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'American Sniper': A film of love and ignorance

Some people have said American Sniper is racist, a piece of propaganda, a movie full of hatred. But if you squint and tilt your head, you will see that it is actually a movie full of love and ignorance.

By Paula Schmitt

While most critics of “American Sniper” are on the right side of issues, it is worth remembering that love and hatred, much like “right side,” are all subjective concepts. It takes intellectual courage to understand that Chris Kyle essentially represents the best – if most misguided – American values. If political analysts continue to ignore that it may well be love that motivates the individual soldier – love of family, nation, brotherhood, god – it will be harder to fight the militarism and false sense of honor instilled in the minds of American children from birth.

Before I continue, two caveats: First, I am not interested in how much the movie is or isn’t faithful to the book; I’m talking about the movie itself. Also, I am not judging its artistic merits, if for nothing else because my benchmarks in cinema are Sam Peckinpah and Stanley Kubrick – the former for the best movie treatises on morality and the volatility of good & evil, and the latter for what are probably the two greatest war movies ever made.* It would be awfully unfair of me to compare Eastwood to those men.

American Sniper poster. (Miztixdotcom/CC BY-SA 4.0)

In one of the most commendable critiques of “American Sniper,” credited by some with ruining its Oscars chances, Rania Khalek writes that the “immeasurable suffering” of the Iraqi people is “completely erased from the narrative presented in ‘American Sniper’.” She is right, of course, but that is not dishonest of Eastwood, on the contrary. “American Sniper” is valuable precisely because its lack of nuance is also the lack of nuance in real life, and the Iraqi suffering absent from the film is also absent from the minds of each aspiring Chris Kyle. The slit of truth shown in “American Sniper,” distressingly narrow as it is, will be the whole truth most Americans will ever get. As it happens, the first victims of American politics are born in the United States.

But you may have a hard time knowing Chris Kyle was a victim. For the film, he was a hero; for the critics, he was a murderer. You wouldn’t learn it either from the average, jargon-minded left-wing commentator, always ready to defend the oppressed but only if the roles of The Powerful and The Weak correspond to those in his manual. It’s easy to see that happen, for example, when the discussion is apostasy and blasphemy. Those are two of the most oppressive ideas ever conceived, omnipotent weapons for the control and oppression of whole populations who become permanently terrorized to perform the most essential of human traits – thinking.

The tormentors, in this case, are mostly Muslim rulers, dictators, monarchs. But you will hardly hear a peep from Sitting Compassionate, because his manual already told him that The Powerful is a role that is never played by a Muslim (or a woman, a black person, an immigrant. Please refer to manual for assigned roles). So when both the tormentor and the victims are Muslims, Sitting Compassionate cannot make sense of his pre-programming, and his few synaptic connections start to short-circuit. The Charlie Hebdo killing is a case in point. Though many one-note-samba analysts went through great lengths to appreciate the hidden reasons behind the killings, they will not take a minute to examine the engendering of a Chris Kyle. The Sitting Compassionate will spend hours of psychoanalysis and political history tracing the source of that rage back to the womb or The Crusades, dissecting the entrails of every slight ever inflicted upon the victims – the perpetrators – but will never do the same for Chris Kyle. We must grant the average American the same chance we concede to that further Other; we must allow him the same time we give the ISIS convert to explain the genealogy of his morals, so we can finally realize that Kyle, too, was a victim of American militarism and corporatocracy.

You are forgiven if you are surprised to know that Boeing Defense sponsors a hockey team. It makes one wonder who there at the arena watching the game could purchase a 250-million-dollar Globemaster CIII. Shouldn’t Boeing target weapons dealers, politicians, contractors? They don’t need to. While wars are essentially motivated by money and decided by the few holding it, wars are mostly validated by the approving masses. Boeing didn’t waste money advertising to irrelevant Joe Doe, on the contrary. The individual – who in his singularity is worth nothing and never profits from war – is a key piece of the herd that becomes the war’s final guarantor. In a democracy, even a false one, it’s the individual and his million iterations who will turn their thumb down before the execution, validating within a multitude a decision taken by the profiting few. For that, it is crucial that the multitude be formed by quasi-automatons.

And it’s not hard to be one.

