Clint Eastwood's film American Sniper is a blockbuster hit. Characters resonate and action explodes like a murderous video game. For a sniper, who shoots unsuspecting combatants, murder is not a military term; eliminating the enemy is the expression that takes the rasp off the moral buzz saw.
So much for nuance. Chris Kyle, of course, had no time for such delineations.
"Savage, Despicable, Evil," he writes in the book, "That's what we were fighting in Iraq. That's why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy savages. There was no other way to describe what we encountered there."
One way would be to call them the enemy, but not Kyle: Savages. He repeats it over and over. Savages is a word our forefathers used for Native Americans. Surely, a patriotic Navy Seal would care enough about history, and have the judgment, if not moral compass, to know that the word savage is more than a derogatory term; it carries a lot of baggage and has been used with genocidal success to demonize and kill America's original inhabitants. That seems to pass Kyle by.
Surely, for Kyle, savages could only mean enemies in Iraq or Afghanistan, a case of post traumatic prejudice, unrelated to the other savages; you know the Indians?--the ones we refer to as Native Americans? Kyle is not capable of a banal coup such as that, is he?
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Well, in his homespun way, he admits he has always been a cowboy. Then, on a mission in Iraq, he writes of "going deep into Injun territory to look and wait for the bad guys."
Whoa doggy; Injun territory can only mean American Injuns. There are no other Injuns. I am not a fan of political correctness, but it is hard to believe that a war hero, when penning his memoirs, chooses to throw salt on the wounds of native Americans. But Kyle does. Apparently, the cross hairs of his sniper scope show Iraqi and Injun as the same evil savage. The scope has settings for wind and distance, but no calibrations for racism or bigotry.
Later, he brags about putting a helmet with goggles on a pole: " It brought a couple of insurgents out and we bagged them." Obviously, war is dehumanizing, and Kyle chooses to make the enemy as inhuman as possible. Bagging refers to a bag that hunters carry dead animals in: quail, squirrels, and I guess, in Kyle's case, humans. Kyle relishes military man-talk. Raw as possible. A hop and a skip from Abu Ghraib images.
No one can question Kyle's bravery, dedication, and blood sacrifice. In interviews, he is humble, polite, and brutally honest. But the book's continual blowhard attitude makes him shrink. Devoid of art, depth, or a widget of perspective, the story take on a existential life of its own, devouring the humanity of the hero and troops. In a void, the sniper becomes another suit, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Kyle says "justice is pretty much black and white. I don't see too much gray." For a soldier, this sentiment can be useful. Kyle would make a hell of a hangman judge.
If Kyle is brutally honest, so are children. Cicero said those who have no knowledge of what has gone before them must forever remain children. Kyle's dedication and strength are valuable traits, and undoubtedly he saved American lives. His don't-give-a-damn blustering, and continual need to demonize the enemy, however, becomes repetitively boring.
Like his enemy, Kyle says god comes first. He also says, if he could, he would like to shoot those holding a Koran. Toward the end, Kyle's wife gives him a wedding ring that has crusader crosses on it.
President Teddy Roosevelt said, "The most ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages." Kyle would probably agree, although he was only twenty four when he enlisted.
Clint Eastwood, on the other hand, should know better. With his six shooters, he has dealt justice to countless desperados. As a director, he understands the theme of a bang-bang cowboy movie, and also that glorifying a person who hates savages might not hamper the money line at all. Eastwood undoubtedly has a visceral appreciation for Injun country. For him, it is back in the saddle and riding on familiar ground, with Native Americans, as usual, a small portion of the viewing public.
However, Eastwood distorts the truth. The book begins with Kyle shooting a woman who was holding a grenade. He saw her "blinded by evil" because she wanted to kill marines and did not care if she injured nearby people, or maybe her child. It was his duty to shoot her. So he did. He would not shoot a child, he says.
But for Eastwood, that was not good enough. In the movie, he decides to have the mother give the grenade to her child, and send him on a suicide mission. A mother that hands her child a live grenade must be unspeakably evil. In a split second, Kyle kills them both.
Eastwood magnifies the mother's evil, and shows that Iraqi are not just textbook or paperback evil; but really really evil. Evil enough to justify the word savage. Evil enough to kill their own children. Evil enough to sell tickets. Eastwood makes Kyle a child killer, when he was not. Eastwood knows, in today's market, shock value sells. It makes a more riveting movie trailer to lure viewers, truth be damned. Damn the savages, and Injuns, too.
Kyle says as a Navy Seal, you go to the dark side; you embrace death.
Eastwood goes along; only he embraces money.