Kirkland: Don’t conflate the man and the mission


Will Kirkland, Columnist

Clint Eastwood recently argued that the ultimate lesson his film “American Sniper” — that modern war is so hellish and so dehumanizing that it renders transition nearly impossible — makes the “biggest anti-war statement that any film can.”

With a sniper’s perpetual thousand-yard stare, Eastwood’s title character, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, struggles with reintegrating into his old life upon returning home. At a backyard barbecue, he nearly kills a neighbor’s dog; driving his pickup on suburban streets, he makes hairpin U-turns through traffic. The emotional ending, in which Kyle is shot dead at a gun range by a fellow soldier struggling himself with PTSD, leaves us with a heartbreaking lesson about our need for a collective reckoning with the realities of modern war and its psychological wounds.

But is “American Sniper” really an anti-war film, as its director claims?

There’s a whole other half to the movie that unfolds in Iraq, documenting the record 160 confirmed kills Kyle racked up in four tours at the height of the occupation. In those scenes, Kyle is “legendary,” a professional marksman who specializes in taking out enemies he calls “savages.” Many critics have interpreted these scenes as the glorification of the war and its flawed soldier with a morally problematic worldview. They point to the autobiography on which the movie is based, in which he callously writes that “war isn’t really fun … I certainly was enjoying it.” Bill Maher called him a “psychopathic patriot,” and Seth Rogen likened the movie to the Nazi propaganda film screened by Joseph Goebbels in “Inglorious Basterds.

These critics correctly point to the movie’s oversaturated patriotism and the character flaws of its real-life inspiration, but their broader criticisms are misplaced. In the highly professionalized American system of war, the one that allows civilians to lead utterly peaceful lives throughout a decade of conflict, Kyle’s claim that he was just “doing his job” rings unfortunately true. As Iraq veteran Corey Buzzell writes in the Guardian, “Kyle was a Navy Seal — he didn’t enlist in the Peace Corps. What else do civilians think that combat soldiers do? Hand out flowers?”

Despite his documented faults, Kyle was the soldier our distorted American system needed him to be. Heralding him as a “true American hero” as Sarah Palin did elevates him to a level of adulation he doesn’t deserve, but criticizing him as an unhinged sociopath falsely conflates the man with the mission. The greatest problem of the Iraq War wasn’t the conduct of American soldiers, although atrocities like those committed at Abu Ghraib represent clear instances of misconduct and depravity; it was our being there in the first place. The problem wasn’t in the violent efficiency of American military force; it was in the application of that force.

In his book “The Limits of Power,” Andrew Bacevich writes, “Iraq has revealed the futility of counting on military power to sustain our habits of profligacy.” He argues “history will not judge kindly a people who find nothing amiss in the prospect of endless armed conflict so long as they themselves are spared the effects.”

As long as we at home are so far removed from the wars our tax dollars are financing, Kyle will be the soldier our system requires.

So the lesson from “American Sniper” shouldn’t be that 160 confirmed kills confirms glory, nor that the man behind those kills is a “psychopathic patriot.” The lesson should be that we need to fully understand our own power, and crucially, to understand its limits, before we put that power into action. For the sake of the veterans suffering from PTSD from a conflict that has so clearly failed in its stated goals, but no less for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed in the occupation and insurgency, we must realize our decisions on the application of American force have real, tragic consequences, both at home and abroad.

William Kirkland is a Weinberg junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].