Breaking box office records, director Clint Eastwood’s newest film, “American Sniper,” raked in $107 million in its wide release in theaters over the four-day Martin Luther King holiday weekend, the biggest-ever January weekend film opening. A week earlier, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences rewarded the film with six Oscar nominations, including nods for best picture and best actor. It even moved Vice President Joe Biden, who reportedly teared up while watching it.
“American Sniper” exemplifies a sense of macho, white male braggadocio that is symbolic of all that is wrong with the right-wing, pro-war, pro-gun, bully culture of the United States. Should we really be surprised that both the American public and the Academy are rewarding a film about a man who, judging by his own words, appeared to be a psychotic mass murderer?
Eastwood’s film, starring Bradley Cooper, is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, considered the most lethal sniper to have served in the U.S. war in Iraq. Kyle served four tours of duty and was heavily decorated for his service. He is thought to have killed 255 Iraqis, with 160 of them being confirmed kills. His book “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History,” co-written with Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwen, was published in 2012 and shot to the top of the best-seller lists, remaining there for months. In early 2013, Kyle was shot and killed in Texas by another U.S. soldier, who is currently awaiting trial.
In a debate that I moderated Tuesday between Kyle’s co-author DeFelice and independent journalist and blogger Rania Khalek on “Uprising,” DeFelice said the movie was true to the book, and that the film crew “did a remarkable job.” But Khalek, who has been one of social media’s foremost critics of the film, has called it “brilliant propaganda that erases U.S. crimes.”
Having read the book and watched the movie, she described both as “racist atrocity porn.” The film, Khalek said, has stripped away some of the most disturbing aspects of Kyle’s story from the book, so that it is “sanitized for mass appeal.” In fact, she explained that “the Chris Kyle in the book is a little bit different than the Chris Kyle in the movie ... and presented as a much more complex character who’s anguished over what he has to do.” In fact, in his writings, Kyle openly acknowledged that he viewed Iraqis as “savages” whom he enjoyed killing. His only regret, Khalek contended, is that he wished he had killed more.
DeFelice defended Kyle, saying, “The people who he called savages were terrorists who were willing to use children to kill not only Americans but other Iraqis. ... To think that Chris was murdering or massacring innocent Iraqis—that’s just not in the book, that’s not accurate.”
But U.S. soldiers routinely killed innocent Iraqi civilians. In the early days of the war, this report from 2004 described how American snipers terrorized Iraqi civilians trying to enter and leave a hospital in Fallujah, even shooting an unarmed elderly woman in the head. An incident from 2006 came to light in a WikiLeaks exposé of an incident in the town of Ishaqi where U.S. soldiers killed 10 Iraqi civilians, mostly women and young children, and then called in an airstrike to cover it up. In a 2007 story, The New York Times described a Defense Department program that involved “planting fake weapons and bomb-making material as bait, and then killing anyone who picks them up.” The “baiting program” came to light within the case of three U.S. soldiers who killed unarmed Iraqis. According to Iraq Body Count, over the course of the U.S. war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, “U.S. forces killed far more Iraqi civilians than any other members of the U.S.-led coalition,” a number totaling a staggering 15,060.
The larger problem with “American Sniper,” Khalek said, “is that it completely whitewashes U.S. atrocities in Iraq,” which includes the horrific fact that “at the very least 500,000 Iraqis were killed because of the U.S. invasion and occupation.” She added, “Americans in general have yet to deal with the Iraq War, which I would argue was probably one of the worst atrocities of the first decade of the century.”
I asked DeFelice whether he was convinced that every Iraqi whom Kyle killed deserved to die. The author answered “yes,” citing that the Rules of Engagement “were so tight that it could not have been otherwise.” But in the book, Kyle claimed that “Our ROEs when the [Iraq War] kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about 16 to 65 and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.”
DeFelice dismissed this idea, saying, “That’s the beginning of the war when they’re actually engaging regular Iraq forces. ... The situations were always different, and even within each deployment they were different.” But Kyle’s definition of the standard ROE to essentially kill almost any Iraqi man has been echoed by other U.S. vets.
And yet we’re expected to believe that of the hundreds of Iraqis he killed, Kyle shot only those who deserved to die. The dehumanization of Iraqis that Kyle seemed to have internalized is fully reflected in the film. According to Khalek, in “American Sniper,” Iraqis are “depicted as racist, soulless, bloodthirsty monsters for daring to take up arms against invaders.” This is a portrayal that is not lost on at least some Americans who were personally inspired to threaten to kill Iraqis after having watched the film, and cheerfully tweeted about it. Among the tweets are: “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fuckin Arabs,” “teared up at the end of American Sniper. Great fucking movie and now I really want to kill some fucking ragheads,” and “Just watched american sniper and I feel like killing every sand nigger on the fucking planet.”
Khalek challenged public silence in the face of such reactions, saying, “I would love to hear that denounced or condemned by the writers of the book and the people who made this film. I call on people like Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper to, at the very least, denounce these threats.”
Not only has the film inspired violent verbal reactions against Iraqis, criticism of the movie has drawn an even more brutal backlash. Khalek in particular has received vile death and rape threats that ironically involve fantasies of her being subjected to cruel abuses by ISIS militants (this essay is likely to inspire similar expressions of online bullying). Khalek asked, “I want to know, where are the moderate Americans to condemn the racism and the violent threats that I’m receiving just for criticizing the book?”
To his credit, DeFelice did respond during the debate, saying, “No one should be making any threats ... against anybody, whatever their political views are. This is America, you are absolutely entitled to have ... whatever opinion you want.”
But Cooper has defended the film, telling The Daily Beast, “It’s not a political discussion about war.” Yet, most on the American right are clear on the pro-war agenda of the film. The extreme conservative news site Breitbart seemed to get it, calling the film “the ‘Passion of the Christ’ of war movies,” and a “pro-war masterpiece.”
When asked whether he was disturbed that the book and the film seemed to glorify war, DeFelice countered, “So you mean telling the truth is a bad thing?” But as Khalek has pointed out, the veracity of the film is in serious question, and in fact, even Kyle’s own honesty has been challenged, as per this Washington Post article.
Ultimately Kyle, and the film based on his life, embody an American fantasy of self-righteous purpose that celebrates violence and trumps all other considerations. It is a vision of a world where force of might rules, and the rest of us must agree to live in fear or be stifled, or worse, snuffed out. Sarah Palin was so taken by the impression of heroism with which the film imbues Kyle that she dropped this gem on her Facebook page Monday: “Hollywood leftists: While caressing shiny plastic trophies you exchange among one another while spitting on the graves of freedom fighters who allow you to do what you do, just realize the rest of America knows you’re not fit to shine Chris Kyle’s combat boots.” In Khalek’s words, “Nationalism is a hell of a drug.”