A Study of Warrior Culture
Written on 02/04/2015, film first viewed by author on 01/30/2015
There can be no denying that the United States is in a constant state of war. It has been, arguably, since its entry into World War II. After that was the so-called “Cold War”, which, through the declassifying of fifty-some years old documents, we are beginning to see that it was, in fact, not so cold after all. Countless times the U.S. and the Soviet Union came frighteningly close to blowing each other off the globe. Even within that era, the violence of the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam were apparent. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, clear visions of war were being broadcast on television throughout the world, simultaneously informing and outraging civilian populations. That was probably the first time in human history that acts of war were de-romanticized. No longer did, nor does, the public generally support all-out war. Many Baby-Boomers protested armed conflicts and weapons stock-piling, where their parents and grandparents had went to work and bought bonds to support the armies. To Americans, things seemed to calm down in the 90s after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., but history now tells us that the worst was yet to come. The end of the dominating superpower that policed (and sometimes bullied) Europe and Asia, along with the tail-end of the rapid decline of imperial colonialism, triggered invigoration in radical thinking, especially throughout the Middle East. The regionally superior Ottoman Empire had been dissolved at end of World War I. Long ago Crusaders from the West killed and attempted to seize lands from Muslims. The most historically recent trespass in Muslim opinion was the disenfranchising of Palestine’s sovereignty when Jews, ravaged for centuries by persecution in Europe and North Africa, established their own state of Israel in the 40s. Radical and extremely conservative thinkers mobilized supporters in the world of Islam, seeing that the blame should fall mostly on the remaining superpower in the world. Thus the happening of U.S. embassy bombings, hostage situations, 9-11, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the current threats of Iran nuclear capabilities and the so-called Islamic State’s war against the world.
We, especially Americans, no longer go to war with the men and women we send off to war. There is a need to believe that, as a nation, we can keep our hands clean from blood if a select group of people do the killing for us in far away places. It is a complex way of thinking that is politically and historically valid in some respects, but it is also naïve, hypocritical, and dangerous. Most of the people who volunteer and fight for us are proud to do so, and we accept their sacrifice, but then we (as a society) turn an about-face and devalue their lives and the lives of the enemies and collateral civilian causalities. That results in a mindset that completely cheapens the value of all human life. Even to presidents, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and generals, soldiers are only numbers and battles are only calculations. It is the only way they can do what they do and get sleep at night. To the soldiers themselves, it is a way of life, a culture they are sublimated into. They are indoctrinated, trained, shipped out, and (if they survive) returned to a place where a population demands that they be normal, the same population that asked for their service. The only problem is that most soldiers can never fully come back to a state of mind that they might have once had. How can they? The human memory is not supposed to be tape that can be rewound and recorded over. Soldiers have seen death and have caused death, and are commended for it. They can not be expected to come back in one piece, mentally or physically. The only things that can help are the application of therapy, a supportive and loving family, and the fellowship of soldiers with common experiences. Only a soldier can truly understand another soldier’s pain.
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So illustrated by the story of Chris Kyle, the real-life subject of director Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, perhaps one of the most honest and controversial films about the modern day soldier. Actor Bradley Cooper is not only a producer, but also portrays Chris, the deadliest sniper in American military history.
Chris and his brother, Jeff (Keir O’Donnell), are raised in a conservative, Midwestern family where god is the mightiest, their country is the best, and weakness is unacceptable. Their father makes a dinner table sermon comparing enemies to wolves, the helpless to sheep, and the heroes to sheep dogs, to make his point. All the while, the young Chris becomes and excellent marksman through hunting. As he grows into adulthood, Chris goes from Texas ranch hand and bronco buster to Navy SEAL volunteer after witnessing terrorist attacks aimed towards the U.S. on television. During the time of his brutal boot camp training, he meets his future wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). Together, they both watch the news as the WorldTradeCenter towers are attacked on September 11, 2001. Not long after this, and Chris and Taya’s wedding, Chris is deployed to Iraq. Throughout his multiple tours, Chris racks up an impressive amount of kills that deems him “a legend” throughout the military, but he shies away from this. He is only dedicated to watching out for his unit and “saving people by killing the bad guys”. All the while, Chris hunts for a key target nicknamed “The Butcher” (Mido Hamada), and finds himself in a deadly game of cat and mouse with the Syrian Olympian-turned deadeye simply named Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). The battles in the Middle East are paralleled by the battles back home. On leave, Chris slowly sinks into alienation brought on by mounting PTSD, and it threatens to ruin his marriage to Taya and their growing family. Near the end, Chris desperately fights to get back home, and once there he must still find a way to get back to his family in his own way.
