Clint Eastwood’s conflicted morality in American Sniper – interview
Chris Kyle was proclaimed the most lethal sniper in the US military history, with over 160 confirmed kills, most of them were carried out during his deployment in Iraq between 2003-2009, where he was nicknamed The Devil of Ramadi by the Iraqi insurgents, who put a bounty on his head. Ramadi is the capital of Iraq’s Western province, Anbar, where the US army faced the fiercest local resistance, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. In the US, however, he was accoladed with two Silver Star Medals, five Bronze Star Medals, one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals for acts of heroism and meritorious service in combat.
The conflicting morality of Kyle’s actions is laid bare in the opening scene of Clint Eastwood’s new movie “American Sniper,” which tells his life story. Sprawled on a rooftop somewhere in Fallujah and gazing below through his rifle scope, Kyle shoots dead a child, barely 8 years-old, who is hauling grenade in his hands and walking towards a group of US soldiers, and then he blows off the head of the child’s wailing mother, when she fetches the grenade and starts towards the soldiers.
As Kyle reflects on his kill, Eastwood takes us back to his childhood in Texas, where he was born and raised by his father, who teach him how to shoot a rifle and instills in him the religious-driven American values that see the world in black and white. Kyle grows up believing that America is always right, and its enemies are evil, who ought to be crushed. Hence, when he watches the World Trade Center crumbling on his TV screen in Sep 2001, the only thought on his mind is revenge. The following day, he volunteers for the Navy Seals, where he is subjected to an intensive training programme before he impresses his training officers with his extraordinary precision in hitting targets with his rifle. He is a better sniper than his own trainer.
The US invasion of Iraq offers Kyle the chance to punish those whom he deems to be America’s foes. He is ferocious in the battle field. His ferocity stems from his fanatical conviction that he is fighting a morally just and necessary war to defend America. Not only does he save the lives of many of US marines, who are fighting on the ground, by eliminating any danger, being a man, a woman or a child, with his rifle from a distant rooftop, he also joins them in the bloodiest and most brutal fighting, particularly in Fallujah, which witnesses the largest number of human loss on both sides.
The film is fraught with gruesome battles from the Iraq war, and horrific scenes of destruction and suffering, particularly by the local civilians, but it doesn’t reflect on the morality of the war, the questionable reasons behind it or its devastating consequence on the US soldiers and the Iraqi people. Instead, it conforms to the good-vs-evil tradition of Hollywood movies, portraying the American soldiers as benevolent heroes, endowed with high morals, while all the Iraqi fighters are Al Qaeda terrorists, who commit the most hideous crimes against the Iraqi civilians. There is no mention of the atrocities committed by the American soldiers against the locals or the torture in Abu Ghraib prison, or the theft of the Iraqi archaeological treasures.
Ironically, Eastwood was a stalwart opponent of the Iraq war, and still believes that it was a wrong war, which begs the question why didn’t he dwell on the morality of the war and its repercussions instead of just glorifying those who conducted it?
“What interested me in this project was not the war, but the drama in Kyle’s family,” Eastwood tells me when I meet him at a downtown hotel in Los Angeles. “And then you got the drama of being in war: life, death, suffering and destruction. Basically, conflict is the basis of drama and wars are about conflict.”
Kyle’s brother is also serving in Iraq, though reluctantly. He doesn’t believe in and criticises the war, upsetting Kyle, who fights like a crusader on a sacred mission. Kyle’s wife, who is left to raise their kids on her own in Texas, is not pleased either, and pleads with him to return home. “I think Kyle was very torn and that’s the drama of the picture,” says Eastwood, who has opposed all America’s wars. “I personally would stay with my family. But if push comes to shove, it’s hard to know, those are very hard choices to make up in your mind.”
Eastwood was 11 years old when WWII broke out, and ignited the feelings of patriotism in the hearts of the American People. “Everybody was extremely patriotic,” he quips. The horrors of war, and it consequent destructions and suffering that young Eastwood saw in newsreels, projected in cinema theatres, disturbed him and made him despise it. He was relieved when it was over, naively thinking that peace henceforth would prevail. But he was soon disappointed when in 1951 he was drafted to fight a new American war in Korea. He reportedly managed to evade fighting by romancing the daughter of an army officer, who arranged for him to stay on home soil and serve as a swimming instructor in Fort Ord in California.
