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Have you seen American Sniper? You will have almost certainly heard about it and more than likely in a negative tone of voice.
The war biopic, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, has divided viewers into two passionate camps – on the one side, hard-nosed patriots who have reacted to the film positively and on the other, liberal humanitarians who have greeted it with outrage.
This is interesting because of the rarity of this kind of controversy. It’s not as if American Sniper is the first pro-American war movie to be produced by Hollywood. On the contrary, jingoistic cinema has never diminished in popularity since its birth in 1945, with even liberal filmmakers tending to concede that America is a remarkable country and one whose achievements are worth celebrating.
I think my favourite patriotic war movie has to be Saving Private Ryan – the photographic depiction of the D-Day landings in Normandy starring Tom Hanks. No doubt you will have a favourite of your own.
Most American war films are well-received and generally applauded. The reason that American Sniper has made an exception of itself is the story and attitudes of the character depicted. The sniper of its title, Chris Kyle, wrote the book on which the movie is based, and in that book, he demonstrated little affection either for the enemy population or for liberal ideas.
The story Kyle recounts is also a morally difficult one to admire. Within his record-breaking career, Kyle was confronted with situations of awesome philosophical gravity. His memoirs make no secret of this, nor does the movie or even the trailer:
We are therefore confronted with an ethical contest of wartime necessity versus sacred human virtue. Is there ever a valid reason to kill a woman or child? Should the conditions of war suspend or distort normal moral calculation?
I take it you’ve just viewed the trailer… In that case; let’s say the woman and her child are terrorists and in the process of organising a deadly attack in which women and children will be among the victims… You are in Chris Kyle’s boots and have before you a sniper rifle loaded with bullets. It’s ‘your call’… What do you do?
Thankfully, neither you nor I need make this decision, even hypothetically. But surely the anxiety you feel even considering it justifies Clint Eastwood’s cinematic design. I haven’t yet seen the film myself, but I would recommend it on that basis alone.
In the course of his career, Chris Kyle killed (by his own estimates) 255 insurgents. It’s statistically likely that some of them may have been innocent. It’s also certain that he saved more lives by his actions than he took.
In the midst of all this emotional heat, let’s never forget the nature of what Chris Kyle and his fellows were up against in Iraq. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was severing the heads of aid-workers, civilian contractors, and journalists, filming his misdeeds and uploading them onto the internet for the world (and the grieving families of those featured) to see. Bombs were exploding at bus stops, in civilian markets and during the funeral parades of those killed in previous explosions.
Most of those people Kyle killed were the lowest of the low. They were cold-blooded enemies of all that is decent. And that fact should be remembered and understood before any moral judgement is cast on his life.