American Sniper: Cowboy Diplomacy and National Identity

“There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist on the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep.”

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper - movire reviewThese words open a flashback for American Sniper (2014), Clint Eastwood’s much respected, and even beloved, testament to the American mission in Iraq, the War on Terror, and a masculine national identity. Based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, the S.E.A.L. sniper credited with the most kills in four tours of duty in the Iraq War and called a legend in his own time, Eastwood’s film visualizes, packages, and delivers for consumption a love letter dedicated to the “hard” masculinity needed to enforce the American mission abroad.

American Sniper centers on a Hollywoodized tough-guy Texan Chris Kyle’s “gift of aggression,” which, as his father described in a few lines after the opening quote above, empowers a shepherd to protect his slumbering, hapless, sheep who couldn’t bleat to save their own lives. The movie uses this framework of a lone American light keeping the cold, dark world at bay to position Kyle as the protector of God, home, and country. Viewed through this framework, American Sniper, as its name implies, is all about gun culture, the gunslinger who wields them, and their haloed place in the national mythology. By tapping into this hardcore masculine narrative, Eastwood presents a dangerous glorification of muscular unilateralism: the American as super-hero, boldly going to make to re-make the world in his image.

American Sniper’s narrative does more than retell a biography of Chris Kyle. Screenwriter, Jason Hall’s script presents a narrow reading of national foreign policy through the lens of cowboy ideology. Indeed, when Kyle grows up, he lives as a rodeo cowboy, whooping it up on broncos, drinking beer, and enjoying women. However, our hero rethinks his life when he sees the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa. At the expense of biography (Kyle actually enlisted in 1999, after an injury ended his career), the script establishes a direct link between his childhood (where he defended his young brother [a “sheep”] from a typical filmic schoolyard bully [rotund, ugly, and cut from the Dudley Dursley school of acting]), his carefree cowboy lifestyle, and American patriotism. Indeed, the plot segues into basic training, where the recruits talk dirty and demonstrate their resiliency in surviving whatever obstacles the foul-mouthed instructor demands. This testosterone-laden regiment is not for the faint-hearted or the easily offended as Kyle easily breezes through. Nor is it confined to the course: the barroom where he meets his future wife, Taya, features other S.E.A.L.s relaxing by throwing darts into each other’s brawny backs as a form of tough sport.

Some critics optimistically called American Sniper a thoughtful discussion of P.T.S.D. and a country’s obligations to its soldiers. There is some truth to this as Kyle targets children and has qualms doing so. The opening scene—replayed in provocative trailers as the first glimpse of the film that audiences would see—shows Kyle targeting a kid who barely “has any hair on his balls” (as he says later). But this moral no-no, of shooting women and children, quickly becomes justified in the film because they are “savages.” Kyle speaks the loaded term quite freely. Moviegoers might quickly gloss over the label, except that Kyle was a former “cowboy” from Texas’s Wild West frontier. Actor Bradley Cooper maintains an appropriate drawl as he taps into the “Injun” mythology of the American West. These are the same “savages” who circled pioneer wagon trains, scalped with abandon, and faced extinction while the white man shrugged his shoulders. In a form of American apology, the Indian acquired a “noble” aura in romantic histories, mostly because they were “Americans” by default, having been here first.

Conversely, the Middle Eastern/Afghanistan “savages” have no such luck. The main villain, the real life Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, certainly deserves no mercy. He has no qualms about jamming a drill press into a kid’s skull and then gunning down the father because the old man gave information to the American liberators. The Iraqi “savage” also does his own form of scalping: documentary news reports of American civilian Nicholas Berg’s beheading—which went viral in the primitive Internet days of the early millennium—is replayed here. Hollywood magic extends this episode when Kyle and company storm an Al Qaeda stronghold. On the shelf, packed in ice, is another decapitated figure while a tortured GI Joe dangles in chains nearby. The S.E.A.L.s quickly dispose of any remaining savages, but then retreat when the locals protest their killing one of al-Zarqawi’s local agents. The movie positions the protestors as either ignorant dupes who can’t grasp what happens in their own backyard or as Al Qaeda sympathizers who prefer shielding monsters than appreciating American liberty. No wonder the S.E.A.L.s have adopted the Marvel Comics vigilante The Punisher as a mascot: the anti-hero, Vietnam vet Frank Castle, had declared a one-man war on crime after witnessing his family’s deaths in gangland warfare. He vowed to “punish” evildoers everywhere, usually through lots of over-the-top bang-bang (as one S.E.A.L. notes, The Punisher isn’t a kiddie “comic book,” it’s an adult “graphic novel”). For the American snipers, Kyle and co. do the same, avenging their nation, their fellow soldiers, and their ideology.

