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This Month's Scripture Verse:

But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.
2 Timothy 3:1-5


Friday, February 6, 2015

The Myopia Of American Sniper

Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was the subject of the movie American Sniper. The problem with reviewing the movie is that, having not read his book, I don't know how true the movie was to the book or to history. So I will be using Chris Hedges' review of the movie as a guide here (click here).  Thus, the review of this movie just might contain more of a critique of the hero, Chris Kyle, than the movie itself. 

The movie starts with Chris setting up to make his first kill on some suspicious Iraqis--a mother and son who are carrying a grenade toward advancing American troops. Right before he pulls the trigger, there is a flashback to his earlier life which contains the pivotal point of both Kyle's character and the movie. That hub is the time when at young Kyle's family's dinner table, his father described three kinds of people who existed in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. He described the sheep as innocent but helpless. The wolves were vicious predators. And the sheepdogs' job was to protect the sheep from the wolves. He basically challenged his kids to be sheepdogs and use violence to protect the sheep they encounter. See, Kyle was being raised in a conservative Christian family. So as this flashback advances to a time when Kyle is drifting in life as a cowboy, he sees the TV report of the 1998 terrorist attacks on two of America's embassies in Africa and discovers his purpose in life: to be a sheepdog for America.

The flashback continues to show his Navy SEAL training. From there, the it shows him meeting his future wife in a bar. A brief story of their romance is told as Kyle continues his SEAL training and graduates. While Kyle is dating his wife, they watch the attacks on the Twin Towers on TV. At that point, they know that war is coming. Finally, Kyle marries his fiancee and along with fellow SEALs in attendance, they get the call to go to Iraq.

At this point the movie returns to Kyle targeting his first victims. In the movie, Kyle appears more and more conflicted as he continues to kill people as a sniper. This is where, according to Chris Hedges, the movie and book part company. Hedges states that in Kyle's book, he relishes killing and hates all Iraqis. Why is the movie Chris Kyle different from the book one at this point? It could be that the book Chris Kyle may not have drawn as many people to the theater because such a soldier does not mesh well with our image of who we want our soldiers to be and what kind of country we live in. Quite simply, the book does not facilitate self-flattery by association. 

As Kyle returns for subsequent tours in Iraq, the attitudes of his fellow soldiers change. These soldiers are no longer gung-ho about fighting in Iraq. Rather, they appeared disillusioned with the mission and angry at the country they served in. 

There are two main fictitious movie villains whom Kyle is searching to kill: the butcher and an expert sniper. The butcher used tools to mutilate those who cooperated with occupying American forces. The age of his victims is not an issue for the butcher. From what I had heard from veterans who fought in Iraq, the butcher appears to be a composite character.The opposing sniper was a former olympian and he is very deadly. And the movie makes it clear that Kyle must forever return to Iraq until those two antagonists are killed. In fact, his final targeted killing is that of the opposing sniper. 

During one of his trips home, Kyle referred to some of the people in Iraq as 'savages.' The movie makes it unclear, however, whether Kyle is referring to villains or regular Iraqis. Besides the two foes just mentioned, he could also have been referring to Al-Queda in Iraq (AQI). After all, the movie makes it look like the vast number of people killed by Kyle belonged to AQI. This is one of the failures of the movie. This failure was in not distinguishing AQI from regular Iraqis who fought to repel the American invasion.

In the final battle scene, Kyle's unit is perched atop a building waiting for his rival sniper to appear. He spots the sniper shooting at and killing American troops. Kyle faces a dilemma here. If he shoots the sniper, his small group would face an Alamo like attack from the local Iraqis and with help apparently being too far away to provide a rescue. If he lets the sniper live another day, more fellow soldiers will be shot, but his group would remain safe. Kyle decides to kill his rival sniper. Then, all hell breaks lose as his small group of soldiers are attacked by what seems to be an uncountable number of combatants. Kyle's group miraculously holds off the enemy until they are rescued and Kyle has decided to end his career.

Kyle returns home with PTSD. The psychiatrist or psychologist gets him in contact with others suffering from the same disorder and Kyle heals himself by helping returning soldiers. The almost end of the movie sets us up for Kyle's death as he was shot by a veteran with PTSD.

The final scene is very telling. It shows many people lined up along the highway to pay their respects as the Kyle's hurst drives by. And then it shows parts of a memorial service that took place in the Dallas Cowboys' football stadium with tens of thousands of people in attendance. 

