Why American Sniper isn’t a Great War Film

February 4, 2015

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American Sniper has been nominated for six Academy Awards and, according to initial viewing figures, is likely to be one of the most successful war films of all time. In the first 10 days of release, the film grossed over $200 million. A biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, America’s most successful sniper, the film is an explosive depiction of the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle between 2004 and 2007.

Yet, the most powerful scene in this film is completely silent. It consists of 15 words in plain white font on a black background which appear at the very end of the film: “Chris Kyle was killed later that day by the marine he was trying to help.” On his return from his last tour in Iraq, Chris Kyle, perhaps as part of his own therapy, began to help physically and mentally wounded veterans, counseling them by taking them shooting. On one of these trips, he was murdered by a psychologically disturbed veteran. After all the simplistic heroism of the previous two hours, the stillness of Kyle’s epitaph is devastating. It is a brilliant moment of filmmaking, inverting what had seemed to be a righteous statement about war into a question. It introduces doubt where there had been only certainty.

The effect is palpable. Having survived four tours of Iraq, Kyle is destroyed by a random act of insanity by a fellow American soldier. A stunned silence descends on the theatre: the audience shocked by the unexpected futility of Kyle’s end.

It is a great regret then that Eastwood fails to recognize what he has done with those words. He wastes their effect—utterly and immediately. Instead of simply moving to the credits, exploiting the extraordinary pathos he has created, Eastwood cuts to actual footage of Kyle’s funeral. Flag-waving and saluting crowds, including a wheel-chaired veteran pirouetting on the empty highway, watch as his cortege is driven to Arlington National Cemetery. Marines drill around his coffin, which his SEAL-team comrades emboss with the SEAL insignia, and the stars and stripes are folded for his widow. We see the lapidary photographs of Chris Kyle and images of Kyle with his wife. Memorial services for Chris Kyle at subsequent football games and rodeos appear. The movie sadly confirms what it always threatened to be: a one-dimensional celebration of American patriotism and the 9/11 Wars.

Eastwood’s inability as an artist to handle personal and political ambiguity ensures that American Sniper can never be remembered as a great war film, still less a great film. Although some of the action scenes are remarkably realistic, especially the choreographed urban tactics of Kyle’s SEAL Team as it clears buildings, the failure of the film can be traced to its reliance on a sanitized version of the Western genre.

Inevitably, directed by Eastwood, the film draws heavily on the Western movie. Kyle was originally a cowboy, working as a range-hand while attempting to make it as a professional rodeo rider. The echoes of Shane, High Noon and, indeed, Pale Rider in which Eastwood himself starred, are very strong in this film; Kyle wears a dirty pale baseball cap, his enemies black head-scarves. However, American Sniper fails because it fatally distorts a critical motif in these films. In the classic Western, a rugged American individualist, untamed by civil society, saves a frontier community from the predations of bandits and thieves before returning back into the landscape from which he came. The gun-fighter’s eventual disappearance is necessary precisely because the characteristics that allow him to protect society also make him incapable of ever being part of it. He is as anti-social as the enemies he defeats.

Chris Kyle is a 21st century Shane, as implacable as the Tetons which provided the symbolic backdrop to that film. Yet, of course unlike the Western hero, today’s American hero is always part of society and must be re-integrated into it. Kyle is not a mythical—but flawed—protector but a real soldier and an actual father. There is an obvious problem with this amendment of the Western genre. The tragedy of the lone gun-fighter, who, like Lohengrin, must always leave, dissipates into monochrome sentimentality. Kyle is a tediously perfect Paladin on a pure and simple quest. Even though his end offers the opportunity for genuine tragedy, Eastwood re-incorporates him unproblematically into society.