A recent example comes from a report by Jim Naureckas. In it, he shows that none of the five most prominent newspapers in the USA mentioned Israel’s nuclear weapons when reporting on Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress. Who needs religious scriptures when you have the U.S. mainstream media?

“American Sniper” doesn’t talk about the Lockheeds and Halliburtons who push for wars and profit from them, nor does it discuss the role of government, well described by Frank Zappa as “the entertainment division of the military-industrial complex.” But the film is great at showing the many tools used to rouse the average American and herd each one of them into a ratifying mass. We see Kyle putting the New Testament inside his uniform pocket; we listen to the mantra “God, country and family”; we hear the metaphor, told by Kyle’s father, of how he should neither be a sheep, nor a wolf abusing the weak, but a sheepdog conducting the righteous. We also get a bit of the biopsychology that moves so many men when the soldiers reminisce about how, as children, they would compete to see who would keep his hand for longer on the electrical fence. We see, at a glance, one of a million men in the vastness of our existential desert searching for a purpose, for that non-material motivation, for the mysterious force that assails or empowers the most sophisticated and simplest alike – an inherent enthusiasm that corporatocracy has managed to dull into nonexistence or channel to less worthy/more profitable ends.

The film shows with sad beauty the simplicity of the values cherished by Kyle, and the infinite horrors it unwittingly endorses. The fact that Kyle fought for the “winning” side does not make him any less of a victim. As individuals, all those soldiers are losers, and not because the average suicide rate of a U.S. war veteran is estimated at 22 a day. They are losers because they live like most Americans do, without proper health insurance, holidays, paid education or a decent retirement. They are losers because they are led to do incredible evil in the name of good, and they kill to enrich men who lack the physical fortitude to stand an arm-wrestling match.
They are losers because they don’t even know they are.

To blame the film for the negative effect it may have on the simple-minded is misguided – we should be analyzing why there are still so many simple-minded people in the Greatest Nation on Earth ™. The United States is a country where the teaching of Philosophy is almost completely absent from schools. Critical thinking is becoming virtually non-existent. And nationalism, without any critical thinking, becomes yet another sentiment whose least harmful consequence is having to watch Beyoncé sing the national anthem at a baseball game. Meanwhile, competition is a “value” inculcated in kids before they even learn how to speak.

The other day I was walking in Copacabana and saw a wall sculpture that paid homage to frescobol. Frescobol is a game invented in the 40s in Rio de Janeiro. The written sign on the sculpture explained why it deserved praise – because Frescobol has no winners. Instead of promoting competition, it is played with the objective of keeping the game going the longest time possible, each player helping the other catch the ball and keep the fun going, both sides winning.

When you call Chris Kyle a hateful murderer, you are alienating potential allies in a war where all the warring sides are losing, while the same 1 percent is always, always winning. We play right into their hands when we pretend the remaining 99 percent are revelers in the same victory party.

*Ride the High Country, Pat Garret & Billy the Kid, by Peckinpah; Full Metal-Jacket and Paths of Glory, by Kubrick, since you ask.

Paula Schmitt (@schmittpaula) is a Brazilian journalist, Middle East correspondent, author of the non-fiction, Advertised to Death – Lebanese Poster-Boys, and the novel Eudemonia.

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    1. Brian

      I couldn’t agree more with Paula Schmitt. Yes Chris Kyle and men like him are victims too, of older men who never fought in a war themselves, always somehow got the deferment, and whose own children never seem to be in the front lines, yet are keen to send other men’s sons into the fight and when they come back dead and maimed and broken to call them with treacly cynicism, “my hero!” As I just got done telling someone else here all gung ho on American military adventures and ready to lecture the American president on what a “coward” he is. Had enough of that bullshit.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kareem Jeans

        Is there any piece of trash published here thst this whiney, wretched, fanboy, sycophant won’t gush over?

        Reply to Comment
    2. Lakor

      This possibly would have been relevant commentary several months ago when this movie was released. The critique on US culture makes some reasonable points, but they are not original in any sense. The lack of any justification for statements like ” Critical thinking is becoming virtually non-existent” makes the analysis as shallow as those the author is criticizing. Why is the author even a credible voice on these issues? I expect better, +972.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Gustav

      Right, Paula, you identified the problems with this crazy world of ours. That’s the easy bit…

      Now tell us what the solutions are. That’s the hard bit. Isn’t that so?