“We wondered what the hell we were doing there, and I suppose in later wars, Vietnam, everybody was asking more questions: Why we keep doing this and where’s the end of it all?” Eastwood wonders. “It does question mankind’s ability to live in a peaceful way. It seems like history is not on the side of peace, which is sometimes a depressing way to look at things, but that’s the way it is. But you know, there is a good aspect to them. War is a very creative time in mankind’s history, because humanity seems to make a lot of advances, technological and everything else, due to the haste and the necessity. But it’s a shame that it’s that way.”
Even after the September 11 attacks the Hollywood superstar didn’t believe that violence was the appropriate response, and was against the US wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. “Saddam Hussein was not a popular individual, but there’s a ton of unpopular individuals around, so where do you make a judgement of going into that kind of thing? And we go over and introduce democracy in different countries and then you find out that they do not even want democracy,” Eastwood says.
Those are indeed very relevant and interesting questions, but the veteran director doesn’t pose them in his movie, and instead of examining the legitimacy of the war, he focuses on the warrior, whom he presents as a hero. “I think a hero is someone who goes above and beyond to help either his partners in the war or in the conflict. Nowadays, everybody is a hero who goes and volunteers for war, but in the old days if you got a medal of honour or something, it was a big deal. I gave a guy the Heimlich Manoeuvre a few months ago and everybody is saying it was a heroic move, and I said no it wasn’t, I just didn’t want him to spit out the beef in front of me,” he laughs.
Eastwood’s definition of heroism is conceivably valid, yet it’s incongruous with the message of his movie, in which he portrays all the Iraqi fighters, who are defending their cities, as savages working for Al Qaeda and oppressing their own people while the invading US soldiers and Kyle as the defenders of America, who are avenging 9/11 attacks and bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. Ironically, the Iraqi sniper, who instills fears into the hearts of the marines and take the lives of several of them before he is hunted down and killed by Kyle, is not perceived as a hero by Eastwood, even though he is defending his own country. “I am sure he is a hero in the eyes of the Iraqis,” he remarks.
Here the 84-year-old director falls into the convoluted American logic and the sense of superior morality, which invariably leads to the wars that he strenuously condemns. How could one abhor a war so much on the one hand, and on the other hand glorify those who conduct it and vilify those who resist them? The war in Iraq has been widely regarded as immoral and illegal, so how could one ascribe heroism to its executors? Kyle was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war, and reacted violently against whoever dared to criticise it. Not only did he not express remorse for taking the lives of so many Iraqis, he was proud of his deeds, insisting that all his victims were evil and deserved to die. But Eastwood thinks that Kyle concealed his doubts, which are subtly manifested in his body language, performed by Bradley Cooper, as he speaks to his psychiatrist near the end of the movie.
“He says I am going to my maker knowing I did the right thing etc etc, and these are all good words, but in his eyes you saw: should I or shouldn’t I or am I? A slight amount of doubt, not played cliché and broadly, but just kind of in the back of his brain. I thought that was particularly brilliant.”
Irrespective of Kyle’s feelings and attitude, his participation in an illegal war, in which he killed hundreds of people, shouldn’t make him a hero but a criminal from a legal and moralistic point of view. He would’ve been a hero, had he truly been fighting to defend the US, but he was attacking people in a country that had not been at war with his own nation. Morally and logically, the heroes in the movie should be the Iraqis who are resisting an invading army, but most likely their stories will never be told by Hollywood, which will most likely continue to portray them as savages, like the Vietnamese and Native Americans, just because their skin colour is a bit darker.
Kyle didn’t live to see this movie, which is based on his best-selling autobiography that he wrote when he returned from Iraq in 2009. He was shot dead by a deranged Iraq war veteran in 2013. It seems that even he himself was a casualty of this futile war.