As a result, except for that the final extraordinary blank screen, the film descends into absorbing but facile superficiality. It becomes a Spielberg film in which good and evil, hero and villain are self-evident. Indeed, the film was originally going to be directed by Steven Spielberg and, while Eastwood replaced him, Spielberg’s influence remains. In almost all cases, Spielberg’s films address the question of fatherhood. Despite his thematic versatility as a director, Jaws, ET, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Hook, War of the Worlds and Munich were all ultimately about fatherhood. Typically, they plot either the development of the main character into a good father (or father figure) or his reconciliation with a bad father.

Fatherhood is the central theme in American Sniper. Indeed, the paternalist principle at the heart of the film is articulated by Kyle’s father in an early scene. Following the beating of Kyle’s brother by a school bully, Kyle’s father explains his patriarchal philosophy of human existence to his young sons at Sunday dinner: there are sheep, who are weak and do not know themselves; there are wolves who predate on the sheep; and there are sheep-dogs who protect the sheep. He insists that his sons be sheep-dogs; they must protect defenseless flocks against the ravages of wolves. The film is a morality tale about how Chris Kyle became a shepherd, protecting both his nation and his family. Biblical absolutism may be attractive and useful but it ignores the confused complexity of real human existence.

The massive audiences for American Sniper are evidence that this is a popular movie, precisely because it draws on established genres and conventional certainties. However, it demonstrates an obvious absence. We are still waiting for a great Hollywood war film about the 9/11 wars. We are still waiting for a U.S. film that explores the tragic irony of those final 15 words; perhaps, the most profound and moving obsequy for all those who have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Anthony King is a professor of sociology at the University of Exeter. His most recent publications are The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: from the Rhine to Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press) and The Combat Soldier: infantry tactics and cohesion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Oxford University Press, 2013). His new book, Frontline: combat and cohesion in the twenty-first century (Oxford University Press) is out next year. He is currently working on the evolution of the divisional headquarters from the First World War to the present. He has been a mentor and adviser to the armed forces for a number of years, working in the Prism Cell of ISAF’s Regional Command (South) in 2009-10.

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37 thoughts on “Why American Sniper isn’t a Great War Film

  1. Mr. King should stick to poor research on women in combat instead of trotting out tired cliches about war movies needing to show the “complexities” of battle, killing, returning to home, etc…

    It is a movie.

    It shows the complexities of a vet coming home.

    It takes some liberty with the topic because it needs to tell a story of a man’s life in under two hours.

    It shows the complexities of men in combat.

    It is a movie.

    What I always find amusing is that people like Mr. King, who are almost never a combat vet if they even served in the military at all, seem to think they are experts on why people fight. He is a typical academic who has barely a clue as to what combat is actually like outside of a book or living on a luxurious FOB, yet acts as though he has a deep understanding of what war is like or what it takes to fight. This blog, like Best Defense and so many others is taking the typical turn of having an overwhelming articles from one side of the political aisle. Why? I think it is mostly because academics of a progressive slant have nothing but time on their hands. The lack of moral courage by past, present and I am sure future Senior Officers does not help matters, careers, status and ego before all else is the mantra it seems.

    The only academic or reporter I have seen write a good article on the topic of combat and the “why” is Junger. King needs to at least do some research on topics and back up his statements on professional subjects, but I won’t hold my breath. On movies, everyone is entitled to an opinion, but it would be nice if they had one that was at least somewhat informed and not an attempt sounding insightful, deep and concerned. Save that stuff at the Coffee shop with your students Mr. King, I am sure they’ll buy it.

    1. I completely disagree with many points of your rebuttal. First of all, very few people even in the military have seen substantial combat, let alone served in an elite unit. Going off on the guy for not serving before writing a review on a war movie is a tad hypocritical unless you can claim a comparable experience to Mr. Kyle. I’m in ROTC, but I wouldn’t ever claim military experience, because it isn’t the same thing.
      In addition, yes the movie was simplistic, dodged any hard themes, and was fairly inaccurate. It was a feel-good, the war in Iraq was justified, Navy SEALs pwn kind of movie. Chris Kyle in reality was a pathological liar who recently lost a lawsuit about several stories in his autobiography, a racist who believed all Iraqis were savages, and probably a psychopath. He was able to kill 160 people precisely because of this. While he was a damn good sniper, he was an questionable individual, and by being unwilling to acknowledge that, the movie failed for me.
      What kind of movie do we need about the 9/11 era? Maybe a movie about how we funded the Taliban so we could stick it to the Soviets. or how we gave money and training to Saddam so he could take out the Iranians. Or about Abu Gharib, or torturing some dude who had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda. That way instead of “honoring” veterans, we could try to understand we sent so many to their deaths.

