US VS THEM
Apart from analyzing the tendency of the war-film genre to glorify violence, justify racism, and fetishize murder, there are a number of factual errors and historical inconsistencies with Clint Eastwood’s newest film American Sniper, as well as the book it’s based upon. The film’s portrayal of Christian dominionism confuses the otherwise peaceful messages of Jesus. The juxtaposition of 9/11 with Iraq invites viewers to make foreign policy connections that do not exist. Implicit jingoism encourages movie-goers to express xenophobic hatred vicariously through the film’s barbaric protagonist.
And the book that Eastwood’s film was based on seems even worse, weaving a web of lies, from making claims about “punching-out” former Navy SEAL Jesse Ventura, to accounts of murdering looters in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina, all the while referring to the people in his cross-hairs as “savages” and “animals”.
As a veteran myself, I have several grievances with the national debate currently underway regarding this piece of “art”. On one side it is hailed by “red blooded American patriots” as the incredible story of the deadliest sniper the American military ever produced, condemned by anti-war activists as offensive propaganda on the other. The tweet storms seem to indicate that spectators were coming away from American Sniper with a yearning for killing. Clint Eastwood denies this, ironically proclaiming the film as a champion of anti-war ideals. Just as the official narrative of the Iraq war involved “fighting for Iraqi liberation,” propagandists spin a facade of moral high ground language as a smoke screen for obvious misbehavior.
Case in point: if we’re there to liberate them, why revel in their indiscriminate murder?
Despite the predictable “patriots vs. hippies” narrative characterizing this debate, I would like to offer a third point of view, somewhere in the middle of the two extreme polarities. Such a national argument could serve as an opportunity to overcome personal biases, regardless of what side we believe is right, and acknowledge that life is complicated. This is our chance to understand that as long as we’re arguing with each other, we’ll never be able to tackle the root of problems concerning us all. And learning the truth is not about agreement. War is about profit and power for those who wage it. The trick is convincing people to fight and die in their wars. And that’s why propagandists pull in the big bucks.
In 2017, a Freedom of Information Act request by Tom Secker and Matthew Alford revealed the extent to which the Hollywood promotes war explicitly on behalf of the Pentagon, CIA and NSA. Documents obtained by Secker and Alford detailed the military’s control of and influence over more than 1,800 movies and television shows, “including the ability to manipulate scripts or even prevent films too critical of the Pentagon from being made. … If there are characters, action or dialogue that the DOD don’t approve of then the film-maker has to make changes to accommodate the military’s demands. If they refuse then the Pentagon packs up its toys and goes home. To obtain full cooperation the producers have to sign contracts–Production Assistance Agreements–which lock them into using a military-approved version of the script.”
MONKEY SEE, MONKEY DO…
Even before I joined the military, I was intuitively skeptical of the impact that war films can have on our individual psyches, and thus the influence they have on the collective overmind if watched enough times. Many of my friends growing up were seduced by the violence of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now despite the fact that the film’s intention seemed to be the illustration of war’s many unspeakable horrors (as well as a timely adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s classic Heart of Darkness). But even if a war film attempts to convey the message of “look how horrible wars can be,” immature viewers tend to get seduced by the adrenaline-inducing weapon systems of the 21st century. Phrases like, “happiness is a belt-fed weapon” further play into this culture of carnage; a phrase that I heard repeated many times in my career, and repeated myself after becoming a SAW gunner.
The only films I ever saw that made me think twice about joining up were The Deer Hunter starring Robert DeNero, and Born On The Forth Of July starring Tom Cruise. These two films depicted the true cost of sending our best and brightest into the hungry jaws of faraway battles. Before seeing these films, the possibility of losing a leg or permanent paralysis had never occurred to me. Because from John Wayne’s The Longest Day to Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, America’s motion pictures had sold me on the world view that the battlefield yields glory, validated either in a “hero’s death” or award ceremonies and ticker tape parades that are always more fulfilling in your head than in real life.
