What Everyone's Getting Wrong In The Debate Over 'American Sniper'

by John Haltiwanger

Clint Eastwood's new film, "American Sniper," just shattered box office records for January by taking in a whopping $105.3 million in its opening weekend. It's also been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture.

Yet, in spite of all its success, not everyone is thrilled about this film. It's generated a heated debate both within Hollywood and amongst the public, involving the likes of Michael Moore, Seth Rogen, Jane Fonda and more.

The film, starring Bradley Cooper, tells the story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history.

Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours in the Iraq War, had 160 confirmed kills and was nicknamed "Legend." After the war, Kyle was tragically killed by a fellow vet with PTSD that he was trying to help.

It's apparent that some people view the film as blatant propaganda and a callously uncritical take on the Iraq War. Correspondingly, Seth Rogen tweeted:

American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that's showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds. — Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) January 18, 2015

Rogen was seemingly equating the movie to Nazi propaganda. Later on, he clarified his initial remarks:

I just said something "kinda reminded" me of something else. I actually liked American Sniper. It just reminded me of the Tarantino scene. — Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) January 19, 2015
I wasn't comparing the two. Big difference between comparing and reminding. Apples remind me of oranges. Can't compare them, though. — Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) January 19, 2015

Michael Moore expressed similar sentiments:

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 — Michael Moore (@MMFlint) January 18, 2015
Oh, and Iraqis are called "savages" throughout the film. — Michael Moore (@MMFlint) January 19, 2015

Not surprisingly, Moore was heavily criticized for these comments.

Michael Moore should spend a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram. Then he might appreciate@AmericanSniper. I am proud of our defenders. — Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) January 19, 2015
"@THR: Michael Moore Blasts #AmericanSniper Hero: Gunmen Are "Cowards"" He's kidding, right? — Rob Lowe (@RobLowe) January 19, 2015

Moore expanded on these statements later, congratulating Bradley Cooper on a fantastic performance, whilst also stating:

 There is also anti-war sentiment expressed in the movie. And there's a touching ending as the main character is remembered after being gunned down by a fellow American vet with PTSD who was given a gun at a gun range back home in Texas -- and then used it to kill the man who called himself the 'American Sniper'.

Not everyone would agree with Moore on this, however. David Edelstein of Vulture characterized "American Sniper" as a "Republican platform movie."

We cannot deny that the Iraq War was terrible, illegal, miscalculated, destructive and senseless. The Bush administration hijacked the narrative of 9/11 and threw the United States into an imprudent and costly conflict. We were told that Iraq had WMDs and ties to al-Qaeda, neither ended up being true.

In spite of the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled quickly, America wound up fighting there for nearly a decade. Ultimately, the war ended up destabilizing the region even more, creating a vacuum that would eventually be filled by the Islamic State.

That's not what "American Sniper" is about, however, but that doesn't mean it's a thoughtless pro-war propaganda film either.

War Is Messy And Morally Complex... Don't Blame Soldiers

Conceivably, you could walk out of "American Sniper" feeling very disconcerted about the arguably heartless way that Kyle both characterizes and fights the enemy. He describes them as "savages," essentially stigmatizing the entire population of Iraq.

In truth, most Americans are probably going leave the movie the same way they walked into it: with a childlike reverence for soldiers. Indeed, our cars are adorned with "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers, and even if we don't agree with a war, we always stand by those who fight in it.

The world is not black and white, there are shades of grey. This notion applies to all walks of life, including violent conflict, as well as this film.

Likewise, this is what people on both sides of the debate are getting wrong about this movie. Our opinions don't have to fall at one extreme or the other.

Did Chris Kyle have admirable qualities? Of course he did. He put his life on the line for his country. Yes, he was sent into an unjust war, but that's not his fault.

You don't blame soldiers for the war, but you can critique them for their conduct throughout it. Kyle was decidedly remorseless when it came to killing the enemy, which he could debatably be chastised for. The "enemy" in Iraq was quite an opaque concept.

Was Chris Kyle the perfect soldier? In the traditional sense, absolutely. He didn't question the motives for the war and he fought the enemy with zeal and tenacity. He also loved his fellow soldier.

Yet, as the movie shows, he also struggled with what the conflict required him to do. In one scene, he shoots a male child that's attempting to attack a US convoy with a grenade.

The young boy is put up to this by an older woman, presumably his mother. Who's worse in this situation, the mother who forces her child to commit suicide fighting a foreign invader or the soldier who kills a child to protect his fellow brothers in arms?

In a later scene, Kyle faces this kind of moral dilemma once again, begging a child who picks up an RPG to put it down. Ultimately the child drops it and runs away, and Kyle is visibly relieved that he wasn't forced to shoot.

War is convoluted, and morally complex. We can't fully understand the situations that soldiers are placed in unless we've been there ourselves. Like all human beings, Chris Kyle was a complicated individual, who cannot be summed up by any single action or statement.

"American Sniper" Sparks A Much-Needed Conversation

Americans should enter "American Sniper" aware of the history behind US involvement in the Middle East and Iraq. Concurrently, they should take the opportunity to reflect critically about whether or not they really live up to the "support our troops" rallying cry.

Is it particularly supportive to send people off to war without second thought, only to offer the conflict fleeting attention, whilst simultaneously ignoring the devastating mental and physical impact that the war has on soldiers?

Indeed, as a country, we do an abhorrent job taking care of our veterans, many of whom have lost limbs or suffer from PTSD. What's more, far too many veterans are homeless.

For a country that prides itself on its patriotism, we sure have a funny way of showing it sometimes. As James Fallows recently stated in a must-read piece on the public's relationship with the military for the Atlantic:

We love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them.

"American Sniper" was always going to spark debate. It's a film about a controversial war that barely just ended. In many ways it's still ongoing, as the US is once again entangled in Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

It's also apparent that many Americans are determined to generalize the world's 1.6 billion Muslims as violent extremists. So yes, for those unfortunate and ignorant people who walked into the film with this mindset, this film is debatably nothing more than propaganda.

Similarly, if Chris Kyle viewed Iraqis as "savages," it's because many Americans are often too quick to stigmatize the "enemy" and view them as "others."

Contrarily, if you enter the movie more open-mindedly, you will notice that it's quite a nuanced look at what it's like to be a soldier in the modern era.

It certainly could have delved into the consequences of the war, particularly PTSD, a lot more, but it's a great film in its own right. Bradley Cooper does a fantastic job and should be commended for a spectacular performance.

The movie isn't a critique of the war in Iraq, it's a meditation on war itself, as well as what it means to be a soldier and a sniper.

As Bradley Cooper recently told the Daily Beast:

For me, and for Clint, this movie was always a character study about what the plight is for a soldier. ... If it’s not this movie, I hope to god another movie will come out where it will shed light on the fact of what servicemen and women have to go through, and that we need to pay attention to our vets.

If nothing else, the film should be commended for sparking a much needed public debate about the reasons we go to war, the nature of violent conflict and the way we interact with our soldiers.

Regardless of your thoughts on the actual content and message of the movie, it's difficult to argue against how desperately we need to have this conversation.