletons whose minds are warped by this belief system…They populate the armed forces and the Christian right…They have little understanding or curiosity about the world outside their insular communities. They are proud of their ignorance and anti-intellectualism. They prefer drinking beer and watching football to reading a book.” Other people on Hedges’ side of the question were usually a bit less scornful of the people who went to see the movie, but equally contemptuous of what they thought they had seen.

One of Salon’s reviews confidently described the film as “the revisionist propaganda piece of myth-making and nationalistic war porn”, but another, by a celebrated journalist, was more charitable: “it’s a simple, well-lit little fairy tale with the nutritional value of a fortune cookie…a saccharine, almost PG-rated two-hour cinematic diversion about a killing machine with a heart of gold…a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism.” British views from the Left were similar: the Independent quoted a celebrated British filmmaker—someone it clearly considered an expert witness—opining that “Adolf would have been proud to have made it”. Unfortunately, this gentleman also remarked that “the whole Obama thing” showed “how deep-rooted it [American fascism] is”, so the Indy may have been overly generous in awarding him expert status about, well, the whole fascism thing. The Guardian published other more (and less) thoughtful pieces, one of them claiming that “The film celebrates a man who has a talent for shooting people dead when they are not looking and who, apparently, likes his job”. There was an awful lot more of this sort of thing, e.g. Slate (“one of the most mendacious movies of 2014″), Jezebel (“essentially a porn parody of Black Hawk Down on a spiritual and intellectual level”), the New Republic, which assessed and dismissed the film on the basis of the trailer, and many more who were less scrupulous and charitable. So the cultural-critical Left loathing for American Sniper has been pretty striking. Some of the attacks are said to have been solicited by studio PR people who were paid to tarnish a rival for the Oscars, and had no dog in the fight—the same motives were said to be at work in the cases of Selma and at least two more contenders—but this cannot explain the breadth and venom of these responses. American Sniper makes some people in this profession crazy, and they’ve said some crazy things, but some of what they’ve said is illuminating about our current Left’s attitudes toward their countrymen who have recently been to war.

The first remark to make a large impression was Michael Moore’s, on Facebook, January 18th, and it was very widely reported. “My dad was in the First Marine Division in the South Pacific in World War II. His brother, my uncle, Lawrence Moore, was an Army paratrooper and was killed by a Japanese sniper 70 years ago next month. My dad always said, “Snipers are cowards. They don’t believe in a fair fight. Like someone coming up from behind you and coldcocking you. Just isn’t right. It’s cowardly to shoot a person in the back. Only a coward will shoot someone who can’t shoot back.”

If Michael Moore’s father actually believed that Japanese snipers were cowards he was a strikingly original man. The list of vices associated with the Japanese Army’s behavior during the Second World War is long and various—startling sadism, perfidious surrender, horrific rotation rape, competitive beheading contests reaching triple digits, vivisection without anesthesia on prisoners of war, testing biological weapons on both military and civilian prisoners, including women and infants, grotesque medical experiments that come close to overshadowing Mengele’s work at Auschwitz, etc.—but to the best of my knowledge, no-one who either fought or even read about them ever accused the Imperial Japanese Army of cowardice. Complaints tended to run in the opposite direction, and I have known men who when brooding about the experience of contending with Sepp Dietrich’s Sixth SS Panzer Army during a blizzard suddenly cheer up after reflecting that they had never had to fight the Japanese.

