American Sniper: The Casualties of War Live Far Beyond the GraveFrank Castro I Society & Culture I Commentary I January 27th, 2015
American Sniper has been in theaters a while now. On the surface it is the story of a Navy SEAL named Chris Kyle, dubbed "The deadliest sniper in American history", and his military exploits throughout the American invasion of Iraq. But beyond the conspicuous lobby for patriotism I saw a window into something else, something that the Joseph Goebbels (read: Clint Eastwood) of America cannot take credit for. I am reminded that not only does war steal the lives of countless people, but it murders the living too - of lives we could have lived. Films like American Sniper highlight that war-idolizing is a weapon of mass destruction, and when wielded on the spiritual and moral fronts of a war for our collective humanity, often the battle rips asunder the relationships we hold most dear. It is a reminder that when the dust settles and the shells are spent, the casualties of war live far beyond the grave.
Every Casualty Doesn't Get Buried
When my brother first left for basic training he was 17. I was a year and a half younger, a soon-to-be sophomore in high school. With my Aunt, Uncle, and my cousins whom I had come to call sisters, we drove the six hour trip to the training grounds of the Army's mechanized infantry units in Fort Benning, Georgia. It was a small place. Were it not for the military it would scarcely have a name. We had come because my brother was graduating from the first half of his training, this before he had even entered his senior year in high school. Everybody was really proud of him. I was proud of him.
Seeing him for the first time after a summer was emotional. I had never fully agreed with his choice to join the military; but, he being my blood, I had committed myself to supporting him and his decision. After all, the young man standing in fatigues before me had been through more with me than any person on the planet. Together we had weathered growing up brown in Mississippi, where if you were not white and you were not black, you were the exotic anomaly constantly berated with the probing and dehumanizing question of "What are you?" We had survived our father, a white man imbued with the racism of a poor Southerner who had eaten Jim Crow and whose yelling and long lectures came from the nightly bartering of his soul with a bottle. We lived through the divorces, survived foster care, endured the court battles, and had begun to work ourselves from the poverty we were born into.
Through all of that, I thought this man deserved my support. But more than anything, I knew if he were to one day see combat I would want to see him home again - alive. That, if ever in some small way his return would rest upon a brother's unconditional love, then I would see that love through no matter what. So when he left for his first tour in Iraq, I did everything in my power to make sure he had what he needed to get back home - writing letters, getting his friends to write letters, sending him little things like baby wipes because that mattered in desert warfare. Some semblance of being clean after the grit of combat mattered. Whatever I could do to keep his spirits high, I did. I wanted the chance to wrestle with him again, to hug him and have a beer with him again, to tell him he is a good man and that he could be something else, if he wanted.
Time has a way of changing everything. Throughout his absence, despite my material support, I had become increasingly politicized. I questioned, more than anything, whether my brother's potential death in Iraq would be defending my right to exist in a free and just world, or was he being used by the United States government as a cog in the most prolific machine of violence the planet has ever seen.
I remember getting a call from him one night after he had a fight with his partner. It seemed that nobody, not her, not our family, nobody but his fellow servicemen and I were being supportive of the stressful re-entrance into civilian life. That night he bawled as he shared a gut-wrenching story about an Iraqi girl whom, along with her family, had been killed and dismembered into a pile for helping coalition troops through an IED field. He shared other stories with me, too. He often wielded a 50-caliber machine gun fixed atop a Humvee. One bullet from that gun could blast a watermelon to mush. It can fire over 500 rounds per minute, I learned. He never said it, but I got the feeling that he took his own personal retribution on behalf of that girl.
At some point, I understood that he must have been struggling to understand his choices, to recreate a code of morality he could live with, that made sense after his own was shattered by the brutality of what he had seen and done. He would be the one to have to live with those memories, nobody else. As I sat there holding him, struggling to understand his PTSD and the situations he had been in - the reality of shooting back when if you hesitated you would surely die - I could not shake the fact that every bullet sent from his gun, every life taken, was still in service of the American war machine.
That thought kept coming back to me. The more I revisited why America had invaded Iraq, the more I came to a conclusion which placed me fundamentally opposed to my brother's continued enlistment. Rapidly, it became a point of tension between us.