      1. Sigh…., he can write anything he want’s, serving has nothing to do with the movie, but the man presents himself as an expert on military culture. So, yeah, his experience matters, many good sociologists have not served, but they also do not consistently omit items in their pursuit of an already set premise. He is an ideologue, not an objective writer, even his movie critique is someone looking for something “he” wants to see. Read up on the lad and his views, then come back and talk to me.

        As for your posts-

        “Chris Kyle in reality was a pathological liar who recently lost a lawsuit about several stories in his autobiography, a racist who believed all Iraqis were savages, and probably a psychopath.”-Ok, he lost a lawsuit, that does not equate him as a pathological liar and of course you recite the same old tired “savages” comment that is taken out of context. Read below in another reply as to why that is, but I warn you that it will take critical thinking skills, so brush up first.

        “Maybe a movie about how we funded the Taliban so we could stick it to the Soviets.”-We primarily funded the Northern Alliance, the funding for foreign fighters and the TB came from mostly middle eastern nations who matched us dollar for dollar. What is it with people today? Does everyone just omit facts or not understand context because it does not fit their set premise? See, if you had said who we actually funded and that we screwed up by not continuing to fund them against the TB when the Soviets left, then you would have a good point, but…..

        “how we gave money and training to Saddam so he could take out the Iranians”-Umm…and? We fought with the Soviets against the Germans, supported other brutal regimes because they were less of a threat than the ones they were fighting. If you had said we should not have invaded Iraq, that in the post-invasion several GO’s and Civilian Govt’ leaders really screwed the pooch, then I would think you are a thoughtful young man, but instead you post that?

        “Or about Abu Gharib, or torturing some dude who had nothing to do with Al-Qaeda.”-So, tell me what you know about Abu Ghraib, or what you think you know? Should that be our defining moment in the war? “some dude who had nothing to do with Al Queda”-Who was this? What is your point? Really, you think that ranting and raving about things that happen in every war is what should define us and be a movie? It already does have several documentaries though, yet not a lot on Medal Of Honor winners, odd huh?

        “That way instead of “honoring” veterans, we could try to understand we sent so many to their deaths.”-I take it that in your worldview, vets would best be served by having the very few tragedies or crimes that happened among millions who served in both theaters should be what folks remember? Or that you are helping them in some manner? Please, expand on this one, I am all ears.

        “unless you can claim a comparable experience to Mr. Kyle. I’m in ROTC, but I wouldn’t ever claim military experience, because it isn’t the same thing.”-I can not claim the same experience, but can claim several experiences in both theaters and I think you missed the point of the critique on Mr. King.

        I will leave you with this, if you are in ROTC and this is an example of how you think and what you have for knowledge on topics related to combat then you need to work on things.

        One-Critical thinking skills, not a strong suit in most O’s, but give it a whirl.

        Two-Read more, the comments you made show a serious lack of info even on the topic you are speaking on (Kyle).

        Three-Understand context.

        1. Medic5392: This is the third warning we’ve had to issue because of your ad hominem attacks and general rudeness in the comments section. You are temporarily suspended from commenting at War on the Rocks. Please look up what an ad hominem attack is and then try to restrain yourself from launching them.

