American Sniper is Bad for America

In recent weeks, the culture of uncritical patriotism has returned to the news with the release of the film American Sniper. Chris Kyle’s case, and that of his supporters, involves a certain level of wrapping himself in the flag (literally: see the poster image above) and expecting people to rally behind the symbol without thinking about what is actually going on. Real, honest to goodness patriotism, however, is quite a bit more complex than that.

American Sniper, based on the Chris Kyle autobiography of the same name, alleges to tell the story of “America’s deadliest sniper.” Insofar as that goes, that’s likely a true statement. But whether it’s 160 or 255 or some other number is anyone’s guess as the Navy does not actually release those figures. However, if you read the book, and I have, you quickly run into problems. The first and most obvious problem one finds is the gross inaccuracy. Even when not talking about his exploits in wartime, the entirety of which are factually problematic, Kyle seems unable to relate the truth about his experiences here in America and they have been thoroughly debunked. He never sniped looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He never took down attempted carjackers who wanted his truck (and the ensuing cover-up conspiracy theories he spouted were truly bizarre). He never punched former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura in the face for saying awful things about SEALs in a bar (his estate, however, lost a defamation lawsuit brought by Ventura to the tune of $1.8 million, evidence that lying has its consequences even if you are America’s darling). Further examples abound.

At least he was honest when he admitted to starting bar fights on purpose to maintain his image. Credit where it’s due, folks. He also writes about his efforts to help fellow veterans in lieu of therapy by taking them to gun ranges and such, but that’s actually very dangerous and illegal in some states including Texas. PTSD can do all sorts of strange things to a person’s mind, including fear of being seen as weak and having massive problems with memories (Note: If you or a loved one are suffering from any of the symptoms of PTSD, please get help). I just wish no one else had to suffer for his sense of inadequacy. The rest of his non-combat tales are similarly absurd or impossible to verify. Director Clint Eastwood, famous for his critical and introspective Flags of Our Fathers, chose to ignore all this and left the lies out of the film. But then he invented his own.

More troubling, however, is that he seems to have been a bit of a monster. In one interview he was asked the number of people he had killed and replied, “The number is not important to me.” Had he stopped there, it would be fine. Unpleasant things are occasionally necessary in the defense of our nation and, as a veteran, I’m the last to criticize someone for doing what’s needed to keep himself and his buddies alive (please ignore for the moment the questionable necessity of the wars in the first place). But he ruins it a moment later by saying, “I only wish I had killed more.”

On page after page he reveals that he enjoyed what he was doing. Therein lies the distinction between a warrior and a murderer. A warrior acts as he does because he believes it necessary. A murderer kills because he likes it. Kyle assumed everyone he saw was an enemy to be killed. His book is filled with racism and Islamophobia that I can’t even begin to describe, saying “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” the people we were theoretically there to help, never mind that he bragged about looting apartments in Fallujah. There’s some homophobia in the mix for good measure among all the other vapid macho bullshit. He unthinkingly killed fellow human beings because he liked it, comparing one incident to the film Dumb and Dumber. By contrast, the highest kill count sniper in Vietnam, Carlos Hathcock, always emphasized that he “never got to like it” and did it because it was what was required to stay alive. Kyle was a monster, not a hero. But that doesn’t mean he deserved to be killed by one of the men he was trying to help, however unwise his methods. All of this of course ignores the associated tragedy of the murder of Chat Littlefield who was also present at the gun range that day. He might have been less famous, but he was no less human and his untimely end was no less unnecessary.

Kyle was a simple man with a simple worldview, the “with us or against us” of the Bush years. Because we live in a nation where 80% of those polled by Oklahoma State University think DNA in their food is a bad thing, the film has earned rave reviews and over $90 million at the box office on its opening weekend. We live in a nation where, when folks point out the lies, inconsistencies, absurdities, and depravities in Kyle’s story, they get threatened with rape and death. Seriously, it gets weird and personal and these folks think they are defending Kyle’s vision of faith and country. When asked about the controversy, screenwriter Jason Hall says he ignores it and director Clint Eastwood’s opinion is anyone’s guess.