Indeed, saving fellow Americans from the enemy becomes the nexus of Kyle’s four tours. When wifey Taya selfishly wants him to stay home with the excuse “it’s about us,” she’s right and wrong. Kyle’s mission is more than his nuclear family because his entire life—at least, the portion selected through Eastwood’s camera—is about a larger patriotism as displayed through his firearms. Mrs. Kyle understandably wants her man to stay home and be a good father, but Kyle is already a father figure for the G.I.s stationed abroad. His skills as a sharpshooter protects them, and, through them, his family back home. When he is back home, he watches his buddies get killed in sickeningly Technicolor in news reports and channels his “big brother” credo against the family dog for playfully threatening his kids at a backyard barbeque.

Eastwood portrays this reading of patriotism in a near-hagiographic shine. Kyle does suffer from P.T.S.D. with occasional lapses, but the film suggests this is a small price to pay for the bigger picture—and it’s more society’s fault for not being capable of understanding the horrors Kyle has seen. The movie actually downplays any signs of PTSD: other than threatening the family dog, Kyle gets annoyed when he thinks a nurse ignores his newborn daughter, or during a moment of road-rage … events which could happen to any concerned father or motorist on a bad day. Taya tells her husband she wants to “talk about it” but then leaves him watching reruns of Taliban TV while she attends her barbeque.

Taya really can’t comprehend what her husband experiences because she’s out of the frame during the action scenes (except when he calls her on the phone during combat on several occasions rather than during “down time”—bizarre acts that do little except to manipulate the audiences’ emotions). In contrast, a disabled vet fawns over Kyle in an automobile repair shop, salutes him for saving his life in Iraq, and tells Kyle’s son what a great guy his daddy is. When asked by a V.A. about his record, Kyle says he has nothing to worry about. “I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill…our soldiers and I…I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took.” And we, in the audience believe him because we—not the doctor, not his wife—and have seen the same cinematic sights Kyle experienced.

But this narrow interpretation of Kyle’s world leaves out the larger complexities of American foreign policy. The film highlights the extremism of cowboy/loner mythology, a narrative President George W. Bush tapped into when he led the U.S.A. into the War on Terror, all broadcasted through his cultivated Texan accent. But Dubya, even with his sprawling ranch, cowboy boots, and gunslinger’s belt, cannot appear alongside Eastwood’s cowboy Chris Kyle: documentary bits of the president’s controversial declarations about weapons of mass destruction would invite criticism from modern moviegoers who know these assertions from Bush or his administration were, at best, grossly exaggerated. In turn, these doubts would entice viewers to start picking apart Eastwood’s use, or non-use, of history to craft this narrative. History is much more complex than the surface readings Eastwood inserts: the iconic and tragic images of the World Trade Center’s destruction show the Kyles in shock and awe at the horror, but it lacks context. 9/11 carries with it economic and political entanglements concerning the Middle East going back decades.

None of this has a place in Kyle’s world. Instead, the script jumps from the Taliban and Afghanistan directly to Iraq without any context. From a narrative standpoint, newbie viewers unfamiliar with what happened fifteen years ago on September 11, 2001, might assume Kyle is going after the bad guys who brought down the Twin Towers. Not so: the film does not even mention Osama bin Laden or the manhunt that would elude Bush’s two terms. And even though we join Kyle in Iraq, there is no mention of Saddam Hussein. Nothing about the larger ethnic tensions and power play between the Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. What we do have is the cowboy’s unilateral vision—George W. Bush without Bush, if you will. We may not hear the President’s actual words that “we must always react forcefully to evil men no matter what,” but Kyle embodies the same sentiment of U.S. vs. them. Bring ‘em on, Bush would say—Kyle could handle ‘em. It’s the terrorists against the Americans. Unlike Native Americans, there is no assimilation or integration with these savages.

Thus, this biopic of history presents a selective reading of sources. Kyle’s filmic worldview has no room for bleeding heart liberals or the gross mistakes committed by America’s best and brightest soldiers over there. We have the Bush Doctrine (albeit not in name) in the long run, but no “Mission Accomplish” sign. No mention of Guantanamo Bay. Nothing about the media reports of soldiers abusing Middle Eastern locals and civilians. Nothing that would cue audiences to hiss, mock, or even question the greater mission against the axis of evil. The only voice that does reject the Iraq War comes from Kyle’s younger brother Jeff, who eloquently states his objection with a four-letter-word. This emotional immature outburst is a slap in the face to a stunned Kyle—not just the sentiment behind the words, but that he perverted the machismo of boot camp training when cussing was an expression of manliness. Buried under layers of protective armor, the diminutive Jeff is hardly worthy of uttering such words. Unlike Kyle, the little brother certainly doesn’t have the experience to back up his claim. Jeff’s subsequent disillusionment renders him not as a lamb needing protection, but a black sheep who has disgraced his brother and perverted the masculine atmosphere of Kyle’s cowboy culture.