  2. When I was in college one of my professors told a story about Robert Frost answering questions about the symbolism of his poem “Stopping By The Woods On A Snowy Evening.” Frost responded the poem was just about stopping by the woods on a snowy evening and he hadn’t thought of any symbolism when he wrote it. There was just far to many people reading too much into his words. i think the same happens here. You lost me when you talked about Kyle’s dirty ball cap. I’m sure he wore a dirty ballcap to keep the sun off of his head and sun out of his eyes. Little did he know he was providing you fodder to question symbolism of the movie of his story.

  3. Concur with Medic5392. Professor King is no Ernie Pyle. While Mr. Eastwood didn’t go overseas, he was drafted into the US Army and served his time. For those who are interested in Professor King’s bio, here it is from the official Exeter site: http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/sociology/staff/king/biography/
    Military service is not mentioned. Here’s the link to his research: http://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/sociology/staff/king/research/

  4. Reinforcing Medic, King misses one key factor about combat and combatants. Although a soldier or sailor has the same familial and cultural influences, problems and distractions, they quickly take a back seat in a combat situation. Combat is really quite simple to the participant. There is a mission and you do what is necessary to accomplish that mission. To survive and succeed, the other factors that shape many personalities become secondary.

  5. So when Kyle has to kill a mother and child at the beginning (slapping the watcher’s face in the grayness of the war), the film “ignores the confused complexity of real human existence”?

    When Kyle forces an Iraqi family to help them find the Butcher, and they get slaughtered as a result and the Butcher escapes, the film “ignores the confused complexity of real human existence”?

    When Kyle’s brother — the sheep he is supposed to protect — enlists and then is bitterly disillusioned about the war, the film “ignores the confused complexity of real human existence”?

    At the funeral of Kyle’s fellow SEAL, when his mother reads the despairing letter from her son, the film “ignores the confused complexity of real human existence”?

    When Kyle is repeatedly faced with breakdown of the American war effort, and is too limited to understand it, the film “ignores the confused complexity of real human existence”?

    When, at the end, the movie makes clear the tragedy of Kyle’s death — killed by one of the sheep he wants to protect — and Eastwood counterpoints that tragedy with the simplistic patriotism of his funeral, the film “ignores the confused complexity of real human existence”?

    Really?

    (Lots of other examples I left out — like, if the movie is about fatherhood, what’s the message of Kyle being absent for so much of his children’s early years?)

    You should really think hard about “Unforgiven,” another Eastwood film in which a limited man inhabits a violent and complicated world. That may point you in some more useful analytical directions that would allow you to improve this bit of incomprehension.

  6. A clarification in response to a lot of anger: my review analysed the film American Sniper assessing its qualities as film. It should in no way be taken as criticism of Chris Kyle, the soldier and man – or his memory and those who commemorate it. On the contrary.

    1. Mr. King,
      The issues most have are pretty apparent in the comments, so I not sure how you are seeing any of hint of that the commenters are taking the review as a personal attack on Kyle. The issue is with your analysis, but where to begin?! “the film draws heavily on the Western movie.”-Kyle was actually a cowboy, that does not mean he was was being portrayed as one in the film. Being a cowboy is part of his story and that you seem to want more focus on the killer of Kyle shows your hand a bit. You are doing what is commonly known as projecting, so I am curious what you wanted this film to show and how it missed what would have made it a good “War Movie” in your mind? In the review you skirt around it a bit, but never say exactly how you would have made this a good movie? The idea that is based on the American Western Genre doesn’t jive with most have said about the movie, so tell us what you would have done differently? And why?

      1. In between predictable jibes about ivory towers, one confirmation might be useful. In claiming that American Sniper was not a *great* war film, I did not mean it was a poor one; it is an absorbing film and it is obvious why audiences were moved by it. I meant rather that, in my view, it failed to reach the very highest level of movie-making. I think it is unlikely it will be an enduring classic of the stature of The Deerhunter, for instance. For me, this is regrettable because finishing the film with that bold and dramatic silent scene, it got very close as I thought my review argued.

