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American Sniper: hero worship and the rewriting of history

Michael T Fenn

February 18, 2015

“’Terrorism’ is what we call the violence of the weak, and we condemn it; 'war' is what we call the violence of the strong, and we glorify it”
--Sydney J Harris
This is the problem with veteran narrations about their war experience—they are often told through an emotionally charged, ideological filter that reflects the misinformation told to them by their leaders. And as a society we do nothing to correct these inaccurate accounts of America’s wars. Instead, we eat them up, celebrate them as truth, and feed them to the next generation of Americans who are doomed to make the same mistakes Chris and I made.”
--Ross Caputi, Former Marine who participated in the 2nd Siege of Fallujah
“Chris Kyle didn’t view Iraq like me and Garett, but neither of us have attacked him for it. He’s not the problem. We don’t care about the lies that Chris Kyle may or may not have told. They don’t matter. We care about the lies that Chris Kyle believed. The lie that Iraq was culpable for September 11. The lie that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The lie that people do evil things because they are evil.”
--Brock McIntosh; former Afghanistan veteran and anti-war advocate, who has been active, along with other veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq, in support groups for returning soldiers.
“While nothing is easier than to denounce the evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”
--Fyodor Dostoevsky
There is little doubt that American Sniper will go down as one of the most effective pieces of propaganda—justifying America’s wars—ever to come down the Hollywood pike. It has been a huge box office success, grossing close to $200 million and achieving the second most successful R rated opening since the The Matrix. This popularity seems unfathomable (and disconcerting) given the odious justifications for the 2003 Iraq War have long been proven false, and despite the disaster the “war on terror” has been. Its timing seems suspicious fortuitous, given the new terror threat that has surfaced in Iraq (ISIS), in which American leaders are once again clamouring for more war and intervention in the Middle East.
Hero worship
The film begins dramatically, with our hero Chris Kyle—the real life sniper whose exploits in Iraq (based on his best-selling auto-biography) are the inspiration for the film—in middle of a combat mission in Iraq where he is faced with “radical evil.” He kills a boy, and his mother presumably, who are being used as a “human shields” to deliver a grenade to an advancing infantry and tank convoy.
The film then cuts to Chris as a young boy attending church with his parents and younger brother, as a southern Texas Baptist minister gives a sermon about how “God’s plan will seem a mystery to us”. From there the scene switches to the young boy hunting with his father, the father sternly admonishes his son for leaving his rifle in the dirt, but then praises the boy’s marksmen skills, saying that he has a gift (by god no doubt), and will be a great hunter someday.
Then we find ourselves at the family dinner table where his father gives the boys a speech about how so many people refuse to believe that any evil exists in the world. And that if “it ever darkened their doorstep they wouldn’t know what to do about it”. Apparently the boys have been in a schoolyard fight in which Kyle comes to his little brother’s aid. His father then gives his own sermon on how there are three kinds of people in the world; wolves, who are violent, cruel, and prey on the weak (the sheep); and lastly sheep dogs- who despite their “gift of violence” uses it to defend the sheep from the wolves. He then says, as he slams his belt on the table, that he has no intention of raising any wolves.
Clearly, screen writer Jason Hall and director Clint Eastwood has constructed a sort of American “Greek Tragedy”, informed by a conservative, militaristic, Christian American culture. One that is designed to dramatically canonize Chris Kyle (the hero sniper in the film) and his fellow American soldiers. It is a pure hero worship—in which manly virtues (“gifts” for violence and bravery) are valorized. 
The only problem is that to make this hero worship effective—as propaganda, or as an art form that might actually make some money at the box office—is that its makers must distort both the war and the nature of the insurgency. They therefore cannot avoid the criticism that their film was intended to be “political” (ideological) with the claim that it was merely supposed to be a “character study”. Because they must validate their hero’s view of the world, which was highly political: that he was defending America against “terrorists” and or selflessly liberating Iraqi’s (referred to by Kyle, and his fellow soldier, both in his memoirs and the film, as “despicable” “savages”) from a tyrant. And that the insurgents were just a bunch of evil religious fanatics who hate and want to kill American’s simply because of their “perverse interpretation of religion”. 
Otherwise our hero, and his fellow heroes (US soldiers) who shared these attitudes and beliefs, no longer seem “heroic” but rather as tragic victims of their own ignorance and prejudice—which was of course spoon fed to them by both the military and the media, including Hollywood. In this context our hero/heroes appear more like sheep, whom, tragically were unable to discern real evil when it did happen to darken their doorsteps.  
War crimes and resistance
Such distortion is set from the very first scene, which, ironically, depicts the second siege of Fallujah. The real life scene of one of the most notorious crimes committed by the US occupation. Despite the inhabitants desire to negotiate a cease fire, American military leaders simply ignored it, and then proceeded to blanket the city with poisonous phosphorus (an illegal weapon of mass destruction) killing 4000- 6000 civilians, and displacing 200, 000. This was also where the US army attacked a hospital (which was also a war crime under the Geneva Convention), dumping patients on the floor, beating up and detaining doctors, for supposedly spreading “propaganda” on the number of civilians that were wounded and killed.
As mentioned earlier this was the scene where our hero came face to face with what he would describe as “radical evil”. He has to kill an innocent boy who has been handed a grenade by a stoic emotionless Iraq women wearing a burqa, urging the boy toward an infantry convoy entering the city. The women then picks up the grenade to finish the job and is immediately shot dead by Chris. The woman was working at the behest of an evil terrorist named the “butcher” (because he dispatches his victims (informants) with a drill), which we later learn in the film is the right hand man of a foreign Al Qaeda Sunni extremist named Zarqawi.
This completely rewrites history and claims that extremist groups were the cause—rather than the consequence—of the Iraq War. It also justifies the murder of Iraqis, while dismissing that they had any reason for armed resistance against the US, which had invaded their country and brought untold misery and death. The insurgency was a perfectly legitimate exercise of self defense against a foreign aggressor and occupying power denying them the right to self-determination.The Iraq War and occupation killed a million people, stole billions in Iraqi oil money, gutted public sector jobs, created an unemployment rate of 70 per cent, and allied with a sectarian government that fomented civil war. It was the Iraq War, not resistance to it, that led to ISIS, but now the US is using this new threat to justify further military intervention—with help from this film.
The point here is not to blame the soldiers, who are also victims of hero worship. What American Sniper should teach us rather is just how powerful the cult of the hero is, which provides a cover for war and muzzles all criticism of it. It causes us to not notice the wolf that has clothed itself in the sheepdog’s image. 

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