Chris Kyle eventually snaps too, sort of. After a miracle shot where he takes out his terrorist sniper counterpart and has a breathtaking escape from the hordes of savages swarming the American stronghold, he goes home to recuperate. Fittingly, he returns to his roots in the Lone Star state. For the plot’s sake, a return to Texas allows him to reconcile his sharpshooting skills within a countryside which valorizes, and nurtures, gun use as a part of its cowboy heritage. Here, Kyle rebuilds his manhood through the use of firearms. At the local VA home he uses guns as a therapeutic device; after an initial roundtable introduction, he takes vets to the local shooting range. As they blast away, they bond—their guns standing in for their missing limbs and a rehabilitated masculinity. In going back to his roots, the filmic Chris emphasizes a paramilitarism that can solve any emotional hang-up. Fittingly, the film depicts him pointing an uncocked, antique six-shooter at his wife in their scene together while their two kids grin in approval. Far from expressing alarm over a man who killed “savage” women and children, Mrs. Kyle takes it all in stride, even getting turned on over his phallic weapon pointing at her from waist level. Unfortunately for Taya, the teasing promise Kyle offers goes unfulfilled. He leaves to assist another Vet and the screen fades to black.

The movie does not disclose what happened next, merely that he “was killed” while trying to save another G.I. The noble sentiment, written in a passive voice (and unsuitably so, for a man so active in life), disguises Kyle’s death. According to news reports, Kyle was not merely “killed,” but was shot dead at the gun range. That Kyle died by the same lionized weapons which had formed the basis of this movie’s ideology would certainly have undermined Eastwood’s vision of a black-and-white world. So the script passes it over in a title card and segues into the credits. The documentary footage of Kyle’s funeral and memorial wipes aside any questions the audience might have. To doubt the underlying patriotism, the real-life news shots suggests, would violate the life Kyle had devoted to his country.

Clint Eastwood shows us American Sniper is a title to be celebrated. His narrow construction of American gun culture as the only real option to tame the desert wilderness shames any opponent from participating in a debate. Congressman, and former S.E.A.L. commander, Ryan Zinke decried the “liberal, red-carpet Hollywood” criticisms of the movie as “utterly despicable.” In contrast, he applauded Eastwood and others “who have made movies about American heroes and American exceptionalism.” Zinke’s blanket declaration—in which anyone who disagrees with the movie’s premise is a traitor to a certain reading of American idealism—not only stifles the democratic tradition of dissent, but emasculates the dissenters. They question “American heroism” and therefore, must be feminine, unmanly, and probably un-American. When critic Max Blumenthal expressed his disliking the movie (and expressed his opinion in rather violent, irrational language), fans immediately jumped on him, calling him “missy,” spineless, and asserted he lacked balls: in other words, everything Chris Kyle’s filmic cowboy/solider/protector/hero was not.

In a larger picture, should a democracy that values concepts such as openness and liberty proudly connect the word “American” with anything that eliminates human life? A sniper is a necessary component in the military, to be sure. She can save lives and bring the troops home without body bags. A sniper can also be haunted by his experience, feel alienated from loved ones, and seek counseling. But to bring guns and ammo into national prominence in the home front through a blanket patriotic portrayal does not contribute to a discussion about a nation’s responsibility to its soldiers. Instead, it colors the discussion by implying that anyone who disagrees with Eastwood’s vision is not only wrong, but near-treasonous. To celebrate gun culture also bestows a level of acceptance, and immunity, upon firearms. One cannot disagree with Kyle. Indeed, the shepherd metaphor Kyle’s father used carries more symbolism than just Little Bo Peep: Kyle becomes a Christ-like figure who protects his flock, who is called “savior” in return, and is even betrayed by one of his own. This near-religious reverence of Kyle extends to the cowboy persona Eastwood emphasizes as the American character. And who better to express this identity than Eastwood, who first rose to fame playing “dirty” gunslingers unafraid to draw when the going got hairy? But when this interpretation of American exceptionalism shields firearms and its connotations as national icons and a way to “rehabilitate” grievances, as Kyle did and died on the shooting range, it also extends into other facets of America society…straight into the classroom, for instance. Or the other three hundred fifty-plus mass shootings in 2015. And, in the end, the continuing lack of discussion becomes all too routine in its silence…and is certainly a tragedy worth shedding tears over.

by Patrice Reyes and Peter Lee

Peter W. Lee

peterPeter W. Lee is a doctoral candidate at Drew University, where he focuses on American history and youth culture. His dissertation examines the construction of boyhood through American films in the early Cold War. Among his most recent publications are chapters in The Ages of the Avengers, Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, and The Journal of the West.

Patrice Reyes

Patrice Reyes

Patrice Reyes is a PhD candidate in American history at Drew University in Madison, NJ. Her areas of research include American foreign policy and the cultural history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. She also happens to be a huge fan of action flicks, particularly of the high-octane superhero variety.
Patrice Reyes