Does Clint Eastwood’s movie glorify war? Is it an ode to militarism? A repellent, barbarous message that shedding blood is good? Is the hero actually a villain?
American Sniper tells the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the lethal sharpshooter who, during his four tours of Iraq, notched up 160 kills. A record? Worry not. An anonymous Royal Marine sniper boasts 173 hits, mostly Taliban fighters, according to The Sun newspaper. Huh! These bloodthirsty Brits! You can always count on them to come up on top.
Actually, Kyle is not a particularly violent man. In an early scene, finding his girl in bed with another guy, he simply throws the culprit out - I can imagine more sanguine reactions. However, after watching on TV massive attacks on American marines in Beirut and the slaughter of 9/11, he volunteers into the SEALS and is sent to US-occupied Iraq. A country which had absolutely nothing to do with the abovementioned crimes. Some irony, eh?
Kyle aims at targeting male enemies, not females or children. That is irrational. Females today are integrated into armed forces, bear weapons, fight, all that. Thus they are fair game. Feminists claim that sentimentality about women fighters is a male chauvinist thing - I assure them I am not a sentimentalist. The problem arises with civilians, male as well as female. What do you do when a civilian shoots at you or your comrades? Does he thereby forsake his immunity? Do you take him out? Well, resistance fighters are entitled to resist, no? Isn’t that the lesson, reiterated ad nauseam, of German-occupied Europe in WWII? When a civilian was supposedly justified in shooting at the occupiers. Why not so in Iraq then?
The case of children is harder. No neat solution there. Kyle, to his credit, agonises over that. To quote Albert Camus in a similar context: ‘Even in war and destruction, there are limits’. But…what exactly are they? In a guerrilla war, limits get blurred. Perhaps irreparably so.
‘Make love, not war’, ran a tedious Flower Power slogan of the ‘60s, assuming a dichotomy between them. Kyle however combines both, as he is blessed with gorgeous wife Tanya, played by Sienna Miller, and two children. And he is hooked on his deadly job. When back at home on furlough, he hankers after the killing fields of Iraq. To save his comrades’ lives from black-turbaned Mustafa, a fatal insurgent sniper whom he takes out eventually with a masterly, mile-long hit. My Edgware Road Odeon audience, the heart of Arab Londonistan, did not cheer.
Does Kyle enjoy killing? Well, he is a patriot. He believes he is protecting America, ‘the greatest country in the world’. But equally he is no sadist, as his qualms at having to shoot a woman and a child carrying tube bombs indicate. Though he is not like St Augustine’s ideal Christian soldier either, fighting even a just war sorrowfully, with a heavy heart. Still, Tanya notices that her husband is a bit haunted. Truth is, Kyle as portrayed by Bradley Cooper is an ambiguous warrior. He has depth.
Does American Sniper glorify war? Sure it does. The film is epic stuff, gripping and my son Linus was bowled over but… can you blame this piece of celluloid? An endless stream of war movies, war programmes, war celebrations, war documentaries are descending upon us for the centenary WWI. Brace yourself for another four years of that. They are all glorifications of martial virtues, triumphs and slaughters. Of course, the baddies are Germans or Japs. Beaten and bombed into dust, they can’t complain about it. Unlike Arabs, who stubbornly don’t fancy being called ‘savages’ and resist being ‘liberated’. What goes around, comes around, I think.
‘The Romans have made a desert and called it peace’, historian Tacitus wrote about the repressions carried out by the Roman Army in Britain. Be that as it may, in Britannia the Pax Romana lasted nearly 300 years. The Pax Americana in Iraq hardly ever started. The country has been martyred, it is unpacified, civil war, terrorism and vast number of killings occur daily. A melancholy conclusion to Kyle’s endevours.
Killing seems intrinsic to human nature. Man’s earthly history, the Bible shows, opens with a murder – Cain’s slaying of his brother, the innocent Abel. Things get so bad that God in the Decalogue promulgates a specific commandment against killing. Instructive because, if men had no inclination towards bloodshed, what need would there be to forbid it? But any injunction like ‘Do not’ provokes a ‘What if I do?’ response. That is why the ancient Hebrews and all societies enforced penalties on murder, i.e. unlawful killing. War and self-defence are now the only exceptions.
The Church sought to mitigate the horrors of war with various truces and conditions. Bloodshed imported a grave taint, so that someone who had killed could not become a cleric, for example. As Christ, another Abel, shed his innocent blood on the Cross for the salvation of humanity, it was unfitting that a priest, meant to represent Christ sacramentally at the altar, should shed another person’s blood.
The movie’s fearsome Jihadis of course call the Americans disparagingly ‘crusaders’. They fail to see how the Cross, the perennial symbol of that fateful, cosmic sacrifice, could never be invoked to justify the shedding of blood. And in the Cross and in the Gospel alone is hope for a finally regenerated, transfigured and peaceful world.
Revd Frank Julian Gelli