Having said that, I’m always hesitant to lend my eyes to films depicting physical violence and bloodshed because of the messages they can send, whether they intend to or not. As with most forms of screen entertainment, many Hollywood films are meant to shape perception within the public to garner support for geopolitical decisions made on our behalf, which is why movie theaters are federally subsidized. For the same reason that recruiters are positioned in high schools to grab up our best and brightest before they’ve reached the age of reason, war films play as instrumental a role in military recruitment as first-person-shooter video games do. These forms of screen media masquerade as nothing more than entertainment, all the while subtly programming a state-sponsored narrative of justified imperialism into the malleable minds of those subject to the electronic hallucinations of the glowing rectangle.
Seth Rogen took a lot of flack recently for drawing an apt comparison between Eastwood’s new film to the film-within-a-film, Nation’s Pride – the Nazi propaganda movie that appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. The purpose of effective propaganda is to numb the mind away from reasonable thinking, and anesthetize the emotions away from empathy. As Chris Hedges recently pointed out in TruthDig, “American Sniper caters to a deep sickness rippling through our society. It holds up the dangerous belief that we can recover our equilibrium and our lost glory by embracing an American fascism.” He goes on to say:
“The culture of war banishes the capacity for pity. It glorifies self-sacrifice and death. It sees pain, ritual humiliation and violence as part of an initiation into manhood… The culture of war idealizes only the warrior. It belittles those who do not exhibit the warrior’s “manly” virtues. It places a premium on obedience and loyalty. It punishes those who engage in independent thought and demands total conformity. It elevates cruelty and killing to a virtue. This culture, once it infects wider society, destroys all that makes the heights of human civilization and democracy possible. The capacity for empathy, the cultivation of wisdom and understanding, the tolerance and respect for difference and even love are ruthlessly crushed. The innate barbarity that war and violence breed is justified by a saccharine sentimentality about the nation, the flag and a perverted Christianity that blesses its armed crusaders… It fosters an unchecked narcissism. Facts and historical truths, when they do not fit into the mythic vision of the nation and the tribe, are discarded. Dissent becomes treason. All opponents are godless and subhuman.”
Veterans For Peace recently responded to the film in a similar way, contending:
“Following spaghetti western acclaim, Clint Eastwood, now 84, moved on to Dirty Harry movies… Over the years, he has honed this very masculine style and become a popular film director exploring the American psyche mostly from the reactionary right — though his films are always a dialogue with issues on the left. American Sniper is no different with its limited contrapuntal theme of PTSD and homefront family adjustment.
“Harry Callahan was famous for whacking creeps who deserved to die with his long, phallic .44 magnum. It was great cinema. The formula was simple: Feature a good guy who hates bureaucrats, loves to cut corners and is a man comfortable with violence and put him at odds with bad guys who are absolute perverted creeps whose death at the hands of the good guy would be cheered by an audience shoving popcorn down its gullet. The films were realistic in the sense of being harsh, brutal and loud. But they were far from realistic in the sense of being complex, morally gray, contradictory and confusing — like life itself.”
So when it comes to Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, I’m first and foremost appalled by the message we get early on that the message of Christ has anything to do with racist bigotry or a fixation of murder. How can any true Christian bemoan the crucifixion of Christ and then revel in the slaughter of other human beings?
Beyond achieving the feigned moral high ground of killing for Jesus, the film presupposes that sniper Chris Kyle was sent to Iraq because of what happened on 9/11. You don’t have to be that well informed to understand that the only connection that exists between 9/11 and Iraq is the Bush administration’s lie about Weapons of Mass Destruction which were never found in the deserts of Iraq. A deluge of patriotism that flooded our soldiers into Afghanistan created a tidal wave of militarism, the momentum of which has since bled over into operations conducted in over 75 countries. This fact remained hidden from the American people until Jeremy Scahill finally spilled the beans on JSOC with the book/documentary Dirty Wars.
When the twin towers fell, I was an ROTC cadet reporting in to my commanding officer for my morning duties. It wasn’t long after that I joined the US Army’s ranks in the 11B combat specialty despite having the ASVAB scores to go anywhere else. None of the other jobs had what I was looking for. In the summer of 2005 I graduated infantry OSUT and airborne school, both at Fort Benning, Georgia.
