American Sniper: Avoiding the Justification for War

***SPOILER ALERT. You’ve been warned.***

This weekend I saw American Sniper for the first time. I’m not much of a movie guy, so I hadn’t ever expected to devote 133 minutes of my life to this film, but I found myself in a situation where I was spending time with family and they wanted to watch this flick, so I went with along with the situation and gave it a viewing.

I’d heard a lot of chatter about the movie in the media even though I never planned on watching it. Some people criticized it as being a pro-war propaganda film. Others praised it as an emotionally-charged character study of an American soldier and his personal struggle in war. Personally, I was hoping that it addressed war from an angle that raised questions about its necessity, legitimacy, and justification.

Unfortunately, I came away feeling that the film left those questions on the table and instead focused completely on Chris Kyle’s personal experience with war.

I did a quick “Ctrl-F” search of the movie script for the word “why”. The word appears 12 times, though only a few times does the word appear in the context of an existential questioning of war itself. I took the four situations and printed them in the photos below:

sit1

sit2

sit3

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I’ll spare the analysis here—these scenes scratch the surface of existential war questions, but they are always shrugged off with a “patriotic” justification, or laughed off to avoid contemplation.

Cause it’s the greatest country on earth and I believe it’s worth protecting.

I love to gamble, man. Love those dice.

I do it for you. To protect you.

Without this, there’s nothing.

We gotta take care of our own.


Of course, blind and unquestioning patriotism has been the formula for government propaganda since the dawn of the state. Just ask Hermann Goering, as quoted in Gustave Gilbert’s Nuremberg Diary:

realgoering

To try to understand why somebody might disagree with the dismissal of American Sniper as pro-war propaganda, I did some searching and stumbled upon this review from Erik Kain on Forbes titled, ‘American Sniper’ Isn’t Pro-War Propaganda.

Here are some of the key takeaways from Kain’s review:

Kyle isn’t interested at all in the politics. He’s so gung-ho in his conviction he very nearly destroys his marriage. He’s also very nearly overwhelmed by PTSD, until he finds a new purpose after the war in assisting other veterans. This is a film that doesn’t bother much with the big-picture stuff. It zeroes in one one man, one soldier, and his struggles.

[American Sniper] portrays an ugly and frightening war from the perspective of someone who believed deeply that what he was doing there was just and right. Whether you think the Iraq war was just and right is another question entirely and one that this film only brushes up against, but never faces head on. There are other films that tackle that question. American Sniper is not one of them.

The problem I see is the politicization of criticism. Rather than view the movie on its own merits, many are using it as a tool to further their own political causes—or to signal their approval/disapproval of certain politics to their chosen tribe.

But good art transcends politics. We can, or should be able to view even a film that has truly hideous politics as a great work of art.

How is it possible to take a movie about war–one of modern humanity’s most abhorrent and shameful defects, comparable to genocide and torture–and separate it from the politics of war? Art is inseparable from the political; separating the two only serves as a means to avoid a difficult and important conversation about the consequences of our flaws. And avoidance is nothing more than a coping mechanism–a way to deal with a traumatic reality in the short term by punting the push for a solution to a later date.

“The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” —George Orwell

Are we really supposed to suspend our disbelief and forget about why we’re fighting in the first place, only for the sake of “getting” and enjoying this movie? Does the “artistic value” of American Sniper really transcend the politics of war? I would submit that this is impossible; simply accepting war as an inevitable reality is, as JFK put it so beautifully, a “dangerous and defeatist belief, leading to the conclusion that mankind is doomed — that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”

What’s more important: enjoying a war movie, or the conversation about why we wage war?

“Our problems are man-made, so they can be solved by man.”
JFK

We MUST aim for peace in the long term, however “naive” and hopeless it might seem in the short term. And as the nation with the most power and influence on earth, America has the greatest responsibility to set an example as a peaceful and compassionate nation in order to make the world a better place. Instead of utilizing our power as a weapon to be wielded as to further exert and expand our dominance, we should take the opportunity–the *responsibility* that comes with so much power–to show the rest of the world that we are not afraid, that we are not paranoid, and that humanity has the capacity to resolve conflict without resorting to violence.

“If you don’t like what is being said, change the conversation.”
Don Draper

Instead, American Sniper rejects this idea by focusing the conversation onto the unquestionable inevitability of violent conflict–a conflict that the United States has initiated and continues to pursue, with no objective, endgame, or conclusion in sight. In this sense, American Sniper cannot be viewed as an advocate of compromise, peace, and human compassion–it ignores the ideas altogether. Consequently, by assuming and accepting the inevitably of a senseless and endless violent conflict, American Sniper serves as a damnation of humanity as powerless to ever overcome it.

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