But one should distrust those who uncritically wave the flag and/or a religious text. As is often but wrongly attributed to Sinclair Lewis but likely accurate nether the less, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Kyle believed he was fighting a latter day Crusade and his defenders think our nation needs more of his sort of zealotry. Seriously.

As a free people, Americans have the right to question what our government and its operatives do in our name. To remain a free people, we have the obligation to ask those questions and demand answers. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a soldier in Iraq, a policeman in Missouri, or a politician in Washington. More than being a veteran or even an American, I’m a human being and that means I have an obligation to the truth. Kyle was a monster and he damns himself with his own words, the lies and the truth.

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J. Holder Bennett spends his time in the “real” world, whatever that means, as a history professor in North Texas. The rest of the time he focuses on his real love: fandom. For the past fifteen years he’s helped run A-Kon, an anime and manga convention in Dallas, and recently organized the Fandom and Neomedia Studies (FANS) association to bring together fans and academics for the better understanding of their mutual love. He has also done work on historical fiction and collaborated on analyses of science in cinema. Yes, he’s that guy.

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  1. Great piece J! Growing up in a military family, you get a lot of insight on the methodology of recruitment. You have the standard recruiters, who spew complete bullshit just to sway folks into joining, in some cases, the military tries to appeal to the youth by having games in their recruitment centers that act as “simulations” of combat experience. When I say simulations, I mean arcade games that glorify combat and war.

    However, I have found that the biggest incentive is that of financial stability. A lot of military folks join because they need the money to support their families, and the government provides the money up-front, as well as providing a steady wage throughout your entire service. I have had friends who were unable to afford college, so they joined the military to get the financial support necessary to get a degree. In fact, it is pretty common practice that the military will pay the majority of the college fees (if not all of it) so you can go to college. I think a lot of times they go to Military Academies (which provide pretty advanced degrees like nuclear engineering).

    Your contrast of a warrior and a murderer does have a little bit of the patriotic subjectivity that you condemn in this editorial. I personally find that there is no such thing as a “warrior,” especially with the U.S. military. There are people who wish to help, there are those that seek to provide for their family and themselves or make a better future for themselves by using opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise, and then there are some that are murderers (like Chris Kyle). The murderers have no self-identified purpose, they are the ones blinded by overwhelming sensations of neo-patriotism, where they let the government think for them. The concept of the warrior is that of justification for morally fallible actions. Human beings perceive the warrior as a prideful designation, one that makes death and destruction be affiliated with a moral sense of honor. I am not targeting the U.S. military, rather it is a concept that is used all over the world, regardless of what “side” you are on. What is seen as sinful may be considered honorable to others. I am not defending Chris Kyle at all, he is no warrior.

    Every army has a leader (such as governments), and the best leaders are the ones who instill a sense of respect or trust within the troops, regardless of said leaders true intentions. In the U.S’s case, the economic interests of the government are hidden under the guise of terrorism. The government’s primary interest is maintaining a steady flow of oil, arguably seen as the most vital resource from the Middle East. That is why Russia and China were against helping the Syrian rebels (along with Russia’ weapons exports to Syria), and that is why the U.S. has so much interest in the Middle East. The good people of the military are not fighting for freedom, but rather for cheaper oil prices. The use of terrorism as justification for direct invasion is merely the scapegoat, one that easily hides the true intentions of the government from the minds of the troops as well as the U.S. population through patriotic values.

  2. Lewis Manalo says:

    I appreciate how thoughtful your review is, but you argue with some of the same moral simplicity that you criticize. For example, I’d disagree with both you and Matthew above in your comparisons of warriors and murderers; being a warrior and being a murderer are by no means mutually exclusive. Also, though you (rightly) discredit many of Kyle’s statements as swagger and bravado, you don’t entertain the possibility that swagger and bravado may be behind statements like “I only wish I had killed more”, as well as his prejudicial statements.

    I don’t wish to be an apologist, and as a veteran, I am uncomfortable with the odor of sanctity attributed to veterans of any era (ahem, “Greatest Generation”). I appreciate thinkers such as yourself who push back against the blind faith of patriotism. But I do think that responding to stubborn, dualistic, and often prejudicial sentiment – whether you see that in the movie, the book, the media, or people in your life – with formal dualism and elliptical reasoning of your own undermines your own “obligation to the truth.”