American Sniper shows the prime example of modern warrior culture. Warrior culture has been around since Vikings plundered and pillaged. It existed in the times of the Roman Empire and Sparta. The Medieval Times and Crusade Eras possessed many countries across the world that prepared armor-clad armies on horseback. In the Far East are the traditions of Samaria, Shoguns, and various martial artists. The point is that there have always been groups of fighters that are honored and idealized by those they protect, and there still are. It has grown in the U.S. because it was founded on war in its revolution, preserved through war in its civil war, and remained relatively successful in military endeavors from the Spanish-American War up to Operation Desert Storm. It is not a new subculture, and for some reason people are still shocked by it when it is shown on the big screen. Yes, it is shocking, but it shouldn’t come to an audience as a complete surprise anymore. What is more immoral: depicting war as the terrible thing that it is, or sugar-coating it?
The book that inspired the film is available through Amazon
Does American Sniper over-glorify modern warfare to some degree? Perhaps it does, but it certainly doesn’t sugar-coat it, nor does it sugar-coat or cover-up the devastating effects of PTSD. The film is as much a celebration of the fearless, selfless soldier as it is an anti-war statement about the negative, long-term effects of war on nations, different cultures, and individuals. A visual representation of PTSD is most brilliantly captured in a scene where Chris notices his newborn baby girl crying in the hospital nursery. Through the glass, he pleads to the nurse in the room to go and soothe the baby. Ignored, he begins to shout and beat on the window. The only notice he is given is by the nurse when she gives him a brief, annoyed scowl. Perhaps that is how one feels with the visions and acts of war secretly lodged in their memory. It is like shouting for attention through thick, unbreakable glass, and once one is heard, they might be viewed with pity and contempt.
Various persons and media outlets have also quibbled over the “political implications” of American Sniper, and this might be where some viewers are missing the film’s more poignant points all together. Of course there are going to be politically (and religiously) based views thrown around by characters in a film about war, because there is no war without politics and religion. They always start wars! Chris Kyle’s radical views (going so far as to call Islamists “savages”) are just another shade of another breed of thought: the ideas and doctrines of the very Jihadists he fights. Many of them are protecting their home just as Chris believes he is protecting his. Just as the Jihadists believe in the rewards and punishments of their version of Allah, Chris believes in the power and judgment of his version of the Christian god. There is a great question here. Does it take a radically thinking person to successfully battle another? It may be acceptable to believe that a right-winged thinker can take on the physical fight if a left-wing diplomat cannot bring people to talks. If you want a fighter (as it seems most countries, religions, and people living in comfort still blindly do), then it seems only logical to make a hardcore believer into a soldier. To say whether these beliefs are “right” or “wrong” is inconsequential in this case. The fact is that they presently exist, and they fuel conflict.
Chris Kyle, in regards to his on-screen portrayal, is not a superhero. He is also not a monster, or a killing-machine. He is also not a coward, as some have naively stated. Chris Kyle is a man; a person who believes what he is doing is right for him and the nation he serves. That is all. His greatness is measured only by what an individual believes to be great. If a good human being is somebody who will stand up for their well-founded beliefs, then Chris Kyle is a good man.
Other works from Clint Eastwood are available through Amazon
Choice is at the center of American Sniper, especially the choice to act (or not to act). Chris chooses to act when he thinks he must defend his country, and that leads him down the entire path the film reenacts. Taya chooses to be the wife of a dedicated Navy SEAL, and that results in a life of major ups and downs. Every time Chris places a target in the crosshairs and a finger on the trigger, he must make the ultimate choice of life or death, and to him, he is often given no choice. American Sniper reminds audiences that decisions, big and small, shape who we are and what we become.
Interestingly enough, Cooper originally wanted Chris Pratt to play Kyle, but was convinced to undertake the now Oscar-nominated performance himself. Director David O. Russell showed interest in being at the helm, but Steven Spielberg was signed on instead. After Spielberg’s contributions resulted in a script with an excess of 160 pages, he could no longer see his twist on the story coming to fruition, and departed. Eastwood seized the opportunity. With Russell or Spielberg, American Sniper would no doubt have appeared much more psychological, philosophical, or even transcendent. With Eastwood, the film has grittiness in battles, a rough humor with sex, and a barebones depiction of what a soldier is. Any of the three aforementioned directors were qualified to take on the subject matter, but Eastwood’s version reminds a film lover of the moral dilemmas of Dirty Harry, the street-to-street fights of Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and a passionate story that people may not want to hear, but probably should.