What American Sniper offers us — more than a heart-wrenching tale about Chris Kyle’s struggle to be a soldier, a husband, and a father; more than an action packed story about America’s most lethal sniper — is an exposure of the often hidden side of American war culture. The criminality that has characterized American military engagements since the American Indian Wars, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, is hardly noticeable in this film. And that’s exactly my point.
Your average American viewer might be surprised to find out that Chris Kyle built his reputation as a sniper during one of the most criminal operations of the entire occupation of Iraq, the 2nd siege of Fallujah. He or she certainly won’t learn this by watching American Sniper, which doesn’t even hint that Chris Kyle ever did anything in Iraq except kill bad guys and defend America. And this speaks volumes about how little we understand the wars that our country fights around the world.
Perhaps my argument seems strange — that the most insightful part of this film is what is not in it. However, I believe that these omissions reflect more than just what the director decided to be irrelevant to the plot. These omissions reveal an unconscious psychological process that shields our ideas about who we are as individuals and as a nation. This process, known as “moral disengagement”, is extremely common in militaristic societies. But what is fascinating about American Sniper is how these omissions survive in the face of overwhelming evidence of the crimes that Chris Kyle participated in. The fact that a man who participated in the 2nd siege of Fallujah — an operation that killed between 4,000 to 6,000 civilians, displaced 200,000, and may have created an epidemic of birth defects and cancers — can come home, be embraced as a hero, be celebrated for the number of people he has killed, write a bestselling book based on that experience, and have it made into a Hollywood film is something that we need to reflect on as a society.
It is not my intention to accuse Chris Kyle of committing war crimes as an individual, or to attack his character in any way. Some critics have pointed out the many racist and anti-Islamic comments that Chris made in his autobiography (these comments are significantly toned down in the film). Others have noted his jingoistic beliefs. However, I too participated in the 2nd siege of Fallujah as a US Marine. And like Chris, I said some racist and despicable things while I was in Iraq. I am in no position to judge this man, nor do I think it is important to do so. I am far more interested in our reaction as a society to Chris Kyle, than I am in the nuances of his personality.
In both the book and the film, Chris Kyle comes off as a man who is slightly embarrassed by the labels that his comrades-in-arms and his society throw upon him, such as “legend” or “hero”. This comes off as very selfless and humble of him. But the more important point is that we are the ones who cast him into this designation as hero. And the financial success of Chris Kyle’s autobiography and Clint Eastwood’s cinematic adaptation of it reveals just how willing America is to embrace this man and his story, despite its factual inaccuracies.
Perhaps the only thing that I think is import to say about Chris Kyle the individual is that a man like Chris has the power to legitimize this sanitized version of events in Iraq that not all veterans have. Somehow in our culture, combat experience is mistaken for knowledge about a war. And Chris Kyle’s status as a Navy SEAL with mountains of medals and ribbons, multiple deployments to Iraq, and battle field accolades that are unmatched makes him an authority on the topic of Iraq to those who don’t know better.
I sympathize with Chris, because I believed many of the same things he believed while I was in Iraq: That Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction. That our mission was just and good. That the people we were fighting against in Iraq wanted to kill Americans because of some irrational political ideology or fanatical religious beliefs. And that most Iraqis wanted us in their country.
Notice how within this ideological framework, the emotional turmoil that Chris goes through and the strain that his multiple deployments put on his family gets interpreted as a sacrifice that he bravely and consciously makes for a noble cause. Our mission in Iraq is, of course, understood as a peace keeping and nation building operation, not as the imposition of a political and economic project against the will of the majority of Iraqis. Similarly, “hearts and minds” become an object to be won, rather than something to be respected. The lives that Chris ends are interpreted as “confirmed kills”, not murder. And the people he kills are interpreted as “terrorists”, not as people defending their country from a foreign, invading and occupying army.
This ideological framework is America’s war culture. Absent these ideological assumptions, the suffering that Chris and his family go through, and his tally of confirmed kills, do not get interpreted as brave sacrifices or heroic acts—they can only be tragic.
Let me reiterate, I am not accusing Chris of being guilty of war crimes, nor am I saying that he was a bad person. But I am arguing that he was not a hero. He and I both participate in an illegal and immoral war and occupation, and that deserves no praise or recognition. In particular, we both have the same blood on our hands for helping to destroy the city of Fallujah.