        1. Anthony,
          It is hard not to throw jibes at someone when they often omit facts that do not support their premises, but that is another topic related to other subjects you’ve written about.
          As for this article, your view did not come across as saying this was a good film at all. It did not come across as one scene being what turned you away from saying this was a *great war* film. What else was it that you did not like about the film? Was that it was not morally ambiguous?

  7. Others have made the valid and obvious criticisms of this movie review, so I’ll make only the following point: if one is going write about military matters and hold himself out as some sort of expert on the US military, he really ought to learn the difference in the terms “soldier”, “sailor”, and “Marine”. I can assure him that those who held those titles know the difference and don’t take kindly to being called what they were not.

    1. John Jackson’s point on the nomenclature “soldier, sailor, and Marine” is spot on. While a common error in news reporting and opinion pieces, as a retired MSG from SOF, I note it every single time I come across it. This basic error detracts from the authors credibility.

      On some cognitive level it irritates me in the same way that our command refuses to clearly name our enemy. This is an infinitely more serious error, if I understand Sun Tzu.

      “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
      – Sun Tzu

  8. I agree with the writer. I have seen the film and think it is one of the most important in recent history; but I agree with the writer. And that’s precisely why it is one of the most important films ever made – it does not follow the “formula” that hollywood (sic) has establised to describe a great film. It paints a picture in stark reality of a situation that no man should ever have to face; but, we do. And face it we must. We must identify the evil and confront it wherever we find it. But the retelling of this story did not follow the “formula;” it did not use the required “technique.” It did, however, tell one Hell of a story (and i mean that literally). Hooray for Clint’s vision – he told the story right.

    1. You are aware, of course, that nearly every combat sequence depicted is a heavily fictionalized rendering, right?

      I ask because many seeing the film haven’t read Kyle’s bio, and once you have you will instantly recognize where screenwriter Jason Hall has departed that account and composed his own portrayal. These aren’t minor details, tweaked for flow or arc, but integral plot devices that leave the viewer with facile notions about Kyle’s real life deeds.

      Imagine that a remake of the film ‘Patton’ were released, but in this version his prolific profanity and unhinged temper are simply omitted from the telling; he never slaps and scolds a soldier suffering from battle fatigue, calling him a coward and threatening to shoot him on the spot.

      For those of us who were introduced to Chris Kyle in the pages of his autobiography, this is what the cineplex experience is like. An imposter has taken his place, despite Bradley Cooper’s efforts, and much of what he wanted to say has been sanitized or left unsaid.

  9. Note from the editors: We value a robust exchange of opinions in the comments section on WOTR pieces, but we insist that commenters refrain from ad hominem attacks against either the author or other commenters. Make clear your disagreement, but please do so while remaining civil. Comments that violate this standard will be deleted.

  10. I find it amusing that many of the commenters here seem to think that the author has no right to comment on the film because he hasn’t served in the Military. That is ridiculous. I served in the military (Aussie), in Iraq, and I agree with most of what he said. I also thought the flag waving ending simply ruined the message and the irony of the film. The fact that the mission was primarily a COIN operation, and the fact that one couldn’t tell the civilians from the insurgents most of the time, made the mission very confusing, especially for those of us that actually think and considered their roles in the war. I know many veterans that are very disturbed following multiple tours and I felt the film dealt with that in an unrealistic way, making it more about physical wounds, even though Kyle seemed to be mentally disturbed and a couple of his Team mates had doubts, nothing was explored in depth. It just seemed to me they tried to squeeze too much into the film and that simply didn’t do the film or the character of Kyle any justice. What did we know about his team mates? What did we know about his brother, so he went shooting with some disabled vets and then all of a sudden he is back to normal? I felt the film tried to be too many things at once, and I came away from the cinema feeling like I had seen a 2 dimensional character in an average War film, with some great action sequences but no real depth.

    1. No, not that at all Trevor. It is that his opinion of the movie and search for the “complexity” of what combat should be portrayed at in a film is what the critiques are about. His lack of service does affect his view, but that is only part of the issue. What is it he want’s to see exactly? Read his article again and tell me that he does not sound like he is trying a wee bit hard to see something that is not there in the movie.

