Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
“American Sniper is a film of soaring patriotism and an ode to our courageous military,” declares the Orthodox rabbi and ultra-rightwing gadfly Shmuley Boteach, in the New York Observer.
“‘American Sniper’ is the most powerful anti-war film I have ever seen,” says SiriusXM radio host and self-identified Muslim Dean Obeidallah on CNN.com.
This ambiguity goes a long way toward explaining why American Sniper—Clint Eastwood’s paean to Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history—may become the highest-grossing American feature since the dawn of the talkies. As Tyler Coates writes in decider.com:
“If you go into the film thinking that American soldiers deserve unequivocal support simply for the job they did overseas, then you’ll find the film to be an enthusiastic take on American heroism. If, like me, you are dubious of what our efforts in Iraq actually did but still maintain a support for the soldiers who went to fight for us because they felt they were doing the right thing . . . then you will probably see a film that depicts with respectful honesty the events of our country’s recent history.”
Setting aside the fact that Eastwood’s depiction of our country’s history is so respectful as to be dishonest—the film makes you think we were fighting Al Qaeda in Iraq—Coates presents only one possibility: you were for the war or you were against the war, but regardless, you “support the troops.”
Troop support belongs to no party; it is presumed to have no politics. When Obama proclaims, in his State of the Union address, “We salute the courage and sacrifice of every man and woman in this 9/11 Generation who has served to keep us safe. We are humbled and grateful for your service,” everyone in the chamber stands to applaud.
“The reality of it is you're not going to find anybody today who says they don't support the troops,” Col. Jim Currie, a professor at the National Defense University, told NPR’s Liane Hansen in 2007, after MoveOn published an ad calling General David Petraeus “General Betray-Us” and outrage roared from all quarters. It meant a great deal to those in the military, Currie said, to “know that the American people are behind them, even as they don’t support the continuation of the war,” to hear “we're with you, we support you, we honor you, we admire you.”
What does it mean to honor and admire a soldier? Is the soldier—particularly the committed warrior, like the SEALs in American Sniper—just a person? Or is he, as enactor of national policy, also a symbol of the nation—the flesh of patriotism, that fantasy of one’s own country as innately, indestructibly good, better than any other? Is patriotism personal?
To Tolstoy, war did not inspire patriotism. Rather, war is patriotism’s inevitable product.
To defend and amplify their power and riches, nations and the classes that rule them must make war, he reasoned. War has to be waged by people (even drones have human masters). But you can’t stir fierceness with ideas alone. To inspire people to fight, a nation must change hearts, not minds.
First, the nation has to alienate its people from their brothers across the border or across the sea. But more than that, it has to instill the sense that their country, and by extension they, are superior to those others. Democracy or dictatorship, the anthems of every nation are alike. The land is beautiful, its inhabitants are brave, free, and uniquely blessed by its chosen god. Tolstoy called patriotism collective egoism.
More than alienation, more than superiority, he continued, patriotism must enflame hatred. The ruling classes do this by “perpetrating every kind of harshness and injustice against other nations.” This provokes in the other nation “enmity towards [the rulers’] own people,” which is then exploited to “embitter their people against the foreigner.”
Jingoism—the love of country that demands a fight—is not an extreme form of patriotism, in other words. It is the same as patriotism.
As Eastwood paints him, Chris Kyle is a man struggling between love of country and love of family. His wife Taya pleads with him to stay alive, come home, and raise their children. But he cannot; “I have to serve my country,” he tells her.
Patriotism trumps loyalty to siblings and friends, too. Encountering his younger brother on an Iraqi tarmac, broken from combat and headed home, Kyle embraces the man in protective love. But when he hears the brother mutter “Fuck this place,” Kyle recoils. Now his brother is a weakling, a quitter, his discharge dishonorable. At a funeral, the fallen SEAL’s mother reads his last letter, which expresses doubts about sacrificing to a possibly inglorious mission. “That letter killed him,” Kyle tells Taya. Wavering, the soldier got what he deserved.