So that was the story, but the question is, what should we think about Kyle and the story? Again, we go back to the pivotal point on which Kyle's life hinges: that is the dinner table conversation where his father talks about the 3 kinds of people. Remembering that Kyle grew up in a Christian family, Kyle's father lays out an all-or-nothing view of people and the world. There are those who are good and those who are evil. And those who are good can be divided into two groups: those who need protection and those who provide protection. Thus there is the conflict between the sheepdogs and the wolves. 

And this reminds of something Howard Zinn said. He observed that once you have defined yourself as good and your enemy as evil, you have no question regarding what you do to them. Those whom you kill are no longer regarded as people, they are sometimes called 'savages' using Kyle's words, or 'targets' using the words of retired Sergeant and former sniper, Nicholas Irving. He was merely shooting at 'targets,' not people. He stated this in a recent episode of The Nightly Show (click here).  And like Kyle, his only concern was the protection of those in his own group. Never mind that that group was considered an invading/occupying foreign force by the people living there. And here, according to Hedges, we should note the threats of violence in the messages Kyle and his friends would leave for the Iraqis.

We should realize that Kyle's father's worldview played a dominant role in how Kyle would interpret the bombing of our embassies and the 9-11 attacks. In fact, Kyle's reaction to those attacks was not much different, if at all, than Nicholas Irving's. Those who malevolently attacked us were evil because we were good. But whether we read journalist Robert Fisk or journalist Jason Burke, or others we find that there is more than enough documentation to tell us that we were attacked for reasons other than the depraved nature of our enemy. We were attacked for enabling and practicing violence and oppression in the Middle East. The list of killers and dictators we sponsored is quite impressive. Certainly our actions did not justify the attacks. But our actions, our own evil, validates, among other actions,  the anger of our enemies and makes the terrorist attacks Kyle watched on tv a bit more complicated. These attacks were no longer just about what was happening to us.  

Now the question becomes, would Kyle's all-or-nothing view of people and the world prevent him from seeing the evil we have visited on others? In fact, with his all-or-nothing thinking, would he even care that we have treated others despicably? 

But there is a problem here that is even more basic than Kyle's view of the world. That problem is whether what his father taught him about sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs is Christian at all. For what Jesus taught in parables and his apostles taught in doctrine concerned the sinfulness of all including that of believers. Jesus' parables of the two men praying (click here), the prodigal son (click here), along with the Apostle Paul's teaching on how none of us are better than the other because we are all under sin (click here) teach us that Kyle's father all-or-nothing view of people is not Christian. And when Jesus does talk about sheep and wolves, He is preparing us for false doctrines and false arrests.  And in that case, our defense does not come from someone exerting physical force. Rather, our defense is provided by the Holy Spirit who will provide the words we need to say.

So how Christian was Kyle's upbringing? Was Kyle raised to be a Christian or a Christian moralist? The difference between the two is that while former would lead Kyle to always see himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness, the latter would not. With the former, Kyle would not externalize evil, but that is not necessarily true with the latter. And with the former, Kyle would be more reflective in both what he thought about the terrorist attacks suffered by his country and what he was called to do. And, in fact, the latter could coincide with what his father's all-or-nothing thinking about people and that those who do not live up to the standards, or we should say selective standards, which the Christian moralists "live" up to are evil.

The final part of the movie also warrants comment because of the memorial tribute given to Kyle. For many of the people attending his service, excluding family and friends, expressed something more about their own priorities in life than their appreciation and concern for a fallen war hero. To prove this, all we have to do is reflect on why so many people attended Kyle's memorial service, but not as many attended the services of the other fallen soldiers. Perhaps, what drew such a large crowd to Kyle's service was Kyle's legendary status as a sniper. He killed at least 160 people and that is perhaps what some were paying tribute to. It was the worship of power more than appreciation for someone trying to protect them that drew more than a few to his memorial service.

The movie itself deserves less criticism than Chris Kyle does. It is a good movie that does not glorify war. Instead, it shows some of the horrors of war up close and personal as well as the complaints of some of the disgruntled soldiers. This movie gives us a glimpse of the realities of war which is all any serious movie about war can do. Kyle too had a limited views. Despite the courage and skill he displayed on the battlefield, he was limited in terms of what he could perceive and how he could interpret events. Because he saw people in all-or-nothing terms, he could neither see complexity in himself or others. He could not distinguish the different kinds of enemies he was fighting against. He could only perceive how their actions affected him and his people. He could never see how the actions of his fellow soldiers and nation affected the lives of those from other nations. Nor did he care to. He suffered from the same myopic vision of the world which all whose self-esteem comes from a delusional self-righteousness suffer from.


Matt said...

Good thought provoking read.

Curt Day said...

Thank you for reading and the kind words.