An oft neglected basic observation missed on the right and the left: virtues require a narrative and a context. For example: the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you — works quite well in a sado-masochist community. Or so Jim McClendon once rightly observed.
In other words, the content of all the virtues, and the moniker “hero,” are dependent upon who is telling the contextual story. And this brings me to American Sniper, which could have been more forthrightly named “American Hero,” because it is a story about the way in which America sees itself, and that story then gives content to the various virtues depicted therein.
Clint Eastwood developed with the story of Chris Kyle (for the sake of not confusing the historical Chris Kyle with Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle, let us refer to “Eastwood’s Kyle”) the moral equivalent of Graeco-Roman hero stories: the young man who faces his own demons, but finds within himself and the Texas and familial fabric whence he comes the resources to become an exemplar of courage and the warrior virtues. With his lethal focus, he is fierce, loyal, disciplined, and patriotic; and then comes the tragic end in the midst of serving a fellow veteran.
Thus in his virtues and his tragic end, maybe he is not merely an American hero, but the American Messiah.
Eastwood does his kind of story-telling well. It’s hard not to admire the extraordinary human being that is Eastwood’s Kyle (or, Bradley Cooper as Eastwood’s Kyle). It’s something like the guilty pleasure of admiring the courage, strength, and skills of a UFC fighter: that sense of wonder that someone could be that tough, endure that much pain, have that much self-discipline, placing themselves in a situation in which they are sure to endure yet much more pain, in pursuit of the glory of the win.
I’m an academic, and even worse to many, an academic who teaches theology. And I’ve been at it long enough to know that right-wing stereotypes of academics and theologians as liberal, utopian do-gooders carries with it at least a germ of truth. So I sometimes need to be called to account by coming face-to-face with a kick-ass character who does not put up with any crap.
Nonetheless: this is a dangerous film, if not morally perverse. This is true because of what it leaves unsaid, and because of what it assumes.
For the idealistic, even perverse assumptions: the movie has young Chris at the dinner table with his father, his mother, and his younger brother. The younger sits at the dinner table with a black eye, having endured a brutal beating by a playground bully. Older brother Chris had rescued, and beaten the bully to a retributive pulp.
The father, sitting at the head of the table, says, to this effect: there are three kinds of people in this world: sheep, who can’t take care of themselves; wolves, who prey upon the sheep; and sheep-dogs, who look after the sheep and keep the wolves at bay. I ain’t raising no sheep, he says, and then pulling off his belt and laying it on the table, says further, and if either of you becomes a wolf I’ll kick your ass. Instead, he makes the moral lesson clear to his sons: I’m raising sheep-dogs.
This is where the moral narrative becomes all important to the shape of the virtues: it is classic Hollywood, suffused with a bit of holiness as the hero carries about a New Testament with him, and the world is neatly divided between good and evil. It’s a re-skinning of George Bush’s axis of evil; of cowboys and Indians; and of course what no one wants to point out, is that it’s the same sort of division of the world into good versus bad that ISIL and al Qaeda foist upon the world and their deluded adherents, to deadly and mass-murdering effect.
It is, as a colleague of mine said, terrifically uncomplicated.
If virtues get their content from the communities whence they arrive, and if it is true that Eastwood’s Kyle derives his character from a long-tradition of American story-telling, then what do we see? The all-American good ole boy, a former rodeo-man from Texas no less, who has a handsome swagger, a drop-dead gorgeous wife, loves his children, and who will kill anybody who picks up arms on the wrong side. And in the end, he has zero regret, and according to the historical Kyle, only wishes he had killed more.
So what’s the problem with such assumptions? For one, it leaves unasked so many important questions: Have we forgotten that in between the two Iraq wars, the U.N. and U.S. sanctions contributed to the deaths of one-half a million children? It refuses to ask what role our own nation’s violence contributes to the development of the violence of other nations, or to remind us of the fact that Saddam Hussein, as one diplomat famously said, when the U.S. was beginning to give support to the despot and responding to the charge that Hussein was an SOB, replied that now “he was our SOB.” It refuses to take seriously that there is a cycle of violence in the world, and that retribution fosters counter-retribution which fosters counter-retribution in an endless cycle. There is no historically primitive goodness and badness in the political sense, and for us to continue to believe and perpetuate this myth is sheer madness that will even yet more rapidly throw us into the pit of hell which we are enlarging at an alarming rate with our fetish for military might, and increasingly, our fetish for killing at a distance — through the drone’s video screen or the sniper’s scope.
There are indeed wicked people in the world, who have become perverse. But refusing to ask about context and narrative and history is no virtue, is in fact, a malicious vice. Undoubtedly there are numerous insurgents in Iraq and the Middle East who carry about deep resentment towards the great foreign imperialistic power that showed up in their streets with Abrams tanks, demolished their homes, and killed their children. (Let us not forget that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. But Eastwood’s Kyle, and George W. Bush’s administration, would lead us quickly to the false connection.) But Eastwood’s Kyle begins his sniper career by shooting a boy and a woman who have carried a grenade into their own street to try to stop an Abrams tank and a patrol of marines. He kills them both. And though he shows a modicum of anguish over his killing, he insists that he had never seen evil like that.
This is the problem with the white-hat black-hat narrative of Hollywood: when “they” do what “we” do (though “they,” of course, poor saps, are just not as efficient in their killing as “we” are) it is evil, but when Americans do it, it is heroic. Eastwood’s Kyle insists he is doing what he does because he does not want terrorists in our neighborhoods here. Yet he participates in the invasion of a country that had nothing to do with 9/11; a country who was headed by, no doubt, a despot but a despot who had furthered his hold on power by the support of our own country; and when those people fight back because they don’t want foreign invaders in their streets, it’s “evil” like Eastwood’s Kyle has never yet imagined.
The climactic moment of the film comes when Eastwood’s Kyle kills a sniper on the other side, who, not surprisingly, has been dressed in black throughout the film. The shot is impossible. But the impossible shot shown as possible is the overarching vice of the film: that the world is neatly divided up, and good guys can destroy the bad guys, and all is well. It’s as unrealistic as the foolishness that got the United States into the war in Iraq in the first place: the George W. Bush rhetoric that insisted that it is possible to “defeat evil” and to win a “war on terror.”
This is Messianic language employed in service to militaristic politics, and it is idolatrous as it was employed by Bush, and though more subtle in American Sniper, still as dangerous.
Then there is the laughable employment of the New Testament, which Eastwood’s Kyle carries about with him on his killing missions. (It says a great deal, however, that Eastwood’s Kyle merely carries it, but never reads it.) The militaristic, nationalistic tyranny over Christianity in America remains shocking to me. I cannot understand why people who say they read the Sermon on the Mount, or Romans 12, or 1 Peter, continue to let the Eastwoods of this world get away with such subversion of the Christian tradition. Little would most non-Christian Americans have any idea that the New Testament is, in fact, a text subversive to imperialist agendas. The New Testament is subversive to imperialist agendas because it refuses to prioritize the “American” story Eastwood is telling: it refuses to prioritize a good guys versus bad guys narrative, and instead insists that we are all caught up in the drama of brokenness, and that the only solution in the long run is some sort of politically-realistic, patient and suffering good-will for all, brought in not by an overbearing Messiah bearing the sword, but a suffering Messiah bearing a new way of life.
Eastwood’s Kyle an American hero? No doubt. But Eastwood’s Kyle increasingly shows us that what has become equated with “American” is increasingly dangerous, naïve, and ignorant.
Published previously on Huffington Post.