In the 2015 film American Sniper, following the first kill that Navy Seal Chris Kyle undertakes, he arrives on base and is greeted by fellow soldier, and future friend, Biggles reading a Punisher comic. After Kyle accuses Biggles of reading a “comic-book,” the latter corrects him, calling it a “graphic novel.” Surprising that a Marvel imprint could garner such prestige in a film that was nominated for 6 Academy Awards before it was released in theaters nationwide. But the insignia persists, and Frank Castle’s signature emblem is emblazoned across the munitions and armored personnel carriers of Kyle’s fellow squad men for the duration of the film. It’s a totem, a tangible object that bridges the connection between its bearers and the intangible spirit of vindication and vengeance. This is not the first time that comics have been wrangled by Hollywood to comment on politics, or vice versa. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight highlights the power of a rich, old money heir waging a personal brand of vigilante violence against injustice, even going so far as to extradite international criminals, thereby circumventing treaties and violating the American Way. Nolan knew that he was grooming Batman to be George Bush Jr. Whether or not the American public was aware, that is a different matter.
Observing the use of the Punisher’s symbol of vigilante justice calls into question the purpose of war, especially our modern engagements in the Middle East. Kyle’s confidante, Marc Lee, who is killed during a passionate revenge incursion for the injury of Biggles (complications would lead to his death during surgery later), writes a letter home to his parents expressing his doubts of the purpose of the war. In like manner, Jeff Kyle, Kyle’s younger brother whispers morosely, “Fuck this place… Fuck this place, man.” Both Marc and Jeff express their doubts of the war’s efficacy; the former, Kyle intimates implicitly, was at fault for not being there in the combat in mind and body. Does this mean that Kyle denounces Marc? Fortunately, the problem is a subjective one, and can’t be verified.
As the film progresses, Kyle becomes consumed by his own tours of duty, narrowly escapes death countless times, and brings his trauma home with him. It debilitates him, but becomes the framework by which he sees the work. It is the reason he keeps going back. And so, Kyle effectively dons the persona of a vigilante, embodied by the Punisher and his trademark insignia.
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Castle’s own war against crime has lead him down dark paths, and brought him to do terrible things, including, but not limited to, torture and murder. In our own political hegemony, the US pursues means of vigilante justice, only using particular verbiage that softens the blow. PMCs go where no US soldier has gone/can go before. Enhanced interrogation techniques are demonstrated and advocated as a means to an end. What is so troubling about the fog of war in the 21st century is that only 70 years ago German sympathizers and soldiers were put on trial before an international court for waterboarding POWs and executed for crimes against humanity. Today, government agents fill morning talk show segments of national media outlets detailing how they torture POWs, without fear or regret. It is argued that the moral footing made by the US in international politics at the conclusion of WWII was a direct result of trying German soldiers and officers for their crimes publically, when continental states demanded swift, commuted executions without due process. In the US constitution, the 3rd amendment restricts the quartering of US troops in the homes of citizens during peacetime, yet soldiers are permitted to quarter themselves in the apartments and houses of Afghan and Iraqi citizens under Total war. (Granted, Kyle’s platoon is depicted entering the house of a family that holds a strategic location, which is capitalizing on opportunity. Still, the act of quartering helped uncover that the patriarch of the household was an Al Qaeda sympathizer, but also put the family at risk of being killed. Earlier in the film, a family is decimated for their aid, the father shot to death and the son is brutally murdered with a power drill in front of his mother and sisters.) These situations, complicated, nuanced, and subjective in each incident, only prove how the fog of war has thwarted the binaries of ethics, of right and wrong.
Kyle’s own vigilante justice falls in line with American tactical ops, which makes his justice all the more opaque. Despite having a family and having completed (according to the film) some 1,000 days of combat duty, Kyle’s need to serve is motivated by saving the lives of his fellow soldiers. No mention is made of freeing the Iraqi people from the bondage of Saddam Hussein’s regime or of bringing stability to a war-torn region rife with systemic suffering beyond imagining. The latter, arguably, is fought by bringing down Islamic fundamentalists. But after the deaths of thousands of would-be terrorists and their figureheads, no power on earth has put a dent in the mayhem. Frank Castle’s own brand of justice gets results; which he refers to as a “work in progress,” the phrase coined by Dolph Lundgren, who played Castle in the 1989 Punisher film. But clearly he is still pulling the grind. The Punisher is still in print, up to volume ten, and with no end in sight. The difference between him and, say, Batman, is that his grisly methodology is intrinsically antagonizing. Batman doesn’t kill; that’s not his purpose or role. He is a figurehead for idealized justice and equitable due process. Though Batman’s interrogative techniques walk a fine line between torture and fear based tactics, the villains walk away. They even have an opportunity to heal.
That The Punisher is evoked in American Sniper shows that the war on terror is a real threat, ongoing. Just like Castle’s war, the jihadists will keep on fighting back. The truth of the matter is that the Iraq/Afghan war is not fought with bullets, but with hearts and minds. While soldiers punish wrong-doers (as they should), the war will persist unto whatever cataclysm will come of the jihadists. But this is the point of contention that the film has inspired with its idealized patriotism and contrasting shadows of doubt and cynical attitudes. Articles on the film pit veterans (and their supporters) against the non-initiate masses that have never, nor ever will, see a gun or a battlefield, and they wax and wane between the hypothetical conduct of war, even just war. But these are ultimately illusory conclusions. The Battle of Carthage concluded bitterly in 146 BC and saw the Roman legions capture each house one at a time within the city walls, much like the “block parties” carried out in Fallujah. But as the last remaining survivors of the Roman assault martyred themselves before facing Roman rule, Scipio Aemilianus allegedly remarked on the futility of war, and foresaw even Rome would fall one day, as Carthage had. If this is true, there is wisdom to understanding and comprehending the limitations of zealous patriotism, and the decay of empire and republic. Rather than argue for the validity or weakness of American Sniper, a far more profitable discussion it that of trying to understand the vast complexity of war and ethical quagmire it entails.
I admit my own worldview is indeed influenced primarily by religion; Christianity to be exact. Because of this, American Sniper impressed me with its candid depiction of the fog of war primarily. My perspective lends reasoning to the idea that the systemic evil in the world is symptomatic of a transcendent human condition that is motivated by greed, hate, exclusion, maligning, and oppression. (Though, a far more extensive list can be catalogued beyond these parameters.) Certainly, American Sniper emphasizes the great anger felt by those victimized by violence, both the Iraqis and the US armed forces, but there is no solution offered beyond escalating acts of antagonism. Putting a gun to the head of a terrorist for but a moment will not entice change, neither will blowing up a building. Simultaneously, living in a world where such things are constant does not prohibit someone from acting in defense, or acknowledging a presence of evil, be it whatever flavor. Yet, I have hope because I know that the world was never meant to be this way, and will eventually, at some point, cease to be as it is currently. Patriotism is a lie, because nations do not last forever. Pacifism is a lie, because the world is dominated by egotism and opportunists. Kyle’s own vigilantism and the torment that it brings him (which subsides by the end of the film) is the true subject of American Sniper, and is not meant to be briskly rationalized and justified. Kyle’s life was marred by the incongruences of the fallen world, and no amount of patriotic zeal will remedy damaged hearts. And so the Punisher’s totem of vengeance locks Kyle into a spiral of pain; and violence will beget violence. Always. Yet the redemptive aspects point to a greater, far sweeter reality that is, as St. Paul says, “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully (the Kingdom), even as I have been fully known.”