What Everyone Gets Wrong About 'American Sniper,' According to a Former Soldier

ByScott Beauchamp

American Sniper stirred controversy long before its film adaptation hit the silver screen.

Chris Kyle, the now deceased former Navy SEAL from Texas, claimed in his memoir to have killed around 255 people, which he described as "fun." It was something that he "loved" doing.

"I couldn't give a flying fuck about the Iraqis," he wrote. He considered them "savages," a perspective that probably helped him achieve his triple-digit confirmed kill count. He also claimed to have shot looters in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Furthermore, there was the much publicized defamation suit that Jesse Ventura won against the Kyle estate. And then finally there was Kyle's untimely death itself, when an emotionally disturbed veteran gunned him down at a Texas gun range.

So the pot was already well-stirred before Clint Eastwood, one of the most powerful conservatives in Hollywood, released his adaptation of Kyle's story in what's considered the highest-grossing film of the 2015 Oscar class. The film, which made $105 million on opening weekend, isn't just one of the most successful war movies in recent memories, it's the "official Oscar nominee of the culture wars." 

Seth Rogen, himself fresh off an attempt at a controversial political film, compared American Sniper to the Nazi propaganda film that appears near the end of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Lefty documentary director Michael Moore went a bit further and called all snipers "cowards," tweeting: "My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren't heroes. And invaders r worse." In Los Angeles, a billboard advertising American Sniper was vandalized when the word "MURDER!" was spray-painted over it in red.

Conservatives love the film, naturally. They raised the "you haven't been there so you don't know what it's like" argument. Radio host Dana Loesch tweeted, "Easy to say from your frillion dollar lake front house, tons of fun. Why don't you go over there and show them how it's done @MMFlint?" Country singer Craig Morgan, a veteran himself, responded to Rogen on Facebook, writing, "I'm sick and tired of people like you running your mouth when you have no idea what it takes for this country to maintain its freedoms. If you and anyone like you don't like it, leave." Sarah Palin, channeling her own form of over simplistic defacement, tweeted, "God bless our troops, especially our snipers." 

Speaking as someone who actually has "gone over there," it's infuriating to listen to these two entrenched camps shout past each other. Defending knee-jerk Islamophobia isn't the same as being patriotic. Conversely, to draw a connection between American Sniper and Nazi propaganda is histrionic — it's just another in a long line of American films about war. And accusations from both camps are diversions for avoiding a more substantive conversation about American foreign policy.

"Is American Sniper a good movie?" has become a cudgel to distract us from the conversation that we're actually struggling to have: Was the Iraq War a worthy cause? 

The overheated reactions from both sides seem frustrated and confused, as if people aren't actually having the argument that they mean to. And they're not. Not really. After 13 years in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, veterans are misunderstood and mistreated — just consider the recent VA health care scandals as evidence. And with such a huge cultural rift between the people doing the fighting and the people whose only task is to interpret the value of the fighting (should they chose to care at all), arguments can easily become diffuse.

If my own experiences as an infantryman in Iraq can be of any value, then let me say that people fight for their own reasons, and there are all types of people fighting. Like almost any cross-section of Americans, you'll find in any given platoon a few moral exemplars, a few bad eggs, but predominantly people situated somewhere in the middle, people who wish to do good but require the right circumstances. Whether you enjoy the fighting matters little. As they drill into your head in basic training, you're government property, and you're to do your job regardless of how you feel about it.

"Is American Sniper a good movie?" has become a cudgel to distract us from the conversation that we're actually struggling to have: Was the Iraq War a worthy cause? 

Conversations about my war experiences, with liberals and conservatives alike, can be eminently frustrating. The idiosyncratic spirit of my personal experiences tend to disappear and are replaced by the fears, desires and beliefs of whoever I'm talking to. 

