Sheepdogs and Savages



The odds against American Sniper winning the Academy Award for best picture are long. Only four times in the last 25 years has the top revenue generating film walked off with the Oscar. And American Sniper is, even this early in its run, a big-time money maker. As of this writing it has grossed $110 million dollars, far outpacing other nominated films, some like Boyhood which has been around for more than a half year and others like Selma which went into wide circulation the same weekend as American Sniper. The Clint Eastwood directed film has made more than four times as much money than Richard Linklater’s 12 year family study and three times as much as Selma, Ava DuVernay’s treatment of the fight for passage of the Voting Rights Act spearheaded by Martin Luther King, whose holiday was observed during the weekend of the film opening.

What accounts for the popularity of American Sniper? At one level it’s a superbly crafted movie by a director who has a reputation for efficiency of storytelling and precision of film editing. Eastwood makes films that don’t call attention to their craft. The combat scenes are skillfully orchestrated. The film moves smoothly from a depiction of Chris Kyles’s formative boyhood in rural Texas, to the pressure cooker of Navy Seal boot camp in California, to his courtship and marriage and fatherhood, to his four tours of duty (totally close to 1000 days in Iraq), and finally his adjustment to civilian life.

Hero Kyle is depicted as a somewhat complicated man, one who tries to deflect the “The Legend” tag that is given to him because of his marksmanship (close to 170 kills).  As a sniper assigned to provide cover for infantry who are conducting house searches in Fallujah, Ramadi and Baghdad’s Sadr City, Kyle is visibly changed over the his time “in country.” Bradley Cooper’s Kyle shows his growing discomfort with knocking off insurgents and resisters from distances as far away as a mile. On his first tour he confidently “pops his cherry” (gets his first kill) when he shoots a child whose mother has handed him a Russian grenade to throw and an advancing US patrol. On his fourth tour he breathes a mighty sigh of relief when another kid of the same age picks up a rocket launcher, dropped by an Iraq who Kyle has killed, and sets the device back down, thus sparring Kyle a painful decision.

Kyle is a likeable dude. While idolized by many of his fellow combatants, he humbly thanks others for protecting him when they thank him for protecting them. Eastwood has a nice feel for the respectful and bawdy fellowship of the Seals and treats sincerely their bonding rituals and commitments to one another. One of the few mistakes that Kyle makes is his impulsive response to the wounding of one of his best buddies. He’s learned his manners at home and suffered his bruises as an amateur rodeo prior to enlistment, and, at heart remains a “good old boy” who is deferential to most of those that he meets stateside.

Eastwood does not shy away from the “coming home” part of Kyle’s story. In many of his movies Eastwood seems less interested in violence than in the recoil and aftermath from the violence. Like many combat vets, Kyle has a case of PTSD and like many vets too he’s in denial about the depth of his psychological disturbance. He and his wife remain faithful throughout his tours of duty and produce two children. Yet it is clear that when he is home he’s thinking about being on a rooftop protecting his guys and regretting his inability to save those who have been killed. He’s sullen, a latent volcano who is so well-disciplined that his anger gets out of control only once, and that at a backyard barbeque when he thinks a playful dog is doing injury to one of the children.

But his battlefield transformation, his attachment to fellow soldiers, and his stateside detachment aren’t enough to explain the popularity of this film. While I don’t want to go as far as to say that this is a blatant right-wing propaganda film or a recruitment vehicle for the military, there is something about Kyle’s core beliefs and the ways in which these beliefs are translated into battlefield conduct that make him appealing to the American public and account for the tremendous traffic the film has generated.

Kyle has sprung from a frontier mythology that places maximum importance on the protection of family – and by extension country – all under the watchful eye of a sanctioning God. His father praises young Kyle when the 10 year old comes to the defense of his younger brother and inculcates in him the idea that in a world where predatory wolves prey on defenseless sheep, the obligations of the sheepdog are enormous, and sacred. There’s no question that Kyle takes on the role of the sheepdog, a man who is motivated to join the army when he sees the television coverage of the US Embassy in Kenya in 1998 and who sharpens his blade when the towers fall on 9/11. And there’s no question in his mind that the US is the sheepdog of the world.

His early indoctrination into gun culture prepares him to be the vigilant, solitary killer defending family and country. His remedy for the restoration of veteran amputees is to coach them in what he knows best: how to accurately shoot a high-impact rifle. After firing off a number of rounds on target, one of the men triumphantly says that he’s got his manhood back. The Eastwood movie is the latest in a long line of our national narratives that embodies regeneration through violence.

Kyle is convinced even until the end that there is evil in the world and the US sheepdog must eradicate it. This uncompromising ideology accounts for his unapologetic belief that the Iraqi enemies are savages to be eradicated. Reminiscent of 19th century frontiersmen in their thinking about Native-Americans, Kyle seems to believe that the only good Iraqi is a dead Iraqi, even if that good Iraq is a child with a popgun. Clearly Kyle is not the only soldier to subscribe to this belief system. There’s no room for nuance much less curiosity about or compassion for the Other in this man’s army.

Eastwood and his scriptwriter don’t distance themselves from Kyle’s belief, and thus this demonstration if not celebration of American righteousness finds a receptive place in the minds of many Americans who love their guns, believe in American exceptionalism, and remained convinced that a catastrophe such as Iraqi was still the right thing to do. It’s easy to leap to the conclusion that that the Iraqis are  savages given Eastwood’s selection of Iraqi actors in the war drama: the mother who hands off the grenade to her son; the hospitable head of household who invites Kyle’s unit to stay for dinner only to have Kyle discover an arms cache under the floorboards; “The Butcher,” a neighbor enforcer for Al-Awlaki whose instrument of compliance is a drill and whose residence is filled with human body parts.

As DuVernay distorted Lyndon Johnson so that he was a more dramatic adversary to King than history records, Eastwood invents a rival marksman for the Gunfight at the Fallujah Corral. Kyle’s nemesis is as sharp a shooter as he is, but military command knows little about him other than he once won an Olympic gold medal for Syria in shooting competition. Granted he’s not so much savage as cool, sinister professional. It’s easy to say that even a modest development of his character is beyond the scope of this movie. And that directors should not be held to impossible standards for accuracy in historical matters. But the presence of so many one-dimensional “evil” types is insensitive and dangerous. Dangerous because it reinforces the wishes of the “send-them-back-to-the-stone-age” crowd. Dangerous because it permits us to conflate all Iraqis into ragheads and hajis.

One wonders whether Eastwood’s next step is to tell the story from an Iraqi perspective, to duplicate his achievement in depicting the War in the Pacific from an American perspective in Flags of Our Fathers and from the Japanese perspective in Letters from Iwo Jima.  For a director interested in the aftermath of violence, this would be a welcomed and valuable exercise. We might learn something from a film that honestly offers explanations why Olympic medal winners join the insurrection and why women conceal explosive devices under their chadors. Explanations that many who saw American Sniper and clapped with each new kill may not be interested in hearing because the sheepdogs will be presented as wolves..


About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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