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        Of course that’s the hard bit, but it assuredly becomes easier with the right approach. Things like Jewish values of justice, freedom, peace and equality, the development of international norms, standards and institutions, the curbing of monopolistic corporations, a proper respect for democracy uncorrupted by the purchasing power of special interest groups, the employment of media to inform and educate (not to trivialise, distort and obfuscate), the use of sanctions of all types to deter offenders. Sure we live in a very imperfect world, but rest assured, the progress made in the last century deploying education, science, information, international collaboration, the idealism of the young and the fundamental goodness of human beings, will continue, and we will crack this one.

        Reply to Comment
    4. Kareem Jeans

      “The other day I was walking in Copacabana and saw a wall sculpture that paid homage to frescobol….Frescobol has no winners. Instead of promoting competition… both sides winning.”

      Great Paula. What happens when you turn your head 90 degrees and you see the Favela. What goes through your mind when fantasy meets reality?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Teodoro Sansantere

      Thank you for the review. Just for your consideration, can you imagine the boredom and suffering involved by a life devoted to hoarding zeros in bank accounts, playing with sticks and balls in desert-like golf courses, hearing, noticing, feeling time and again (increasingly) that your slavish submission to money is bringing so much evil around all of us; maintaining your relative advantage of health, smartness, whatever, in the servitude of such void, without ever enjoying or even understanding, but always envying, any and all pleasures of intelligence? Shouldn’t even the simple-minded Americans learn to feel pity for their rulers?

      Reply to Comment
    6. j. carbin

      Great article. A.S. was a great movie showing things as they were, not a political affiliation.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Brian

      The solutions are many and complex and everybody’s duty to find (and way beyond the scope of any conceivable essay about a movie, so Ms. Schmitt has not failed us here in any way). For Americans though the first thing they might do is at long last heed the warnings of a man who did fight wars, Eisenhower, about the danger of the military-industrial complex. It’s never been tried. The second obvious thing to be done before they figure anything else out is, following on the physician’s oath to first do no harm, elect presidents who are not stupid and don’t do stupid stuff (or at the very least are smart enough and educated enough to know the ever present danger thereof).* (Which, as any true conservative ought to know, is a bedrock principle of conservatism.) And don’t let foreign leaders and venal, bought and paid for opposition party politicians goad him into doing stuff that the foreign leader’s own intelligence chief says is the stupidest thing he’s ever heard of. This luckily has been tried lately.

      *Not a jackass who can’t even speak his native English properly and managed to get through Yale with his appalling historical and political ignorance solidly intact and likes to say things like “Let’s get Saddam!” and “mission accomplished!” and “heckuva job Brownie!” Who can be goaded with appalling ease into doing stupid stuff and getting huge numbers of people killed and creating chaos across whole regions while singlehandedly doing more to empower Iran than any other man alive. Moron.

      Reply to Comment
      • Kareem Jeans

        Just state your point and move on. You like James Joyce’s retarded anti-Semetic brother.

        Reply to Comment
        • Brian

          Wow you mean you actually have read a book? Amazing. Or did you pick up that tidbit in an Arutz Sheva article about anti-Semitism as the root cause of the occupation?

          Reply to Comment
          • Kareem Jeans

            Bitch, you are not funny.

            Reply to Comment
      • Gustav

        “The solutions are many and complex and everybodys duty to find …”

        Then he proceeds to list only what Americans must do.

        Now, I don’t mean to disrespect America but as Brian for once in his life correctly says “everybodys duty to find”. Unfortunately he misses the point if he thinks that America has to be the first to come up with solutions like “dismantling the military industrial complex”. It would do so at it’s own peril. But to any normal sensible person, doing so out of step without the rest of humanity having a serious involvement of dismantling their assorted terrorists, armies, tyrants etc, would be suicidal for America.

        Now, do you extreme leftist bleeding hearts grasp the magnitude of the problem? No use concentrating your admonisions at your favorite targets like America and Israel. You need to concentrate on all if humanity without fear or favor. Otherwise the rest of us, non bleeding heart, non extreme leftists will jeer you instead of cheer you.

        Reply to Comment