The "American Sniper" cultural moment: How Iraq became the new Vietnam

America went to war for 10 years and we missed it. Now Iraq is back to torment us, as mythology and macho fantasy

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published January 31, 2015 6:00PM (EST)

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper"                 (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper" (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

So you want to see a rah-rah, gung-ho war movie this weekend, right? One that combines convincingly chaotic video-game-style action scenes and a misty-eyed reverence toward American troops? One that portrays our recent military campaigns in the Middle East as a noble, heroic and misunderstood crusade to save civilization? Well, I’ve got the movie for you. No, no – I don’t mean that one. Even if you haven’t yet seen “American Sniper,” which continues to rack up huge box-office numbers and inspire endless thumbsucking “think-pieces” from the commentariat (yes, mea culpa), for sheer jingoism and pro-war revisionist propaganda it cannot compete with “Alien Outpost.” Which is not officially about the real world or recent history at all, but rather a low-budget science-fiction flick about an alien invasion. It’s about aliens who hide out in the hinterlands of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and hate our freedoms -- and who brainwash zombie Muslims into killing Americans.

Whatever you make of the intersection between Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper and the late Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sniper turned ghostwritten memoirist turned grotesquely symbolic murder victim, they have brought us a strange and telling cultural moment. Amid the enormous furrow dug through the landscape by “American Sniper,” no one is likely to notice the bizarre pro-war parable found in “Alien Outpost” (which was made by the visual-effects supervisor from “Game of Thrones”) and still less the lightweight rom-com “Amira & Sam,” a movie written and directed by an actual military vet that tries to convert America’s poisonous war experience into a romantic escape fantasy.

All three movies, and no doubt many others yet to come, are responding to the same problem: that war really happened, and real people were sent to fight it. Most of us didn’t go fight the war and don’t know those people. We had “other priorities,” as Dick Cheney famously put it in discussing his Vietnam-era draft deferments. We experienced the war, if at all, as Pentagon-cleansed propaganda reports from “embedded” flacks – and then it turned out there was no “Mission Accomplished” to celebrate and we didn’t want to hear about it anymore. (My son and daughter were born the week the war went south in 2004, when those American contractors got dragged through the streets of Fallujah. I’ll never be able to lose that association.) But now that Iraq is supposedly behind us, it’s looming up grinning at us in the rear-view mirror, like the evil 18-wheeler on a haunted highway.

One of the best scenes in “Amira & Sam,” the romantic comedy written and directed by onetime Army officer Sean Mullin, involves a bunch of drunken Wall Street douchebags telling Sam (Martin Starr), the ex-Green Beret protagonist, how close they came to enlisting after 9/11. They were totally filled with patriotic emotion! They were totally gonna go kill or die for American freedom in some remote and irrelevant desert! Yet somehow they didn’t. They want to bask in Sam’s most outrageous war stories, and identify with his “service” and “sacrifice” while not-so-secretly believing he’s a chump. Whatever he was doing over there, good or bad, was strictly a sideshow to the real task of American freedom in the 2000s: swindling ordinary people with incomprehensible financial scams. Chris Kyle’s legions of fans probably weren't slicing the cheddar the way those dudes did, by and large, but they display the same kind of chickenhawk anxiety.

Not knowing the people who fought the war is much more likely to be true among the educated classes and within the top half of the socioeconomic pyramid, to be sure. The all-volunteer military is largely drawn from the poor and the working class, and disproportionately from small towns and exurbs outside the major metropolitan areas. But it’s still true on a large and general scale: Roughly 2.5 million Americans served during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, which may sound like a large number but is much less than 1 percent of the United States population. By contrast, about 16 million Americans served in World War II, which represented 12 percent of the total population at the time and a majority of men between 18 and 45. In James Fallows’ outstanding reported essay for the Atlantic, “The Tragedy of the American Military,” he breaks down the numbers further: More than three-quarters of Americans born before 1955 had a close relative who served in the military; among Americans born since 1980, that proportion drops to about one-third.

