Recently I saw the film American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Jason Hall. The film is a dramatisation of the life of Chris Kyle, the most deadly military sniper in US history, with 160 officially credited kills over four tours of duty in Iraq. Kyle is played by actor Bradley Cooper. Here I examine the perspective presented in the film without entering debates about how accurately it portrays Kyle and his actions.
Part of the film shows fighting in Iraq, with visually compelling recreations of combat conditions. The other part of the film shows Kyle before and between his combat tours. He grew up in Texas, learning to shoot from an early age. Lacking direction in his life, he was galvanised to join the military after seeing television reports of the 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa. He joined the Navy and did SEAL training, and we watch Kyle going through the arduous exercises involved. Meanwhile, he meets his future wife, and they go on to have two children.
After each of his combat tours in Iraq, Kyle becomes more estranged from suburban life back home. He switches off from his wife and children. It seems that, compared to combat, civilian life is insipid and almost pointless. Kyle is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, and prone to violent outbursts in inappropriate situations. He volunteers to return to Iraq despite his wife’s appeals for him to stay home with his family.
Eventually a psychologist helps Kyle by putting him in contact with other war veterans, who have horrendous physical and psychological wounds. Kyle finds purpose in supporting some of these veterans, coaching them in shooting in a forest location. American Sniper thus is in part a film about the human consequences of war for soldiers, and the need to support survivors to recover from their trauma.
The combat scenes in the film show why Kyle found civilian life so inadequate. Combat is about life and death, about loyalty and comradeship, about defending one’s country from enemies. It is here that American Sniper buys into a conventional mythology about US war-fighting.
9/11 and Iraq
Early in the film, Kyle and his wife are horrified as they watch television news of the 9/11 attacks on the US Trade Towers. The next thing we see is Kyle in Iraq, a marksman supporting troops undertaking dangerous door-to-door searches for insurgents. The unstated implication is that being in Iraq had something to do with the 1998 bombings and the 9/11 attacks.
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and others in the US government justified the 2003 invasion of Iraq with two main deceptions. First, they claimed that the Iraqi government was obtaining weapons of mass destruction: nuclear, chemical and/or biological weapons. However, no such weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq; the intelligence claiming they existed was fatally flawed. Secondly, Bush implied that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. However, there was no decent evidence that the Iraqi regime had any connections with al-Qaeda. To the contrary, the regime was secular and opposed to al-Qaeda.
In American Sniper, Kyle and his team have the goal of opposing al-Qaeda in Iraq, and this group was certainly part of resistance to the US occupation. But the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq was a consequence of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, not a justification for the invasion.
The film frames the Iraq conflict from the US perspective. US troops are shown fighting an unscrupulous enemy willing to torture and murder collaborators. The enemy insurgents are mostly anonymous. However, they also include women and children who carry explosives intended to kill US troops.
Karen Cerulo wrote an insightful book titled Deciphering Violence. She analysed media reports of violence — murder, bombings, massacres, invasions — and classified the texts into four sequences: victim, performer, contextual and doublecasting.
An example of a victim sequence is the headline “Three children killed by terrorists”. In this sort of sequence, the reader is more likely to identify and sympathise with the victim, so these sequences are likely to be used when the violence is seen as illegitimate. An example of a performer sequence is “Police shoot wanted man”. In a performer sequence, the reader is more likely to identify with the perpetrator of violence, and these sequences are likely to be used when violence is by legitimate authorities. There is much more to Cerulo’s nuanced analysis, but this is enough to appreciate the distinction between victim and performer sequences.
In American Sniper, the perspective is nearly always that of Kyle or other US troops. As viewers, we see the battle from their point of view, and watch their weaponry cause dozens or hundreds of deaths. The film mostly uses performer visual sequences and thus operates as a US-military-sympathetic prism on the Iraq war.
Imagine a different perspective, from the viewpoint of an Iraqi. During and after the 1991 Gulf war, Iraq was subject to international sanctions that prevented import of goods, including medical supplies and sanitation equipment. The result was that something like two million Iraqis died in the two decades subsequently due to disease and malnutrition. Some call this genocide, because the massive death toll was known to the outside world but the sanctions were maintained nevertheless.
Then came the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was not endorsed by the UN: it was illegal according to international law. The rationales for the invasion were shown to be false.
From an Iraqi point of view, their country was being invaded — and some Iraqis were fighting back with whatever weapons were available. US and Iraqi troops were killing civilians, and torturing some of them, most famously in Abu Ghraib prison.
The invasion of Iraq was justified on false claims. After Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled, why were US troops still there? An Iraqi perspective might portray Kyle as a foreign killer, part of an illegal and illegitimate occupying force.
Kyle in the film says he is defending America, and that the alternative is confronting the enemy in San Diego or New York. This seems almost a caricature of arguments for “defence” by invading a faraway country, one whose military had no capacity of threatening the US.
American Sniper has been a tremendous commercial success, grossing more than $500 million. Presumably some of its popularity in the US is due to its congruence with US-centric perspectives on war-fighting, with US troops as the good guys fighting evil opponents. A different sort of film, Iraqi Sniper, would be unlikely to receive such an enthusiastic response in the US.
I had better make my view clear. I’m an opponent of war and terrorism, and have long advocated nonviolent action as a better option. I was opposed to Saddam Hussein’s regime, and also opposed to an invasion to overthrow it. It would have been far more humane and effective to promote nonviolent action by Iraqis to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
However, nonviolent action is mostly invisible in Hollywood films. American Sniper is an excellent war film, but it is a war film, fitting squaring within the genre. It is based on the assumption that war, despite its horrific consequences, is a necessary evil. That assumption needs to be challenged.
PS There are many other critical reviews of American Sniper, some by US veterans, for example Brock McIntosh.
Thanks to Paula Arvela, Kathy Flynn and Mark Richardson for helpful comments.