For people like me, it didn’t matter where the military sent us. We were absolutely convinced that our help was necessary to protect the nation, and that the military was working on behalf of the nation’s best interests. But no matter how enthusiastic I may have been at the beginning (and there was no solider more gung-ho for HOOAH than me), it slowly but inevitably became impossible to ignore the power grabs and profiteering happening above my pay grade. Once I finally became witness to the crimes of our government, that the media insisted were not happening, I couldn’t deny the truth any longer. Looking back I wonder how I was ever able made to believe any of the mainstream lies. Then again, common sense is only sense made common, and hindsight is always 20/20.
I don’t enjoy talking about my service, and no fellow veteran I know who has taken lives was ever proud of it. Which brings me to my next point about the book of the same name upon which the movie American Sniper is based. Chris Kyle, who is credited with 160 confirmed kills (God knows how many more unconfirmed) reads like a demented serial killer, reveling in the destruction and death that transpired at his fingertips during four tours of duty. This initially led me to question what role the book and subsequent film were meant to play in the society to shape public perception, and how much of it was altered to appeal to the pro-war narrative. Because no veteran I know personally has ever talked the way Kyle does about murder in his memoirs. The only people I’ve ever met who revel in the death and suffering of other humans in combat situations are people who have either never been in combat, or sadistic psychopaths.
As far as the first group are concerned you’ve probably bumped into one of these clowns at the bar, telling fantastic stories of the wars he so bravely fought in. Mine were usually socially inept boys with poor posture who liked to brag about how they were “a sniper in Iraq” or worked with the “special forces in Afghanistan” in between swigs of cheap beer. For whatever reason, stolen valor seems to have become quite popular in the age of Homeland Security.
The first prerequisite in determining the legitimacy of an individual’s service in the military is his unwillingness to talk about combat. Nobody I know who saw ‘trigger time’ overseas enjoys talking about combat, and most will flatly refuse your requests to reminisce by changing the subject, or leaving the conversation altogether. Posers, on the other hand, who have been programmed by video games and war films to glorify human slaughter, will tell war stories that usually feel like borrowed composites from pop culture. They do this because the greater culture has brainwashed them into thinking that they can obtain respect, sex, and notoriety if they can convince people they too are an American war hero. The reality experienced by our authentic heroes, however, seldom includes any semblance of fame or fortune, but a whole lot of guilt and flashbacks.
If you bump into armchair commandos claiming military service, and you want to skillfully suggest polite skepticism of their yarns, a great test of character is to ask them what their MOS was during their military career. That’s Military Occupational Specialty, and if they weren’t in the military they usually won’t be able to answer this question. Sometimes the smart fakers have memorized some figures, but this question weeds them out nine times out of ten.
Please understand that I’m not accusing Chris Kyle of being a poser, per se. Though this book exhibits demonstrable lies, we can say based on evidence that he was indeed a veteran and served out his military contract honorably. But if he actually reveled in the act of killing during his service as the pages and scenes of American Sniper allege, and if he actually felt the way those hateful sentences convey, then I’m led to believe that he’s either a psychopath, or that the narrative of his life has been altered to boost sales and/or garner patriotic support for continued global imperialism.
Praising the act of killing into fetish territory is not the behavior of any genuine veteran I know, which leads me to believe that Chris Kyle is either not responsible for the death-glorification that appears in the book (which, by the way, is conspicuously absent from the film), or he was a psychopath. Neither case leaves me either admiring Kyle, or feeling the need to honor his memory.
I’ve also considered the possibility that many of the stories were fabrications, either ghost-written by other writers or embellished by the editor to push sales, because there are many claims throughout the text that are blatant lies: in the book we’re meant to believe that Chris Kyle punched former Navy Seal Jesse Ventura; that Kyle sniped thirty people in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina; that he murdered two men attempting to car-jack him. There is no evidence to support any of these claims, and Jesse Ventura even filed a law suit for defamation of character when Chris Kyle was still alive.
