The latest Clint Eastwood movie is a tribute to Chris Kyle, an American soldier who became a legend for killing 160 people who threatened U.S. troops during his several tours of duty in Iraq. He was the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. The movie traces his career from extraordinary sharpshooter to defender of his colleagues in battle to his ironic death at the hands of a deranged veteran during shooting practice after his return to his family in Texas. The finale is a flag-waving memorial ceremony in the huge stadium of the Dallas Cowboys football team.
Much has been written about the Eastwood movie. Many hail the remarkable story of someone dedicated to the cause of defending his country at great risk as well as at the cost of his family life. For those who see the movie positively, Kyle is a true hero, someone willing to sacrifice for others, someone loyal to his country and fellow soldiers.
For those who criticize the movie, they associate it with American militarism, the need for the United States to intervene in far-away places with the counterproductive use of force. The scenes of the sniper aiming at simple women and children, even if they were preparing to attack Allied soldiers, is in stark contrast to the heavily armed Western troops. The difference between air attacks, rumbling tanks and technologically overburdened ground soldiers with the local population is striking.
Is Kyle an American hero? The answer involves how one interprets what are American values and how one sees modern warfare. In the first case, the history of American involvement in foreign wars such as World War I and World War II can be seen as interventions in the name of liberal values. Both interventions were touted as being based on a cause; both were sold as reactions to contradictory values by enemy forces. For whatever reason, the United States reluctantly entered both wars; its heroes were genuinely revered.
Beginning with the Vietnam War, U.S. interventions have been different. Was the Vietnam intervention really to stop the spread of Communism? What the government tried to sell as a crucial effort to stop the Soviet Union and the infamous domino effect turned out to be a civil war that was exacerbated by the presence of foreign soldiers. Stories of the murders of innocent women and children in villages like My Lai exploded the myth of heroic soldiers fighting for Judeo-Christian values. The justification was spurious.
What makes soldier Kyle so un-American is that he is not fighting for any cause. Kyle is legendary as a sniper defending his fellow soldiers, nothing more and nothing else. Nowhere in the film is there mentioned a justification for the U.S. troops being in Iraq. There seems to be no need; that is not the point of the movie. Kyle is portrayed as a hero and legend because he accurately killed those threatening American troops. What those troops were doing is irrelevant.
In a most perceptive analysis of modern warfare, Professor Christopher Coker pinpoints this shift from traditional value-laden conflicts to what he describes as “humane warfare”. Humanitarian intervention, in this sense, is the use of force for humanitarian purposes. How does one kill in the name of humanity? How does one shoot people to save people? This is the problem with Eastwood’s movie. While Kyle is an expert marksman dedicated to protecting his fellow soldiers, there is no justification given for why he is there and what the U.S. troops are doing. There is no hidden message about the nature of the fighting.
Kyle is un-American because the United States has traditionally gone to war for a reason. The initial U.S. involvement in Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction and the evils of Saddam Hussein. Now that we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Iraq was probably better off under the dictator than engulfed in the chaos there today, the justifications for troops being there have disappeared.
In other words, Eastwood’s latest movie is about an expert killer who protects his friends against other killers. While one may admire Kyle for his expertise and devotion to his colleagues, the same could be said about the killers on the other side. They also have expert killers who are devoted to their countrymen. Even more, they are fighting for their country against invaders. Without clear justifications for why Kyle is in Iraq and for what he is fighting, the movie glorifies his particular expertise only because he is American.
George Orwell and Norman Mailer wrote essays about hunting animals as metaphors for Anglo-Saxon imperialism. The point of the killing was to show domination. Eastwood’s movie glorifies that mentality, even showing the young Kyle hunting with his father and later hunting with his own son.
In an age of “humane warfare,” war is justified neither by spreading an empire nor by spreading its values. Although Kyle is presented as a sympathetic character, his lack of a sympathetic cause is not sympathetic at all. Eastwood has wrapped a killer and senseless killing in the American flag, and I find that un-American and inhumane.