On January 17 I saw the movie American Sniper. It is an incredibly powerful movie which raises (unintentionally, I think) huge ethical, moral and spiritual issues.
The movie itself is a tour de force of cinematic creation containing the nasty realities of war. It may deserve the best picture Oscar and Bradley Cooper as the main character, Chris Kyle, absolutely deserves consideration for the Best Actor. This may be the only movie I have ever attended in which everyone sat through all of the credits and then walked silently out of the theatre. The impact on the audience was palpable.
I went to the movie expecting to dislike Chris Kyle. He is the sniper with 160 confirmed kills and perhaps many others. The movie portrays him exactly as he was: a dedicated soldier efficiently going about his horrifying, gruesome task without much more than a flicker of self-doubt. He is portrayed as a human being with strengths and weaknesses who loves his family and country. He is no cardboard John Wayne in the Viet Nam war movie Green Berets or over the top Sylvester Stallone as the comic book soldier Rambo. The movie is violent, brutal and difficult to watch. The movie does not turn away from this at all. Has director Clint Eastwood ever blinked in the slightest in the face of violence? In light of this I was grateful for the time in the movie when it was clear what was happening in an especially brutal scene but the visual was not forced upon us. It was enough to know without the gratuitous images.
What the movie does evade are the legitimate moral and spiritual questions. It evades facing the specter of unquestioning nationalism, racism, hate and endless war that accomplishes little.
So I wish now to raise several of what I think are those issues.
First, the issue is not Chris Kyle as an individual. Attacks on him are misguided, inappropriate and unfair. Nothing in this posting attacks him or any other individual service man or woman in any way.
Second, he was doing a brutal and disgusting job for us. He was a hired assassin. And he was hired by us, every one of us, every citizen of this country. We sent him to war with barely more than a whisper of discussion about the wisdom or effectiveness of doing so. Far too many of us are horrified at his pulling the trigger but are equally blissfully unwilling to see we paid the bill. Anyone willing to criticize any individual soldier, SEAL, or sniper needs first to look in the mirror. Why have all of us (and I include myself in this) permitted this with so little speaking out? Why have we not called for debate?
Third, Chris Kyle justifies his actions with “I am defending my country” and proclaims himself without guilt and ready to face God about this. This is his greatest and our greatest flaw. Kyle was unable to reflect on his motivation and behavior. The essence of spiritual growth requires constant self-inquiry. Unexamined nationalism energized Germany in WWII and led to unspeakable atrocities. America is the greatest country in the world and it can do better than this. Our country as a whole and every single individual in it can be mature enough to search within about what we are doing.
If we truly respect and even revere our troops, we will respectfully ask more questions before sending them to endless wars. We did this in Viet Nam. Where are the contemporary equivalents of Senators William Fulbright, Gene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy and dozens more? Where are our leaders? We unthinkingly went to war in Iraq in 2002 with an embarrassingly brief debate. In that process we were blinded by false rationalizations and motives. We and our leaders asked too few questions then and are asking too few now.
Fourth, there has been considerable controversy about the racist labels American troops give to Iraqis in the movie. They are constantly branded as savages and animals. Many have expressed shock and horror about this which strikes me as rather naïve. War, including Jihad, is at its core the most strident form of racism. Racism makes killing easier. If your target is an animal it is easier to pull the trigger. War requires blindness to the humanity of the enemy. The United States is struggling to its very Soul to deal with racial issues which have plagued us for hundreds of years.
America is capable of being better than this. We can be the world leader in social equality as well as armament. The Iraqis are as much the children of God and created in his image as are Americans. War blinds us to this.
Fifth, this is not a call for some sort of unilateral disarmament. We were viciously attacked and have responded in kind. In our invasion and return to Iraq hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. Disarmament would simply embolden a group like ISIS. Mahatma Gandhi was very clear that his nonviolent methods probably would not have worked with the Nazis. And he did not begin his campaign for independence in India while WWII was going on. He also said that “an eye for an eye” would eventually leave the whole world blind.
It is however perfectly appropriate to question what we are doing without disrespecting anyone. If any other government program had spent trillions of dollars and been so lacking in achievement of goals there would be howls for change. If we revere and respect our troops as much as we claim we should be constantly evaluating where we send them, for how long and with what purpose.
American Sniper is a lens through which we are assisted in seeing the realities of war. It is up to us, all of us, to ask the questions, look in the mirror and seek a better way.