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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Off Target on "American Sniper"

"It takes all sorts to make a world" - English proverb

It was just after the Hollywood celebrity slap fight among professional Debbie Downer Michael Moore, professional stoner Seth Rogan, and professional has-been Dean Cain, and the ensuing political hyperventilation, that I finally saw "American Sniper".

Bradley Cooper is particularly good, as evidenced by the fact that this is the first movie I have seen him in where I forgot he was "Bradley Cooper". An Obama-supporting Democrat in real life (he's even fluent in French, for pity's sake!) he disappears into the role of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle.
The combat scenes are spare and workmanlike, conveying the grittiness and shattering anxiety of combat without glorifying or aggrandizing the violence. I generally like action and war movies, but the action here set my teeth on edge.

Go see it for yourself. What I got out of it were two things that I think many people missed - both of which I think director Clint Eastwood, and Cooper, intended:

1) This movie is told entirely from Chris Kyle's point of view

This is not a portrayal of the War in Iraq, but how the war was experienced by one exceptional soldier.

Bradley Cooper is in just about every scene of the movie. Very little happens that is not part of his character's experience. He is only excluded in those scenes that show his rival enemy sniper preparing for battle, and even these have a very stylized Hollywood Western cast to them, as if it was how Kyle imagined it.

Similarly, the brief dinner table discussion showing how Kyle's values grew from his father's stern moral lessons seem stylized and simplified. Liberals complain this is right-wing propaganda -- but what I see how a man with a very black and white view of the world recalls his childhood.

Some also complain that the Iraqis are reduced to one-dimensional characters, that the nuances and complexities of the decision to go to war in Iraq, and the method of the prosecution of the war are not discussed.

I think this is because Chris Kyle was not one to reflect on them. He did not see that as his job. In Kyle's world there are good guys and bad guys. There is "God, Family, and Country", and those who seek to undermine or even destroy them.The who and why? Those were decisions to be made by higher military and civilian leaders.

While Kyle was certainly sensitive to the horrors he witnessed perpetrated by the enemy on his fellow soldiers, he is portrayed as claiming to be untroubled by the 160 plus people he killed (mostly men, but a few women and children ), saying he will "stand before my Creator and defend each shot".

Which leads to my second point:

2) Some of the characteristics that make one an excellent soldier may not be something all of us find appealing in another human being.

Kyle was a highly skilled professional soldier, and by all accounts a brave and effective one. He was also a sniper.

Kyle remained mostly high above the ground. He saw the enemy from a distance, trying to kill his comrades. And his job was to kill the enemy to protect them. A sheepherder, as he learned from his father, protecting the sheep from the wolves.

I've read a few books by former Special Forces members (Eric Haney's book "Inside Delta Force" is particularly good). Many SEALs and Delta Force members conduct intelligence and counter insurgency operations within foreign countries. They immerse themselves in the study of history, geopolitics and strategy. They speak multiple languages. They absorb the indigenous culture in detail so they can both build alliances with,and sow dissension among, rival factions.

That's not the type of soldier Kyle was, at least as portrayed in this movie.

He questions a potential Iraqi informer, and its clear that, despite multiple tours in Iraq, he knows not even a word of the local language, and seems baffled by local customs. To him, they are faceless "savages". Perhaps learning more about them would have made him hesitate to pull the trigger.

Several of Kyle's fellow soldiers express grave doubts about the overall mission in Iraq. Kyle rather coldly attributes a comrade's death not to the enemy ambush, but to the soldier's doubts. Doubt, for Kyle, could lead to his death, or the death of the soldiers under his protection.

In fact, in his fourth tour in Iraq, Kyle feels himself wavering while targeting a child (not his first) trying to fire an RPG at a company of Marines. Soon after, in the midst of a battle where he otherwise bravely acquits himself, he calls his wife,  tearfully telling her he is ready to come home.

I think this movie shows that for certain types of soldiers, with certain types of duties, someone who sees the world as black and white, as enemy and ally, as true believer in the cause and apostate, is the best person to have in that role.

Sometimes we all think that everyone has to be the same, and, particularly nowadays, we seem very anxious about anyone who disagrees with us, or sees the world a bit differently than we do.

I mean no disrespect when I say that Chris Kyle may not necessarily have been the kind of guy I would want to have a beer with. And likely the feeling would be mutual.

But if I were a combat soldier, he sure seems like the guy I'd want on top of a building watching over me.

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