When charging snipers in general with cowardice Moore is on slightly stronger ground, but this idea has been less and less common since the composition of the Iliad. The distaste for killing at a distance has generally had a strong class and as well as Continental component—Pierre Terrail, seigneur de Bayard, celebrated by his social peers as le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche, made a habit of killing any peasant infantryman he found with a gun, until, in 1525, one shot him, nowadays considered something of a pleasantly ironical outcome. Robin Hood, by contrast, killed at a distance, and has been celebrated for his skill ever since. An aristocratic preference for war as a contest between identically-armed high status social equals slicing one another up at close range is not a position associated with people claiming to speak for and from the Detroit working class, or with any Americans. We’ve instead admired marksmen, far too extravagantly in some eyes, and have rarely scorned them for shooting from cover. We’ve been very proud of Concord, Lexington and what British gentlemen scorned as our “skulking way of war”, as proud as the English have been of their archers at Agincourt (who also killed their social superiors at a distance) and have generally extended this regard to foreigner snipers. Ludmyla Mykhailivna Pavlychenko, who was believed to have had three hundred and nine kills (although she apparently didn’t count her first two Rumanians) toured the country with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942, was given a Colt .45 automatic and a Winchester, spoke at war bond rallies and attended CIO meetings. Woodie Guthrie recorded a song in her honor (“Miss Pavlichenko’s well known to fame/Russia’s your country. Fighting’s your game/The world will love you for a long time to come/For more than three hundred Nazis fell by your gun”). Mass cultural celebration of marksmen was not only a wartime tic—Sergeant Yorkwas filmed and released before Peal Harbor, and Jerome Kern, the first man approached for the job, didn’t start composing Annie Get Your Gun until November of 1945. Nor did our enthusiasm for snipers foreign and domestic end with the Second World War, only to be ghoulishly resurrected by jingo Republicans: Paramount released Enemy At the Gatesin 2001, and that film celebrates the sniper Vasili Grigoryevich Zaitsev, who killed 225 Germans before suffering a mortar shell wound to his eyes.

Although he is still lurching back and forth on the question, Michael Moore almost immediately began to qualify his views of snipers, or at least his definition of them: “I wanted to clarify what I meant by “sniper.” A sniper, to me, is the person in the invading force…the Arab sniper in American Sniper—what was he doing? He was trying to stop the invading force.” But on Moore’s theory the Arab sniper wasn’t a sniper, despite Moore calling him one. The sentence is unwittingly comical, but the thought is anything but, because Moore is refusing to acknowledge the moral equality of combatants, a particularly urgent principle of the laws of war. The moral equality of combatants is why we are obliged to punish soldiers who have committed atrocities but forbidden to punish soldiers who have served in what victors almost invariably describe as unjust wars. The moral equality of combatants recognizes the humanity and even the virtue of enemies; aggression is a crime restricted to states, atrocities can only committed only by individuals, and whole peoples cannot be guilty. If everyone is guilty—a claim rehearsed by one of the more distinguished critics who has written about American Sniper—then no one is guilty to the degree that we must punish them, which means no one is really guilty of anything that matters. Agreement on what constitutes ius in bello—just methods of fighting—can be difficult but has often seemed possible, even while a war is under way. Agreement on ius ad bellum—the right to employ force at all—has been much harder and often impossible. Refusing to acknowledge the moral equality of combatants would destroy the laws of war, because losing one would mean risking a death sentence, in which case moderation would always be imbecility. The moral equality of combatants is why the American Army convicted one of the two American soldiers who had tortured an Iraqi general–Abed Hamed Mowhoush—of negligent homicide. It is a precious principle, always in danger and always deserving our defense. The refusal to concede the moral equality of combatants seems to be one of the reasons American Sniper made some of the critics crazy.

Three weeks on, some of the critics are still reading the movie with amazing carelessness. Here’s Gail Collins, on the 5th of February, in the New York Times: “The film is certainly powerful, and it celebrates our Iraq veterans. But it also eulogizes the killing of Iraq insurgents, including children, and critics feel it ought to be put in the context of an invasion that didn’t need to happen in the first place.” “Eulogize” means to praise with great enthusiasm, which I do not think American Sniper ever does—some of its characters do, but that is a very different thing. “Celebrate” is less obviously wrong, but it misses Eastwood’s obvious sorrow over and pity for his veterans, and the objections to his failure to put those veterans in a context that reassures the viewer that the war “didn’t need to happen” is the equivalent of faulting Casablanca for not dwelling on the alleged injustices of the Treaty of Versailles.

What too few (if any) of the critics remark on is what I find most striking about American Sniper: its protagonist’s unprecedented prowess in war has no effect on the outcome of the war he is fighting. The film severs the link between epic skill at arms and both personal and collective outcomes as thoroughly as any of the First World War literature does: its hero is invincible on the battlefield but its war is by implication unwinnable, and the losses it recounts cannot be offset by any appeals to political forms of thinking. This is not an uninteresting vision for a movie that has so far grossed a quarter billion plus, and while it may not be true either in whole or even in part, my guess is that most of the ticket-buyers noticed this vision and thought about it. There is no reason to assume that the people who flocked to the movie were as inattentive as the critics and bloggers who exulted in so noisily dismissing and despising it.