“American Sniper” has become a surprise box office smash, breaking records for a mid-winter release. Less surprisingly, it has become a flashpoint in the culture wars.
For some folks, it’s a depiction of the skill, dedication and sacrifice of American warfighters as represented by one of the elite: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. For others, the movie is a glorification of war and killing that elides responsibility for a bad war. As always happens when a cultural nerve is tweaked, the rhetoric is hot and vitriolic.
For his part, legendary filmmaker Clint Eastwood says his movie is an “anti-war statement,” because it shows the vast percentage of the civilian population that had no personal skin in the game “what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back to into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.”
Chris Kyle was one of a line of country-boy sharpshooters who have had a major impact on America’s battles — from Pennsylvania frontiersman Timothy Murphy, who helped turn the tide of the pivotal Revolutionary War Battle of Saratoga by shooting British General Simon Fraser out of the saddle at a crucial moment, to West Virginia Sgt. Alvin York, who single-handedly killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 more in an epic firefight during World War I, to Kyle’s fellow Texan Audie Murphy, the most decorated American soldier of World War II.
Some exalt Kyle’s heritage and his Texas cowboy persona; others find it hard to take. Some see him as a hero, others as a remorseless killer who dehumanized the people in his crosshairs, calling them “savages.” Opinions on Kyle tend to break out along cultural-political lines.
He was exceptionally good at his job and racked up a confirmed kill count of 160 enemy combatants that made him the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. That kind of scorekeeping creeps some people out, but warriors have counted coup since the first time somebody hit somebody else in the head with a club and turned out his lights.
Some scoff at Kyle’s insistence that his job was about saving lives rather than taking them — but that’s what sniper overwatch does. Snipers protect soldiers or Marines as they go about the dangerous work of patrol or raid in an urban environment. That said, if you’ve read Kyle’s memoir, upon which the movie was based, it’s clear that he relished his work and his skill with a rifle. He felt competitive with other snipers and he did, indeed, regard those in his crosshairs as savages.
Why that should shock anyone is a perplexing question. No matter how it’s sanitized for public consumption, no matter how antiseptic it is rendered by the distance afforded by missile strike or drone, war is still about killing enemies. And the actions of the men Kyle and his comrades fought in Iraq, the Ba’athist hardliners, Shiite militia and al-Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq, certainly earned the designation of “savage.” The actions of ISIS that have so horrified the world have only turned the savagery up a notch and publicized it more effectively.
One can oppose the Iraq war for any number of valid reasons and still acknowledge that the insurgents and outright terrorists our troops fought there were deadly enemies. In fact, that seems to be exactly where Eastwood is coming from.
The movie elides some aspects of Chris Kyle’s character that would have made for a more complete picture. He seems to have made up some whoppers after returning from war. He claimed to have killed two men who tried to carjack him in Texas, deploying some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card from the Department of Defense to deter law enforcement heat. Well… And there were stories about traveling in secret to New Orleans during Katrina and shooting looters.
None of that is verifiable and knowledgeable folks are pretty certain nothing like these incidents ever happened. And, after Kyle’s death, Jesse Ventura won a defamation suit against his estate over a claim that Kyle decked Ventura in a Coronado bar after Ventura allegedly disparaged the war and Navy SEALs. Ventura said it never happened, and a jury side with him. (Ventura didn’t exactly cover himself in glory by pursuing the suit against Kyle’s widow after the sniper’s death. Major dick move there).
Why Kyle felt the need to tell tall tales when he had a verified record of exceptional combat prowess and fortitude is an open question. The answer may be psychologically complicated — some need to hold onto to a sense of identity as “The Legend” perhaps — or maybe not. He sure ain’t the first Texas cowboy (or Frontier Partisan for that matter) to tell a stretcher or two in a barroom.
Kyle’s larger-than-life persona surely had its portion of bravado, but he was also a generous and compassionate man. The irony of his death is bitter: slain along with his buddy Chad Littlefield by a troubled veteran he had reached out to and was trying to help.
Whether you see Chris Kyle as a hero or not depends mostly on the lens you are looking through. But certainly he was a man whose story was worth the telling, and Eastwood told it well.