That tension culminated in a moment before his departure for his second tour in Iraq. He came to me with an impossible question, one that in hindsight could never have mended the distance emerging between us. In a heated discussion he asked me, "If I died in combat tomorrow, would you be proud of my service?" Everything in me curled with the stress of telling him what he needed to hear, to again shoulder being the support he would need, or being honest. It is a moment I still think about frequently. I replay it saying something different, but then I feel I would have betrayed myself and the millions whom have died at the hands of American imperialism. In the moment I told him "No," I lost the family I loved most.
Nothing between us has ever been the same. Every time I mull it over, salt rubs deeper into the wound. I wince. I cry. I relive the pain of no longer knowing my brother, of knowing the War Machine ripped him from me. He is still in the military and I am still in the streets fighting American oppression. We chose different sides, and the palpable truth of it is our brotherhood took a bullet the day he enlisted.
The wound from it still bleeds. It bleeds every day.
Effective Propaganda Makes You Feel
Watching American Sniper makes me think about my brother. That's the point of it: Propaganda done right makes you feel. It makes you engage in a moral dilemma with yourself. And if it is targeted with accurate knowledge of its audience, the dilemma will almost always resolve itself. It's a bit like playing a rigged game - if you were not a part of rigging the game, then the only way to win is not to play. This is the effectiveness of Clint Eastwood's film. It was made for White America and therefore it intentionally pulls at the heartstrings of the people who feverishly believe in the myth that America is the bastion of freedom and democracy, because that too was a myth made for White America. And they believe it so thoroughly that a film like American Sniper slams the door shut on any discussion to the contrary. I know so, because I share many of the lived experiences of white Americans.
In one of the opening scenes, a young Chris Kyle is out hunting deer with his father. Kyle shoots a deer and then runs over to the dead animal through tall golden grass and amidst sparsely branched pine trees. He drops his rifle in his haste and his father commands, "Get back here! You don't ever leave your rifle in the dirt." I knew that rule. My white father taught it to me before I was ten years old, when I learned to hunt. The movie shifts to a scene in a church where a pastor is preaching the ways of God, that none can know them because man cannot see with the eyes of God. I knew that one, too. A church full of white people told me this years before I was baptized into a Southern congregation.
Then the film snaps to a scene where Kyle is sitting with his family at the supper table. His father breaks off into a lecture about the three types of people in the world: the Sheep, the Wolf, and the Sheep Dog. He says the Sheep believe evil does not exist and if it were to show up on their doorstep, they would not know how to defend themselves. He goes on to say then you have predators who use violence to prey on the weak. These are the Wolves. Lastly, he says there are those "Blessed with the gift of aggression and overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the Sheep Dog." He takes his belt off and slams it on the table and announces, "We ain't raising no Sheep in this house and I'll kick your ass if you become a Wolf!" Kyle's little brother has a bruised eye, so his father questions them both only to find that Kyle had intervened in his brother getting beat up by the playground bully. His father says if somebody else starts a fight; they have his permission finish it. I learned that one, too. My white father told me "Don't throw the first punch, but if somebody hits you first, you better finish it."
These three scenes frame the entire movie for the emotional engagement of a specific audience. You see, the first scene tells us that in the eyes of White America, only they have family values. Kyle learning to use a gun at such an early age is him gaining the values, which serve doubly as the literal tools, those which can only be acquired through the specific lived experiences of white Americans, necessary to defend freedom and democracy. The second scene tells us that White America's God, the one true White Christian God, is the only giver of righteousness and that righteousness has been bestowed upon Kyle to use at his discretion. We are not supposed to question whether this is good or otherwise, or WHY it would be good, because we cannot see through the eyes of God. And finally, we learn that Kyle is a Sheep Dog imbued with all the tools necessary, with the "gift of aggression," to do God's will of defending America.
Ultimately this tells us the film is not even about Chris Kyle. The young man turned sniper is the physical incarnation of White America. Viewed through the third scene, Kyle becomes the stand-in for America's imperialism, the embodiment of itself as the Sheep Dog bestowed with the "gift of aggression" and the overpowering charge to protect the Western way of life by any means necessary, and, of course, with God's blessing. At this point we have to ask the obvious question: If Chris Kyle represents the Sheep Dog of White America, who then is the Wolf?
In overwhelmingly jingoistic fashion, film maker Clint Eastwood answers repeatedly: Muslims.
