American Sniper Feeds America's Hero Complex, and It Isn't the Truth About War
So as my deployment to Iraq got closer and I imagined what this war would look and feel like, I thought about America’s favorite storytelling medium: the movies. I pictured Baghdad as Black Hawk Down’s Mogadishu, all claustrophobic and high-contrast gun battles with desperate men in dark alleys, and mostly I heard Ride of the Valkyries, that grim killing opus in Apocalypse Now, retrofitted for our urban assaults and nighttime raids.
But the stories I came back with don’t really look like anything in the new breed of Hollywood war films, where central truths about war have all but vanished, even though they’re mostly based on real life. Now tales of elite troops are reshaping the public perception of war, even though war is still a tragic grind far more complex than any film of this era has shown.
American Sniper is the latest movie to capitalize on our insatiable hunger for stories about unstoppable commandos. Lone Survivor, the highest grossing war film of this era, portrays Navy Seals so adept at killing the Taliban that it seems their only weakness is mercy on goat-herders. In Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips, Seal teams emerge only at the climax, with the long tail of logistical support from conventional aviation, infantry and intelligence units obscured by the shadow of the elite.
In American Sniper, Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle, famously credited as the most lethal sniper in US history. Marines and Army infantrymen, who took back Fallujah in brutal house-to-house fighting during Kyle’s deployment in 2004, are relegated to whispers and gawks when “The Legend” scores another kill from a concealed position.
In one scene, Kyle sheds his gear to go help clear rooms with Marines he feels are not trained well enough for urban warfare. It’s a moment meant to underscore Kyle’s lifelong commitment to protect others, but the ultimate message is that anyone not in Special Forces is sloppy or uncommitted. “Let’s coach ’em up,” he says.
These films have the potential to distort how the United States views its own history and its troops. The everyday stories of war are background noise. We rarely see intel soldiers piecing together insurgent networks, or low-ranking officers meting out local grievances in rural Afghanistan.
But Hollywood has found its formula, and it is zero-sum. For every film or bestseller or PlayStation blockbuster about that tiny minority of commandos, the public misses another shot at the larger experience of soldiering in Iraq and Afghanistan. People under 40 no longer ask what war is like; they ask if it’s like Call of Duty.
The conservative fervor over Benghazi and its various conspiracies carried a rarely discussed thread: the mistaken belief that special-ops can do anything, at any time, to save or kill anyone. But real life is not like the movies, and sometimes help is too far away, as in the case of the late Ambassador Chris Stevens, or hostages are killed before they can be rescued, as we saw in Yemen this month. To conceive of a force as infallible or mythical, then, is to create a too-perfect solution to every problem, from Isis to hostage-takers the world over.
The best scenes in American Sniper are the moments when Kyle is home with his wife Taya, when Iraq seeps into quiet suburban life. Clint Eastwood does well to show Kyle’s moral injury – not the guilt of taking lives, but the agony of not saving enough. It is a vital part of countless veterans that civilians must understand. But as more and more movies get marketed as nonfiction action flicks, the deeper truths are in danger of being buried underneath CGI explosions.
If you really want to know how Iraq was, or how Afghanistan still is, you can seek out more stories that point to more universal experiences. Phil Klay’s bookRedeployment gathers several of war’s infinite threads. Writing workshops likeWords After War bring civilians and veterans together to remove inflated concepts of heroism. The Telling Project and Story Corps are creative avenues for stories like those to find an audience.
The late Tim Hetherington had a theory that men behave in war by emulating men seen in other films and photographs, endlessly altering the behavior of soldiers and the concept of soldiering. And he was right.
There was a time in 2007, in between Chris Kyle’s deployments, when half my platoon was trapped behind a house while two Iraqi insurgent machine gunners pinned us down. My team leader poked his head out, and in an instant, the wall above his head exploded in pieces. He fell to the ground. I thought he was dead. But in a scene that felt more Office Space than Black Hawk Down, he rose after a moment, stuck his rifle around the corner and fired blindly at an enemy unseen. We’d laugh about it later, but at the time it was terrifying, partly because it was vaguely familiar. This was combat we all had seen before, in one movie or another.