      The rest of the critiques on his lack of service, at least to me, is that if you are going to portray yourself as an expert on military sociology and culture, (he does), then reading books and living on a FOB for a bit are not going to cut it. His works are an effort in proving his already settled premise, go to the links or read his other articles on here and make the call. The guy has every right in the world to his opinion on a movie or anything for that matter, but he should also be expected to be called out on bullshit as well. He does a lot of projecting in this article and when I read this and combine it with past articles and his other work it shows a man with an ideology, not a man who is objective.

      1. Eastwood should be called out on his bullshit about combat and his “expertise”. It’s like his performance of talking to an empty chair at the GOp Convention and disrespecting the President. Dirty Harry indeed.

        1. Umm…he’s making a movie, not propping himself up as an SME on the military….but sure, they are the same thing. I think that your post is a fantastic example false equivalency. And uhhh….I’m still not sure how or what the GOP has to do with this.

  11. I felt compelled to write.

    For a National Security blog which claims “Our touchstone is experience”, WOTR is publishing far too much material from so-called academic experts. I am not someone who is scared to engage in and be challenged by robust, intellectual debate and I am not someone who feels that the military have nothing to learn from the bookworms. But I am someone who reads this blog because I want to hear the views and opinions of people who actually know what the score is … and it’s really obvious when authors do (and when they don’t). I can get my fill of bland, pretentious pseudo-academic copy from a dozen different blogs – please don’t send WOTR the same way.

    As for Prof King’s article, I at least preferred this article to your last one on David Richards. For what it’s worth, I served under Gen Richards and, frankly, whatever he has to say about command would be about as useful as basketball tips from President Obama. However, you don’t get that sort of insight from reading books; it’s sad that WOTR didn’t offer that review to someone else.

  12. How can Professor King say Eastwood “re-incorporates [Kyle] unproblematically into society” when we can see the effects of his struggle with reintegration upon his return?

    I’m not talking about his reaction to the dog at the birthday party. I’m talking about him staring at a blank tv and zoning out thinking about the war. I’m talking about his visible discomfort in making conversation with a fellow veteran at the mechanic’s shop. I’m talking about his denial in admitting he was affected by his experiences, and his realization that he cared more about going back downrange than spending time with his family.

    Perhaps these nuances were too subtle for Prof. King’s attention. Perhaps these issues, particularly the mechanic scene, are ones only someone who has served in combat or had a family member who served in combat would notice.

    Either way, King’s ivory tower academic perspective completely fails to register the issues a returning veteran faces, in a way that Eastwood quite accurately portrays.

  13. Eastwood, Cooper and Hall have all stated that their aim was to deliver a “character study” of a single warrior, rather than an opinion piece about the Iraq war.

    Unfortunately, that “study” was abandoned from the start, largely due to the filmmaker’s proximity to the Kyle family and the explicit pressure to portray Kyle admirably.

    Looking Cooper dead in the eye, Kyle’s father snarled: “You dishonor my son and I’ll unleash hell on you.”

    “This movie will play a large part in how my kids view their father.”, Taya Kyle told Cooper.

    “You fuck this up and I will kill you”, Hall says a Seal friend of Kyle’s assured him, with no evidence of insincerity.

    Negotiations with Warner Bros. for the film rights stretched on for 20 months, with Cooper personally intervening by calling Kyle and assuring him that his story would get a respectable treatment.

    Considering the unflattering-and less than honorable-aspects of Kyle’s persona that have come to light since his bio, it’s clear now just why he and his surviving kin were so worried about how much of his character would make it to the screen.

    1. I would caution you to link “Salon” as a source, it has about as much credibility on 99% of topics as the NRA would in a gun study or Mother Jones does on economics.