“PUNCHING OUT JESSE”
The media really twisted up Ventura’s defamation lawsuit, vilifying the former Minnesota Governor for victimizing the “poor widow” of Chris Kyle “for greedy monetary gain”. Ventura has since set the record straight about the chapter of American Sniper entitled, “Punching Out Jesse,” that the publication company was forced to change. Despite the fact that a jury came to the conclusion that overwhelming evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the incident in question never happened, instead of amending or omitting the entire chapter, HarperCollins offered money as payment to Ventura for damages. Ventura objected to the money, demanding they remove the blatant lies from the pages of the book. Though they’ve changed the name of that chapter in subsequent publications, they stonewalled Ventura on altering the content, instead writing him a check for $1.8 million, and now the media are free to berate him for taking money away from Kyle’s widow. Money that the Kyle Estate claimed was going entirely towards charity in the name of veterans organizations, which turned out to be another lie, as only about 2% of the proceeds were ever donated to said charities, according to the National Review.
This brings me to the strange circumstances surrounding Chris Kyle’s death; shot by a former Marine on a shooting range shortly after Ventura’s lawsuit began. Some analysts are drawing parallels between the Chris Kyle narrative and the Pat Tillman story. Men who’s image was worth billions in recruitment advertising to the military-industrial-complex.
A common misconception infecting the discourse of our society is that if you’re going to question the war you need to be prepared to respond to accusations of being anti-American or anti-military. As an ROTC cadet and a person who sacrificed his early life to join the military, is anyone prepared to call me anti-American? Since I was honorably discharged from my military service, is anyone prepared to call me anti-military?
22 veterans kill themselves every day. You think it’s because they’re proud of what they did? You think it’s because they’re happy with what their actions helped accomplish? You think its because they believed that their battles resulted in freedom for Americans?
And how does patriotic support of our troops equate to the anti-human stance we take on the scores of homeless veterans walking our streets every day, who we demonize for being poor? If anyone is qualified to say this, I as a veteran am: you cannot support our troops and be simultaneously against the war. That’s oxymoronic because if our troops are committing crimes against humanity, we are no different than any other totalitarian regime in history. If I’m involved in something shitty, you shouldn’t pledge my support, any more than I should be required to follow shitty orders if I think they’re unlawful. Just following orders is a coward’s excuse, and hiding behind a rifle requires far less courage than standing up to a corrupt government that continues to commit crimes in the name of freedom, God and country.
I’m not the only veteran taking a stance to set the record straight here. Former Marines Adam Kokesh and Ross Caputi who both served in Fallujah, call the Iraq war an imperialistic resource theft that exploits American soldiers who think they’re fighting for freedom.
Perhaps no one has ever said it better than two-time Medal of Honor recipient Major General Smedley D. Butler:
“I spent thirty-three years and four months in active military service as a member of this country’s most agile military force, the Marine Corps. I served in all commissioned ranks from Second Lieutenant to Major-General. And during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle-man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism. “I suspected I was just part of a racket at the time. Now I am sure of it. Like all the members of the military profession, I never had a thought of my own until I left the service. My mental faculties remained in suspended animation while I obeyed the orders of higher-ups. This is typical with everyone in the military service.
“I helped make Mexico, especially Tampico, safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. The record of racketeering is long. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.
“During those years, I had, as the boys in the back room would say, a swell racket. Looking back on it, I feel that I could have given Al Capone a few hints. The best he could do was to operate his racket in three districts. I operated on three continents.”
For this reason, I can’t help but cringe when people reflexively respond to the news of my military service by pumping my hand and thanking me for my service, which is part of the reason I rarely bring it up. Since we’re on the subject, I must ask you all to please refrain from thanking me for my service as a matter of reflex. Because I didn’t fight for anybody’s freedom. I fought to help guarantee the profits of assholes, just as General Butler articulated all those years before me.
This post was originally composed by journalist and Army veteran Brandt Miller.
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