John Bodnar is Distinguished and Chancellor’s Professor at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is currently working on a book project about the War on Terror in American culture. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
American Sniper has generated enormous profits in Red States and Blue States and ignited a public debate over patriotism and the War in Iraq. Critics have lamented the film’s failure to critique the war and the policies of George W. Bush. Admirers have been captivated by the portrayal of warrior heroism and dedication. Chris Kyle, a Navy Seal whose memoir was the basis for the movie, is not only portrayed as a skilled marksman but a true American patriot intent on protecting his fellow soldiers and serving his country.
The patriotic elements of the film have largely fueled its popularity. This is understandable because patriotism has the power to convey moral sentiments with its ideals of selflessness and personal sacrifice. This ethical dimension, however, is grounded more in the performance of individual acts than in any quest for political ideals such as equal rights for all or justice. By its very nature it helps to frame the meaning of any war in terms that are more personal than public and, consequently, tends to sidestep vital issues about the merits of a conflict or a deep consideration of all the suffering it brings. In this instance, the figure of the skilled Navy Seal not only reinforces an ethical perspective on American military actions but helps to do what patriotism always does — turn acts of violence into acts of love.
In both the movie and Kyle’s bestselling memoir, the young soldier learns the values that make him a patriot from a boyhood in Texas. His father takes him on hunting trips that help perfect his shooting ability and teaches him that there are “predators” in the world that must be confronted. This is not only a true reflection of Kyle’s life but an invocation of a familiar American trope that was used in previous films like Pride of the Marines (1945) and The Deer Hunter (1978) that made a link between hunting skills and soldier skills. Ironically, in these earlier movies and in American Sniper the soldier’s ability and loyalty does not protect him from harm. In the World War II film he is blinded in battle. In the Vietnam feature he is haunted by the memory of a buddy who did not come home. In Kyle’s case, a dedicated Seal is depicted as gradually losing his unquestioned attachment to patriotic myths and finding it more difficult over time to shoot to kill women and children who might bring harm to American soldiers and accept the loss of his comrades.
American Sniper ends in sorrow and rupture. Kyle comes home with PTSD and is eventually killed by another troubled veteran he was trying to help. His family life, which was severely strained by his four tours of duty in the memoir and film, is now ended forever. Final frames show scenes of his highly public memorial service at Dallas Cowboy Stadium and images of thousands of citizens standing by a Texas highway and waving American flags as his body is carried to its final resting place. Public rituals — like movie audiences — grab on to traditional notions of patriotic heroism again to accept loss and evade larger issues that have always troubled the American experience of war. Public ceremony strives to quell personal remorse. Interestingly the film’s more ambiguous take on Kyle’s experience and the revelation of his emotional stress was not presented in the memoir. In the book Kyle wrote that he had “the time of his life” in Iraq and felt no remorse over killing others to defend his fellow soldiers.
In another recollection from the War on Terror, Kevin Powers’ novel, The Yellow Birds, the cultural work of patriotism is again considered. Drawing on his own tour in Iraq, Powers creates a passage in which American soldiers dispose of the body of one of their own after the man had become so traumatized he walked into enemy territory knowing he would not return. Their aim was to insure that his remains would never be subjected to ceremonies back home that would commend his honor and devotion. Powers was intent to show that the dark aspects of warfare not be reworked into something more valorous. Clint Eastwood’s movie showed some of that darkness as well but its public reception demonstrates that the ability of national myths to turn American violence into virtue remains strong.