Such insensitivity could be diagnosed as pathological. More generously, it is the defense of a violently fathered child who finds the rough embrace of Nation and the distanced brotherhood of the barracks easier to deal with than the vulnerability of intimate love. Patriotism papers over fear.
But patriotism is also what makes Kyle admirable. He’s not a killer; he’s a hero. He’s not the macho creep Taya sees when they first meet at a bar. The minute he avows a reverence for America so strong that he’d die for it, she is falling in love.
Patriotism, as brilliant as the gold tridents pounded into a SEAL’s coffin lid, outshines all flaws.
Similarly, on the battlefield, patriotism masquerades as moral discernment. If you are good and your opponent by definition is evil, it is okay to shoot a child because he’s about to lob a grenade at a U.S. Humvee. “When God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them,” writes Kyle in his memoir. “Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
As antidote to the shined-up politics and production values of American Sniper, I found a blurry YouTube of “Occupation Dreamland,” the 2005 documentary by Ian Olds and Garrett Scott that follows an infantry squad of the Army’s 82nd Airborne during its occupation of Fallujah in 2004. After the army—and the filmmakers—left, the Marines laid siege to the city. The United States’s bloodiest campaign since Vietnam, it was also Chris Kyle’s last.
The seven men at the center of the documentary are not the elite. They’re the grunts who enlisted because, at 20 or 23, they were adrift, broke, or already out of options. One is a derailed art student; another sees himself heading straight toward prison.
These men do more or less what the men in “Sniper” do, only without the narrative logic a feature film imposes. They interrogate and arrest people. They patrol in vehicles. Sometimes an IED blows and a skirmish ensues. At night, they raid houses; those scenes are suffused in phosphor green, dreamlike.
But unlike the SEALs, some of these Army enlistees are moved to sympathy by contact with the Iraqis—who speak for themselves in the film. “It’s difficult,” muses one, “because you’re trying to sell to these people that you’re here to help them out . . . [but] what are we doing for them? And if you say, we’re [arresting] bad guys, we’re bringing in terrorists, they’re gunna say, like, ‘Yeah, that was my brother.’”
In fact, perplexity is the main feeling the film conveys. What are they doing there? Building a government? Enriching Halliburton? Defending freedom?
In what appears to be a training session, an officer hazards an answer. “Back yourself up and ask yourself, what exactly are we securing?” he says. “The government of Fallujah? What are we securing?” He fumfers, then utters an almost treasonous thought: “We’re securing . . . essentially . . . ourselves.”
The men, including the officer, are in a grimly absurd predicament. Marooned in the rubble of a town they’d never before heard of, for a cause they’re not sure of, they have no choice: Kill or be killed.
Kill or be killed. Kyle sees his job as protecting “my guys” on the battlefield and avenging those he fails to save. Shooting down from the rooftop, he is an exterminating angel. Helmetless, it is as if he feels himself sheltered from higher above.
This perceived duty—this calling—is inextricable from Kyle’s fealty to America. God, Family, Country: they are all one. His patriotism is not abstract; it lives in his feeling for wife, children, and fellow SEALs. His patriotism is personal.
But conscript or volunteer, every soldier needs some meaning, some justification for killing. Faute de mieux, patriotism supplies it. Invigorated by the belief that whatever his nation does is good, the patriot becomes Tolstoy’s perpetrator of harshness and injustice. Now instead of sympathizing, he sees ingratitude in anyone who fails to appreciate the gift of freedom as it shoots from an AK-47 or kicks in the door. He feels resistance as aggression.
“These people don’t give a shit about us,” spits one soldier in “Dreamland.” “The people in this country that wanna do damage and kill people in the United States, I think they’re assholes. I wanna kill ’em.” He has absorbed the toxin of patriotism into body, heart, and will. And surrounded by malaise, he alone exudes purpose.
“To destroy Governmental violence, only one thing is needed,” Tolstoy wrote. “It is that people should understand that the feeling of patriotism, which alone supports that instrument of violence, is a rude, harmful, disgraceful, and bad feeling, and, above all, is immoral.”
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.