American Sniper is good. The battlefield scenes leave your heart squeezed into your throat—you feel the punch of Kyle’s rifle, hear the waver in the troops’ voices, and wince at the explosions. Eastwood orchestrates tension like a maestro and not just the combat portions. The scenes depicting Kyle’s struggle with PTSD are equally gripping, all the more because they’re coupled with very realistic depictions of military family life. Ditto the banter of the soldiers, SEALs and Marines—it all sounds genuine. Besides a few hiccups (Kyle’s phone call to his wife during a firefight being one glaring example) the film feels authentic throughout. That’s not easy to pull off.
One of the Marines I served with posted on Facebook that, “the American Sniper trailer was better than the entire Hurt Locker.” I disagree. American Sniper doesn’t bump the Hurt Locker from its rightful place as the definitive film of the Iraq War. The closest equivalent to Mustafa, (the Syrian sniper antagonist in American Sniper) in the Hurt Locker is improvised explosive devices themselves, something that has largely defined warfare in the last decade. This made the Hurt Locker both relevant and apolitical; we had no moral qualms rooting for the fictionalized Sergeant First Class William James defusing IEDs. Eastwood gives us a fictionalized Christopher Scott Kyle who’s also pretty easy to cheer. The real life Kyle, however—a man lionized in the U.S. military for one hundred and sixty (confirmed) battlefield kills—is both less complex and less likable than his screen equivalent. So, while American Sniper succeeds as a film, it fails miserably as a character study. Fact is sometimes better than fiction, but it always requires a better editor and this is certainly what the depiction of Christopher Scott Kyle needed.
One of the best scenes in American Sniper is a conversation between Kyle and a fellow SEAL following Kyle’s shooting of a woman and child from an overwatch position. It’s a poignant exchange: one young man of morals trying to convince another that he is not a murderer. After reading Kyle’s autobiography though, it’s hard to believe he needed such convincing. In Kyle’s description of the actual event on which this scene is based he does not give the impression of having had any moral dilemmas about taking the shot(s). Quite the opposite—Kyle saw the battlefield in stark terms, repeatedly voicing his regret that he was not able to kill more of the enemy. Eastwood tones this aspect of Kyle’s character down considerably. While we hear Kyle and several other troops referring to Iraqis as “savages” in the movie, we can’t help but weigh this against his initial (completely fictional) compunctions about killing on the battlefield.
Kyle’s real-life rhetoric has drawn accusations ranging from racism to war crimes. Despite the language in his autobiography—which I will be the first to admit, is vile in places—Kyle was not a war criminal. On the battlefield women and children holding weapons aren’t women and children. They’re combatants. Kyle’s actions in theaters of war saved American lives. He more than deserved every battlefield accolade he received.
The charges of racism and “Islamophobia” are not so easily dismissed. Early in his autobiography Kyle refers to the “despicable evil of the savage” Iraqis. It gets worse from there. Kyle recounts telling an Army Colonel that, “I don’t kill people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” Ugly stuff. But the traits we want—need—in our fighting forces, things like comfort with violence and selective dehumanization is ugly stuff. Again, I am not condoning Kyle’s views, only pointing out that by misrepresenting Kyle’s character Eastwood excuses the American public from the tough questions of what the military we demand requires of those who serve.
Reading Kyle’s autobiography I was put in mind of a passage from All’s Quiet on the Western Front:
But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony—Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?
It’s a beautiful passage and it’s exactly how we don’t want our troops to feel about the “enemy.” We demand our troops view the enemy as an “other”—not as a human being deserving respect and kindness, but as an enemy to be shot. On the battlefield we need men like Kyle and not Eastwood’s portrayal either, but the snarling mongoose finishing a cobra real life version. For some young men this means seeing the enemy as a gook, a kraut, a skinny or a Jap. For Kyle it meant seeing the enemy as savages. We—the American public—prefer not to think too much about the mental adjustments necessary for troops to affect violence on our behalf and Eastwood obliges by sparing us the more unpleasant details of Kyle’s character.
SEAL training is designed to prepare men for the most dangerous combat missions imaginable. But as Eric Greitens puts it in his moving memoir, The Heart and the Fist: The Education of a Humanitarian and Making of a Navy SEAL: the training tests the soul, it doesn’t cleanse it. The traits required for formidability on the battlefield come at a cost both for those wielding the spear and those at its tip. My biggest disappointment in American Sniper is that Eastwood missed the opportunity to bluntly confront the American public with this fact.