It was not the actions of individuals that made the 2nd siege of Fallujah the atrocity that was. It was the way the mission was structured and orchestrated. The US did not treat military action as a last resort. The peace negotiations with the leadership in Fallujah were canceled by the US. And almost no effort was taken to make a distinction between civilian men and combatants. In fact, in many instances civilians and combatants were deliberately conflated. All military aged males were forced to stay within the city limits of Fallujah (women and children were warned to flee the city) regardless of whether there was any evidence that they had picked up arms against the Americans. Also, water and electricity was cut to the entire city, and humanitarian aid was turned away. Thus, an estimated 50,000 civilians were trapped in their city during this month long siege without water or electricity and very limited supplies of food. They also had to survive a ground siege that was conducted with indiscriminate tactics and weapons, like the use of reconnaissance-by-fire, white phosphorous, and the bombing of residential neighborhoods. The main hospital was also treated as a military target. The end result was a human tragedy, an event that should be remembered alongside other US atrocities like the massacres at Wounded Knee or My Lai.
But none of these documented facts come through in American Sniper. Instead, the plot is guided by Chris Kyle’s autobiography, in which his narration of his life story describes the Iraq war and occupation through the lens of a number of common, but false, beliefs—like, for example, that the people we were fighting against were evil because Islam taught them to kill Americans.
One scene shows Chris in a moral dilemma as he is on a rooftop with his sniper rifle, and through the scope he sees a woman walking with a young child next to her (presumably her son) as she carries a grenade toward a US patrol. Chris must either kill a mother and her child or leave his countrymen exposed to an attack.
In his autobiography, Chris says that this event happened in Nasiriya during the initial invasion. However, Clint Eastwood decided to situate this scene during the 2nd siege of Fallujah in 2004. Also, in the film the woman hands the grenade to her son and encourages him to rush at the US patrol, whereas in the book it is the woman who tries to throw the grenade. Did Clint Eastwood think that this is a more representative portrayal of the Iraqi resistance? It’s not. These human-shield tactics were extremely rare and were only used by the most marginal and unpopular militias.
In the film, Chris kills both the woman and her son. Although visibly conflicted about what he felt obligated to do, he comments that, “that was evil like I ain’t never seen before”.
Despite these revisions, I believe there is another moral dilemma in this scene that may not be obvious to American viewers: That woman had every right to attack the illegal, foreign invaders in her country, whether you agree with her tactics or not. We had no right to invade a sovereign nation, occupy it against the will of the majority of its citizens, and patrol their streets. Thus, Chris must either suppress legitimate armed resistance and defend an invading army, or violate his orders. This moral dilemma never once occurred to Chris Kyle. And the backlash that I’m sure this suggestion will receive attests to the war culture in our country that prevents us from seeing ourselves as Iraqis do, as the aggressor.
This is the problem with veteran narrations about their war experience—they are often told through an emotionally charged, ideological filter that reflects the misinformation told to them by their leaders. And as a society we do nothing to correct these inaccurate accounts of America’s wars. Instead, we eat them up, celebrate them as truth, and feed them to the next generation of Americans who are doomed to make the same mistakes Chris and I made.
Partly, this comes from a general confusion that supporting the troops means not challenging their perceptions about the objectives of their mission, of who they were fighting against, and why. But I think also, as a society, we want veterans to tell us heroic, bitter-sweet stories about sacrifice and bravery. Voices like Chris Kyle’s emerge and are embraced because they tell us exactly what we want to hear. They merely reaffirm preexisting beliefs about the benevolence of American wars and the righteousness of American armed service people. That’s why American Sniper has been so success. It reassures us of what we want to believe about Iraq and about our veterans, and Chris Kyle’s combat credentials make it believable.
At the end of the day, it’s the Chris Kyles who we embrace as heroes, not the Chelsea Mannings. And we will surely suffer for this as a society, but probably not before we make other societies suffer first.
Ross Caputi is a former Marine who participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah. Today he is on the Board of Directors of the Islah Reparations Project. He is also the Director of the documentary film Fear Not the Path of Truth: a veteran’s journey after Fallujah Ross holds an MA in Linguistics and he is working on an MA in English Studies at Fitchburg State University. Read his blog here.