After watching Kyle - aka, America - repeatedly kill one Iraqi after another, all of whom miraculously are guilty of some crime, it is hard to arrive at any other conclusion. No matter how wrapped in star-spangled banners, Eastwood essentially tells us the real crime is being born brown, Iraqi, and Muslim. We are not supposed to question whether these things are actually criminal or punishable with death. We are not allowed to ask WHY because we are not meant to understand the God-guided ways of America. But that is the whole point of it: You cannot win a rigged game, remember. You can only win if you built the game, and those who built American Sniper want you to walk away with a specific belief system, namely:
· White America, like Chris Kyle, is good, just, and knows best.
· White Americans, like Chris Kyle, who love their country, support American government.
· Real Americans, like Chris Kyle, are patriotic and express their support.
· White American lives, like Chris Kyle's life, are more important than Muslim lives.
This belief system is everywhere. American imperialism is framed in such a way that when the United States commits violence against Muslims, it appears to White America as if the Sheep Dog is simply protecting a defenseless herd. This is the active dissemination of white supremacy and Islamophobia. From it Americans like Chris Kyle accrue social capital and power within a conception of Islam that perpetuates Muslim dehumanization and murder. Completing the cycle, White America, after participating in the process of dehumanizing Muslims slain by United States military personnel, then offers sympathy, material support, and memorialization to the most lethal of war veterans.
American Sniper is meant only to bolster that belief system by exploiting our lived experiences. It does so in such a way that if we do not side with Chris Kyle and the American War Machine, we may just be deciding our own brothers and sisters are facilitators of the evil we seek to eradicate from the world. For most of us the thought that we, or the ones we love, are the problem is unconscionable.
For Imperialism to Live, the Truth Must Die
I know I am not the first person to have a story like my brother's and mine, but we do not often hear about them because films like American Sniper are not meant to be relatable or accurate accounts of war. They are meant to push a particular worldview where America, as a shining beacon of freedom and democracy, "finishes fights" and frees the planet from the "bad guys". The "bad guys" are, of course, whoever America says they are. No questions permitted. This is called propaganda. And propaganda like American Sniper has debuted with regularity in the maintenance of American imperialism.
Just two years ago Zero Dark Thirty (2012) was all the rave, a film which practically exonerated the CIA's torture program in the eyes of the American public. But more than that, like American Sniper, it idolized the military exploits of American soldiers - specifically the men of JSoc (Joint Special Operations Command) and their intelligence operatives whom adopted gross disregard for Afghani and Pakistani life in pursuit of Osama bin Laden. Arguably the film's greatest purpose then was not to make money, but rather to anesthetize the public of any objections to the CIA's blatant human rights violations (torture) and JSoc's extra-legal operations.
(For those who do not know, Jsoc is a covert, largely unaccountable military unit which operates outside the traditional chain of command. It reports directly to the president of the United States and is the go-to unit for top-secret, often illegal missions enacted on behalf of the White House and the United States military.)
Much like Eastwood's film, in Zero Dark Thirty we get a picture of Jsoc that suggests patriotism by ALMOST any means necessary. Indiscriminate violence is permissible, so long as it leads to the capture of Osama bin Laden. Since the audience already knew bin Laden inevitably would be killed, it follows therefore that any violence pictured was necessary. The reality, which we are never allowed to see, is Jsoc has engaged in grossly unnecessary and unimaginable crimes. As Jeremy Scahill, co-producer of the film Dirty Wars, explained in the Guardian:
"In Gardez, [Afghanistan], US special operations forces [Jsoc] had intelligence that a Taliban cell was having some sort of a meeting to prepare a suicide bomber. [On the night of 12 February 201 0 Jsoc] raid[ed] the house in the middle of the night, and they end up killing five people, including three women, two of whom were pregnant, and … Mohammed Daoud, a senior Afghan police commander who had been trained by the US."
Scahill then recounts the testimony of Mohammed Sabir, who watched helplessly as the Jsoc soldiers dug the bullets out of his wife's corpse with a knife. He and the other surviving men were then flown by helicopter to another province, likely to be tortured at a black site - a tactic Zero Dark Thirty unabashedly displayed in theaters. Footage captured from survivors of the ordeal later revealed that the meeting had nothing to do with the Taliban, but was rather a lively celebration of a child's birth. No charges have ever been filed against Jsoc soldiers for their crimes.
