Tuesday, March 24, 2015

American Crusader

Bradley Cooper as American sniper Chris Kyle

The sniper clearly sees his target.  That’s what makes him such a compelling figure.  He directly sees the impact of his actions; he knows who he kills and he knows what killing means.  The chaos of war may prevent the grunt soldier from knowing if he ever hits anyone; but the sniper knows.  He rains down death like a wrathful god and he sees who he smites.

So he must confront the question: Who is an enemy and who is not?  That’s the dilemma crouching at the center of American Sniper, the movie by director Clint Eastwood, which presents the life and career of legendary Iraq War sniper Chris Kyle.  The movie sees Kyle as an admirable, old-fashioned military hero: courageous, smart, tough, willing to sacrifice for his comrades.  He protects the good guys by killing the bad guys, and it’s quite clear to him which is which and who is who.

But from where did such old-fashioned moral clarity spring?  According to Eastwood, from the simple teachings of Kyle’s father, a Texas Sunday-school teacher and church deacon.   In an early scene the stern father illuminates for Chris the moral facts of life:

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs.  Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world.  And if hatred ever darkened their doorstep they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. These are the sheep. Then you got the predators. These people use violence to prey on the weak. They are the wolves.  Then there are those who are blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock.  These men are the rare breed that live to confront the wolf.  They’re the sheepdog.  Now we’re not raising any sheep in this family and I will whoop your fucking ass if you turn into a wolf.

Strength without goodness is evil, but goodness without strength invites evil.

The rest of movie shows Chris living out his father’s creed, committed to being a strong and protective sheep dog.  He finds purpose after terrorist attacks against American embassies in Africa and, of course, after 9/11.  The determination to do good sustains him through the rigors of Navy Seal training, through his four terrifying tours in Iraq, through bitter struggles with a wife and family who resent his unending service, through the confusions of returning to civilian life.  He only wavers when he doesn’t know who he’s fighting for, when he’s home and has no sheep to protect.  Finally home for good, he tells a military doctor:

It’s the guys I couldn’t save. Those are the faces I see. That’s my regret – that I couldn’t hold on longer. That I couldn’t do more.

The doctor introduces him to his last fight: helping physically and emotionally wounded soldiers come to terms with the horrors they’ve experienced.  And like every other fight, he faces it bravely and squarely, never doubting his intentions or his ability to help his fellows.  But this is the fight that defeats him; one particularly damaged veteran, Eddie Ray Routh, slips into psychosis and murders Kyle.

The Chris Kyle portrayed in the movie is a genuine hero (though the real-life Kyle was a more ambiguous figure).  There is much to admire in someone so eager to fight the good fight, to sacrifice and risk so much to help his comrades and his country.  But it is a sad, limited heroism, a heroism with blinders on.  As a sniper he saw his victims clearly and as an American soldier he saw good and evil clearly.  But are good and evil really so clear?  To Kyle anyone who fights America must be evil, since America can’t possibly be in the wrong.  It never occurs to him that he was part of a military occupation of a foreign country that did not want him there!  Neither Kyle nor the movie ever considers the complexity of the Iraqi situation, with its wide array of insurgencies, peopled by Baathist ex-functionaries, Iraqi ex-soldiers, and Islamic militants; with Sunni groups, only a fraction of which were connected to al Qaeda; and Shiite militias aligned with Iran fighting against Sunni groups like al Qaeda.  The Iraqi hell was ignited by an American invasion against a regime that had no weapons of mass destruction and had no connection to attacks on the U.S.  Can we honor Kyle’s heroism when we face these facts?

Some of the movie’s most compelling moments come when Kyle is uncertain about a particular kill.  In the opening scene he must decide whether to shoot a mother and son who may be preparing to attack a vulnerable American column.  He hesitates, but when he’s sure of their evil intent, he shoots them down, professionally and decidedly.  In another scene a small Iraqi boy picks up a grenade launcher with great difficulty and tries to aim it at approaching American soldiers.  Kyle’s heart races as he hopes to God he won’t have to kill the boy.  But the child suddenly drops the weapon and runs away, and Kyle breaks down and cries in relief.  He’s a killer, but he’s not heartless; he’s the good guy!  But tactical doubts are as far as Kyle allows himself to go.  He may worry about killing a child, but he never worries that there’s something wrong with a situation which compels him to kill children.  He just stubbornly refuses to consider the reckless, brutal, irresponsibility of preemptively invading a country that posed no threat.  He simply will not let himself see the bigger picture.

But Eastwood’s point seems to be that Kyle could only be a hero by not seeing it.  When Kyle’s friend and fellow Navy Seal Marc Lee is killed in action, Kyle and his family attend the funeral stateside; Lee’s mother reads aloud a letter her son had written shortly before his death, a letter in which he expresses his doubts about the war.  On the drive home Kyle tells his wife what he thinks about his friend’s death and that letter:

We were operating off emotion and we walked into an ambush.  But that’s not what killed him. That letter did. That letter killed Marc Lee.  He let go and he paid the price for it.

Doubt is deadly; only rock solid faith can sustain us.  Eastwood seems to be saying that a soldier fighting a war must believe in it for his own sake.  Kyle was certain that he and his fellow soldiers were the sheep dogs, the insurgents and terrorists were the wolves and Americans back home were the sheep, and that’s all there was to that.  It may be simple-minded and foolish, but seeing his situation that way is what gave Kyle his strength.  To Eastwood, he is strong because he is good and he is good because he is simple.

And what applies to Kyle applies to America as well.  Eastwood is suggesting that this is the only way for a country to fight a war: it must believe in itself.  Since war is sometimes necessary, and therefore sometimes justified, we must believe in that justice if we are to triumph.  Could we have defeated Hitler if we had doubted ourselves? And is the determination to be a sheepdog foolish in itself?  There’s nothing wrong with committing oneself to fighting the good fight, to protecting the weak, to combating oppression.  Indeed, isn’t that the highest calling?

But Kyle’s sin, and America’s, is believing that good intentions are enough.  It was easy to justify fighting Hitler, but it’s not so easy to justify invading Iraq.  A thoughtful sheepdog – a sheepdog who wants to make sure he’s not a wolf – accepts the responsibility of understanding the meaning and consequences of his actions.  But also, more fundamentally, where both Kyle and his country – our country – go wrong is in believing that our intentions are always good.  Americans really love this movie, and we do so because it indulges our fervent wish to reclaim the conviction that we’re inherently, inescapably good.  And in that way, this movie – and every American war movie made in the last 40 years – is really about Vietnam.  Vietnam made us doubt, and we still have not come to terms with that.  Kyle’s simple faith and heroism urge us to join him in rejecting the doubt.  The farther right one goes on the political spectrum, the more one reveres that American goodness and applauds its forceful application.  But to some degree all Americans feel this Puritan instinct to save the world.

This is the tragedy of American idealism.  We ache to do good in the world, to be a force for good, to be an example of good.  But to blindly believe in our own crusading righteousness, and to deny the moral complexity of the world in order to cling to that righteousness, is to invite victimization by foolish and cynical politicians.  American idealism exploited Kyle and destroyed Routh, and through Routh, it destroyed Kyle as well.  It’s right to celebrate and admire Kyle’s courage and sacrifice, but we must overcome his limitations.  The best way to honor Kyle’s heroism is to prevent any further exploitation of the generous, eager idealism still out there. But that idealism must itself become more sophisticated and responsible.  We must absorb the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq and become less self-righteousness and more genuinely righteous.  We must become more humble about our intentions and our capabilities.  We can be both good and wise, but only if we concede that both we and the world are so much less simple than can be seen down the scope of a high-powered rifle.