      The article is not a hit piece, but like many other writers he gets the context of the book wrong. For example, the trope of “savages” is taken out of context, he did not infer that all Iraqi’s were savages, just the folks he was fighting. We worked with the Iraqi’s, fought alongside many, so if they (the Iraqi troops) call the other side “savages” too, it does not make them racist, simpletons, or ignorant. That is what happens in combat, you do not call the other side “great guys” and pat them on the butt for a “good effort” and line up and shake hands at the end of the game. If you fight in WWII and call the Nazi’s savages, does that mean you hate all Germans and are somehow racist? What is increasingly clear is the inability of folks from some sections of America to use context, situational circumstances and common sense

      The author of that article did get one thing right, Kyle’s experience was not what “his” war was like, nor was Reppenhagen’s war what others experienced.

      1. I would caution you to refrain from ignoring the matters raised in the Salon article. That the article was presented by Salon and meets with your disdain is simply a red herring and your rhetoric about the forum unfortunately adds nothing to the discussion at hand.

  14. Wow. Quite a discussion, this one, with a whole lot of undercurrents full of weird, inexplicable anger. But some worthwhile points in there, too.

    I too thought the movie was great, very affecting, technically top-notch, but somehow missing by an inch. I’m not sure why it missed, or if our reviewer is correct, though he makes a few interesting observations.

    I’d like to add something about academics and their study of war.

    I’m an academic who has never been in the military and never heard a shot fired in anger. I became a foreign policy historian by accident: It was not a field I was particularly interested in (just for professional reasons–I was into intellectual and religious history), but teaching the course fell to me some 15 years ago, and then events heated up in the real world, and so forth. I had read a lot of Vietnam-era combat memoirs before that, but mainly as an academic hobby, if you will. My father was a US Navy vet of the Pacific theater in WWII, and full of war stories, as were all the old guys in my neighborhood growing up in the 1960s. I missed the draft and Vietnam by a few years, but know a lot of Vietnam vets, none of whom like to talk about it much (not as much as the WWII vets).

    I won’t speak for all academics, just myself: I am keenly aware that when it comes to knowing what combat is, I do not. I read as many memoirs by vets as I can, so I can get as many impressions as I can, and those are very worthwhile (of course they are–that’s why we tell stories–so that those who weren’t there can get a sense of the experience), but they are no substitute for experience.

    In this, war is much like anything else (only more so): No amount of reading will give you whatever perspective one gains from actually doing it, whether it’s harpooning a whale, having cancer, becoming a father, branding a calf, or being ambushed.

    I do not know “war” in anything like the way a combat veteran does. That said, I sometimes know more about some particular war than many veterans do. Knowing “about” comes from multiplying perspectives (ie, listening closely to hundreds of vets), putting those stories into context (ie, the diplomatic and strategic history of the war, seeing it from its beginning to its end, the home front, etc., etc.), and then drawing what conclusions one can by comparing all that with what one has learned about other wars.

    The veteran remains the expert on his own experiences, and, insofar as he’s listened and read and thought beyond them, may very well be an expert on much more. I as an academic am absolutely dependent upon him for whatever I know about combat, just as I depend on others who have experienced other things, if I am to know about them.

    The idea that the vet and the academic are at any kind of odds is utterly foreign to my own experiences and to my work. We’re all part of a larger collective project to remember, to understand, and to transmit.

    One other thing: I’ve never listened to a vet that I haven’t learned from. He may be off his rocker politically, or completely consumed by anger and have a very distorted picture of things (in my estimation), but I still learn. Someone can get 90% of something wrong, but that 10% they have right is still right, and if it’s unique to them, it’s invaluable.

    The same goes for academics. There’s always something to learn (unless they’re a complete idiot, which does occur on occasion).

    1. John,
      Historians are one thing, someone who presents himself as an expert on military sociology/culture is another. The main issue is that many academics (and often enough, AD officers) have little to no actual experience with what they often attempt to portray themselves as experts on. Add in that many never leave their academic fish bowls and still try to write and influence policy, well that is a recipe for a disaster.