I don't know how many times I've told someone — always a guy — that I was an infantryman who deployed twice to Iraq and have watched their eyes glaze over as they begin to see through me. "I could have done that, I almost joined up," is one response I get a lot. "Why did you join the Army?" is another. Both betray the same weird posture of other people inserting themselves into what they think my experiences have been. In these moments I become the empty cipher onto which they project their personal and political inclinations.

But while history, as they say, is written by the victors, modern depictions of war are rarely written by soldiers. And as a result, they flatten the complexity and nuance of what it means to go to war, not as a country but as a man. In this sense, cinematic portrayals of war and soldiers are inherently limited. The phenomenon of using film to help us understand war isn't new. And if you consider cinema just a technologically advanced form of drama, then the comparisons have an even deeper history.

Earlier manifestations of wartime cinema were the type of lionizing propaganda pieces that liberals like Rogen and Moore rail against. Gawker's Adam Weinstein wrote about the history of military "braggadouches," a self-explanatory term if ever there was one, and takes as an example Pyrgopolynics, the braggart soldier from Plautus' Greco-Roman drama Miles Glortiosus, who demanded that his shield be polished brighter than the sun in order to dazzle his enemies. There's William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Irwin Shaw's Bury the Dead and so on.

More recently, however, American cinema has developed a relatively deep tradition of attempting to heal the cultural wounds caused by war. Synopses are unnecessary because you're already familiar with these films, they already compose the fabric of our shared culture: Platoon, Tora! Tora! Tora! Apocalypse Now, The Thin Red Line, Patton, MASH, Saving Private Ryan and so on. The incredibly sensational accusations of American Sniper being comparable to Nazi war propaganda have already been made, but these movies are examples that would probably be more useful to the conversation. Like it or not, American Sniper fits snugly into an established tradition of American war films. It isn't a new phenomenon.

What distinguishes American Sniper from its cinematic predecessors, though, is its relative blankness, the strategic vacuum divined by Eastwood and leading man Bradley Cooper. Eastwood left the political message of the movie slightly more ambiguous than the book. Admittedly, the bar was pretty low — the book being, at points, a quasi-racist jingoistic jingo diatribe — and the film almost implicitly condones the war in Iraq by not criticizing it.

'American Sniper' is sort of an empty cipher, waiting for us to project already existent emotions onto the screen.

This is the relative beauty of the film adaptation: MASH is dark anti-war satire. Patton is fist pumping, orgiastic flag-waving, but American Sniper works on a more subtle level. It's far more nuanced than the book and makes no bones about being a closed, solipsistic account of how one individual person experienced war. 

It is one man's war — not the nation's. While these other films have loud, overt messages that allow us to confront the issues head on, American Sniper is sort of an empty cipher, waiting for us to project already existent emotions onto the screen.

In that sense, it operates as a perfect correlative to our relationship with the Iraq War in national memory as something that still requires our attention, something still festering — an unfinished conversation. Seen in this light, American Sniper has a ring of truth to it. In the rush to use the experiences of a single individual to discuss larger political concepts, we lose a sense of the ineffable value of those individual's human experiences as well as the clarity required to discuss the political concepts that serve as the context for those experiences. The experiences of war are almost impossible to understand. And war as a political occurrence demands to be confronted on its own terms.

The reactions to the film from liberal and conservative quarters can be categorized as a "conversation" only in the broadest of terms. Sure, people are writing things at each other, but there's an almost orgiastic pleasure each side is getting from its semi-articulated moralizing. Their words all burn incandescent, but lack a satisfying depth. They are, to paraphrase Shakespeare, arguments levied by idiots, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

Brandon Wade/AP

Ultimately, the failure of American Sniper is not on Eastwood but the viewing public. Liberal and conservative critics are failing to have the conversation the film was meant to start. Not, "are soldiers bad?" but whether our government should have sent them to do what some of them, apparently, love doing.

Confusing one soldier's experiences for a political argument makes it difficult to give either the specific kind of scrutiny they deserve. And for all the attention surrounding American Sniper, we haven't yet contemplated the film on the terms that it deserves.