    • First of all, thank you for your service! That may sound counter-intuitive to your argument and perhaps is symbolic of the American rhetoric of “protecting our freedom,” that is used as justification for the sending of troops overseas, but I never want to antagonize the individuals, barring some soldiers and military members, rather it is the thinktank overseeing them that should be heavily criticized.

      I do agree that warrior and murderer are not mutually exclusive, although I do believe that a warrior represents a very warped perception of honor that we as human beings have (all cultures and peoples have this notion), one that respects the violence and destruction inflicted upon another for reasons that feed into the narrative that is idealized by the culture or group.

      In the U.S’s case, the narrative is the “fighting for our freedoms,” even though the very notion that a group of terrorists has the ability to take over America is absolutely ridiculous and absurd. It can be argued that the terrorists have, in a twisted sense, succeeded in their actions towards the U.S. The idea of terrorism has become so integrated into our society that it has become a scapegoat that all members in the nation use in some way or form, Th

      • Whoops, accidentally clicked on the post button. Anyway, the terrorists have instilled fear and terror within our nation, which is causing our nation to change in ways that would be seen as impossible during the Cold War. The government is becoming more and more integrated into our daily lives, with extreme precautions that approach “Big Brother” territory, with terrorism being used as a justification for it.
        The military benefits with a major portion of government funding, funding that is being taken away from important resources such as education, leading to less opportunities (and ever-increasing costs for college) for students. It is almost a perfect alignment for the military to be honest, the competitiveness of the world market makes exporting manufacturing, decent paying unskilled labor jobs, and engineering jobs a simple task for American corporations so they can make a bigger profit. The nation has become more focused on services rather than production, with less and less positions available for the lower classes unable to afford the ludicrous costs of college, with the primary jobs for them only providing minimum wage (which is well-below the poverty threshold) and no healthcare. People are staying in working positions much longer now than before, avoiding retirement due to the inability to afford such a luxury, and the younger folks have a much more difficult time getting any work. The nation’s economy is strong, but the middle class and lower classes are deteriorating as they are unable to adapt due to the financial demands necessary for adapting is nigh impossible for them to afford. They are left in a position where opportunities are closing or have completely closed for them. The military becomes attractive to them, due to the financial benefits that are provided that they wouldn’t have otherwise. They are provided healthcare, money upfront, and even the opportunity to go to college with minimal costs (or no-costs at all).
        This may sound ridiculous, but I firmly believe that a War Economy is being created, not one of PMCs or selling weapons, but rather one in which the military becomes the primary source of jobs for the non-wealthy.

  3. I have not read American Sniper; I have not seen the film, either. Neither appeals to me necessarily, so I am not likely to go out of my way and experience either. Therefore, I cannot comment on the content of their accurately.

    However, I can and must applaud J. for writing this piece which touches on the effect both media can have on the American landscape, specifically on the perception and treatment of Muslims in our country. I find J. to be very brave for taking this story to task, as it is likely to invite unwanted aggression and bile, I suspect.

    Again, I am in no position to critique the movie or the book. Nor would I look to censor either. Yet, I am delighted that J. and Sequart ran this thoughtful piece that looks beyond the works themselves and notices the effect either might have — the effect both are having. Thank you again for raising this side of the discussion.

  4. Just popping in to say I teach AP Language & Composition and I showed my classes this article as a model for their research papers. Keep writing, man, this is excellent stuff.

  5. I would agree, in retrospect at least, that I went with a rather Manichean either/or setup when there’s really a continuity or spectrum between warrior and murderer. That said, I still firmly believe Kyle was on the murderer end of it. He liked what he did and bragged about liking it.

    As to purpose, while pointing out the falsehoods, inconsistencies, and unverifiables of Kyle’s narrative was important and necessary, looking at the social reception of that narrative was more important to me. I doubt a straightforward cause/effect relationship can be established for this book and film with regard to uncritical patriotism, but it is definitely part and parcel of the phenomenon. My grandfather, a WWII veteran, always said to me, “Don’t trust a man who says he loves his country but doesn’t know anything about his country.”

    As for using this as an example in an AP class, thank you! I teach history at the college level and if I can make even a small contribution to improving student writing, by whatever means, it will have been worth it.

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