      Experience really matters when you are trying to influence policy on training, standards, etc…but have zero knowledge of what it may take to prepare people for combat. When those same academics ignore facts, political realities and actual studies because they do not support their premise or goals, then that is something that should be shown for what it is; lies, fraud, falsehoods, etc..whatever you want to call it.

  15. For the predictable frothing invective that Seth Rogan caught for his “propaganda” remarks, the fact is that he is more correct than he probably knows.

    Recall the scene from ‘Inglorious Basterds’ that Rogan referenced, where a faux Nazi propaganda reel is playing within the film. A valiant German sniper is holding back a swarm of American troops, picking them off from his belltower perch above the square. A mother’s stroller inadvertantly rolls into the square, and one of the pinned-down Americans runs up, scoops the infant into his arms – then holds it up as a shield as he scurries for cover.

    This, of course, provokes shock and disgust from the heroic German marksman: “Americansche Schweine!” Tarantino is provoking us here, forcing us to consider the influence of explicit propaganda from the vantage point of an adversary.

    Now, recall the opening scene from ‘American Sniper’, where an Iraqi mother has handed a grenade to her ten year-old son, and sent him running towards an approaching American detail. Kyle’s character has little time to process the revulsion, and must open fire, killing first the boy, then his mother. “Despicable, evil savages.”

    Now set the popcorn down for a moment and recognize that, like “Stolz der Nation”, the shooting of the boy in American Sniper is a fiction – it never happened to the real Chris Kyle. Screenwriter Jason Hall added the fictional content to the scene for a very specific, and twofold purpose; to validate the “evil savages” mindset that the real Kyle professed, thus softening the edges of his character to make him more palatable for moviegoers.

    In the same scene, once Kyle has killed the mother and son, his character recoils from the congratulatory backslap of his spotter, telling him to “get the fuck off me”, implying that Kyle has been deeply affected by his first kill and is not in the mood for high fives. Again, this fictive dialogue in no way represents what the real Kyle felt, as recounted in his autobio; “Great!. No big deal”

    Because Eastwood and Co. have given us a film that is billed as “based on the TRUE STORY of America’s most lethal sniper”, those intimately familiar with that true story expect some measure of fidelity to the events. When a filmmaker consciously decides to create fictional scenes and sanitized dialogue that only serve to portray a real military figure in a more admirable light, then it can be said without equivocation that the storytellers have crossed from portrayal into propaganda.

    Some will offer a weak defense that American Sniper is not a documentary, and thus can’t be expected to adhere to facts and a historical person’s own written claims, but that evasion only highlights the degree to which, when it comes to the idolatry of heroic figures, many are perfectly willing to eschew truth for the myth that they want to see.

  16. I do love how a movie about one guy out of 100,000+ has for some reason turn the guy into some kind of demigod. Can’t wait to see people start to pray to this guy for favors.

    I have nothing against the guy or the movie, he was after all a good killer as any soldier should be. The sniper part is irrelevant as there where so many snipers and counter snipers running around the middle east at the time.

    Neither a hero or a villain just a soldier like so many others. The religious connotation in the movie seem out of place for whom he was but then people do have strange ways of using faith to console them selves when they are taking life which is just fine its just another part of the human condition.

  17. Since King’s original critique had Eastwood center mass in his scope (pun intended) I am curious why he didn’t address another work by Eastwood – Gran Torino. The main character wasn’t a sniper, but not even a mention of commonalities or a comparison? Would seem that more thorough research should have been conducted IOT submit a review of Eastwood’s current offering.

    I consider the parallels drawn between the current movie and his previous Western themes thin to the point of anorexia. I doubt the good professor would allow any latitude were one of his students to submit a work akin to this piece with its flawed thesis and porous defense. That is, correctly, the reason for the volume and tenor of dissent with the piece.

    Yes I served and yes I have multiple deployments, but no, I haven’t seen Sniper so I cannot comment on that portion of the debate.