In the same year that Zero Dark Thirty aired, almost as if imperialism were in vogue, at the 2012 Oscars its primary competition was another piece of American propaganda. In this case, however, the CIA was out to save the world from another Muslim "threat" - the specter of Iran. And although Ben Affleck's Argo (2012) was historically centered on the Hostage Crisis of 1979, it conveniently hit theaters during a time when Israel's beating of the war drums for US-backed intervention against Iran's nuclear program had reached a head. It was no surprise then that Affleck's revisionist film completely ignored the Hostage Crisis' historical trajectory drawn directly from the United States' overthrow of Iranian democracy in 1953. Accurate political sensitivity there might have told Americans the truth that Iran's quest for international sovereignty is, to this very day, still a justified response to 1953.
Writing for Counter Punch, Joe Giambrone explained:
"Both films [ Zero Dark Thirty and Argo ] show wonderful Central Intelligence "heroes" acting to further US interests and take care of imperial problems. The Argo scenario is a rescue, however, instead of a hit. The problem is that Iran, a country thrown into a bloodthirsty dictatorship after its nascent democracy was murdered by the very same CIA in 1953, is now the bad guy. There are clearly two sides, and the film takes sides with the people who destroyed democracy in Iran and propped up an illegitimate monarch in order to control its oil and its refineries. When this despotic monarch whose secret police disappeared, tortured and murdered the political opposition - with the help and training of the CIA - is overthrown, we are supposed to overlook all that, because America is always good. We rescue our people. We risk our lives, and we come up with elaborate creative plans to help our people. We are heroic and triumphant vs. the inferior wild-eyed Persians and Arabs of the world."
The patriotism pumping blueprint has been used in other films too: Jarhead 2 (2014) Lone Survivor (2013), Act of Valor (2012),The Hurt Locker (2009),Jarhead (2005), Black Hawk Down (2001), etc. It is not a new concept. Hollywood's history of supporting US imperialism extends as far back as World War I. But no matter how far back Hollywood and imperialism may go, the crux of the issue is as Giambrone suggested: America is and must ALWAYS be the good guy. Neither context nor details really matter if they corrupt that narrative. And the truth matters least of all if it would break the brittle myth that America is the Sheep Dog of the world.
Realizing Our Heroes
On Christmas Day 2014, two films debuted with starkly different messages to the world. One was American Sniper. The other was Selma, a movie based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches for Black Americans' voting rights led by James Bevel, Hosea Williams, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among many others. To date American Sniper has out-grossed Selma by 119 million dollars. It would seem that Americans are far more interested, as Dr. King himself might put it, in the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism than they are freedom or democracy. Such tells us a lot about what constitutes an American hero.
When I was a child, I used to collect airplanes. I would gather every pamphlet I could find detailing their speed and awesomeness. I had a whole binder. Naturally, being that the military occupies the cutting edge of aeronautics, I gravitated toward fighter jets. The F14 Tomcat and SR-71 Blackbird were my favorites. My father also had a small obsession with World War II movies, so it was not uncommon to spend a Saturday night watching Midway with my brother. Looking back, I am not at all surprised that he joined the military. Once upon a time I believed in the idea of America too. I cheered on the raising of that star-spangled banner in the movies we watched because it took a very long time for me to realize that I was not white, and that that banner often meant the symbol of oppression for brown people like me all across the world. It came as a great shock when at long last I realized that so much of the anguish in my life had been wrought upon me because that flag never really included me.
I am not sure my brother ever had that realization, but if he did it did not affect him like it did me. He once told me that September 11th was the reason he joined up, so I think his idea of an American hero still jives with the war movies we would watch together as children. I cannot be sure though, we just are not close anymore, as painful as that has been. What I do know is this: A hero cannot abide by oppression. They must always fight it, and like Dr. King, with so terribly many others, they will give up their lives and freedom to see Justice brought into this world.
As painful as it may be for us to admit, neither Chris Kyle nor my brother is a hero. Both were men whom faced decisions in a culture which squarely places more value on death and oppression than life and Justice, and they chose to further the causes of oppression. In such a world where we could see those decisions with clarity, Americans would not rush to see a film that memorializes the murder of hundreds of Iraqis. Instead, they would at long last face the hypocrisy of honoring the unrelenting pursuit of Justice in a man like Martin Luther King Jr. while simultaneously worshiping the brutality of men like Chris Kyle.
In that world, my brother would be at my side fighting in the streets against white supremacy instead of fighting for it half the globe away. In that world, I'd still know him.
Frank Castro is a Latino American educator, writer, and Jackson, Mississippi native now living in the Bay Area. Read more of his writing at americawakiewakie.com .