My point here is that the audience for “American Sniper” and all other cultural works deriving from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is primarily and indeed overwhelmingly people who chose not to fight. Whatever they may want to claim in the shopping-mall parking lot after seeing "American Sniper," they had other priorities at the time. Our unease with the military and disconnection from the military – as Fallows puts it, “we love the troops, but we’d rather not think about them” – is nearly as profound among the fervent flag-waving jingoists on the right as among the anti-war Cassandras of the left. “American Sniper” has evidently spawned a hyper-patriotic social-media surge, including hundreds of hateful tweets directed at Arabs and Muslims. While that’s disturbing, and there’s some evidence that it may provoke hate crimes on a local scale, it’s also mostly hot air, the off-gassing of pent-up guilt and anxiety. The recruiting office was open from 2003 to 2011, offering a paid position killing Arabs for unclear reasons. Those guys who are talking big on Twitter couldn’t tear themselves away from the Xbox.

The “American Sniper” moment marks the first mass-scale reconsideration and myth-making around the Iraq war, fueled by the vague sense that there must have been some meaning in that conflict we missed the first time around. For the Chris Kyle fanbase, with their F-150s and “Terrorist Hunting Permits” and curiously restricted conception of American identity, maybe it was a World War II-style “band of brothers” sense of national purpose that eluded us, or was undermined by the handwringing pantywaist liberalism of the latte-drinking classes. (Even now, Chris Kyle pisses in your $5 coffee, from his sniper’s nest on high. But do they have Red Bull in heaven?) If you belong to the caffeinated bicoastal class and paid way too much for your windbag liberal-arts education, on the other hand, you may perceive some dark epiphany, a moment of Joseph Conrad nightmare karmic reckoning, like whatever the hell happens at the end of “Apocalypse Now” with Marlon Brando and that ox.

Both forms of navel-gazing are symptoms of imperial decline, and I have no doubt that similar divisions could be identified in Britain before World War I, or in Christian-era Rome. Some people claim we can recapture our lost glory by ignoring history and embracing some obviously counterfactual propaganda narrative; others adjourn to the wine shop or coffeehouse to celebrate the meaninglessness of everything and discuss the new episode of “Girls.” Each side views the other as hopelessly deluded and imprisoned by an evil ideology. To return to the present instance, this moment of reconsideration or nostalgia or collective bewilderment is arriving a bit sooner after the Iraq war than it did after Vietnam. That reflects two interrelated phenomena: the sped-up, ADHD quality of the news cycle and our cultural preoccupations and the fact that, as mentioned above, the 99-plus percent of us who didn’t go to Iraq or Afghanistan had virtually no experience of the war at all. (Vietnam was fought with a reluctant conscript army, which led to immense social discord but also made the war feel real to every young man of every social class, along with their families.)

Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” – an obvious influence on “American Sniper” and a close thematic cognate (even to its gratuitous dramatic inventions) – was released in 1978, five years after America’s ignominious withdrawal from Southeast Asia. Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” in many ways still the gold standard in pseudo-profound American cinematic grandiosity (and I say that with affection), followed a year later. But those two were early indicators; it took almost another decade for the floodgates to open and unleash a tide of Vietnam soul-searching: “Platoon,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Hamburger Hill,” “Casualties of War,” “The Hanoi Hilton” and “Born on the Fourth of July,” all more or less earnest attempts to redeem or recast or reconsider aspects of America’s wartime experience, were released between 1986 and 1989.

I’ve already made the case that if you consider “American Sniper” as a movie it’s a subtle and conflicted work, and that it’s not fair to describe it as glorifying war in general or the Iraq war in particular. I don’t claim it’s a great film. It’s compromised by its commercial aspirations – and, boy, have those paid off! -- by its single-minded focus on the American experience and by its conversion of the real Chris Kyle (by all accounts, notably his own, a disturbed, dangerous and amazingly unreflective person) into an archetypal fictional character. While I think a close reading of the film makes Eastwood’s intentions clear enough – and I would add that it’s one of the better-made films of his recent career – his laconic, restrained directing style and his fixation with a certain grade of stoical American masculinity feed into each other, and nurture a heroic-jingoistic interpretation that was arguably not intended.

Even as I wrote that article I understood that it was an inefficacious argument, at least in larger cultural and social terms, and that “American Sniper” as a movie, considered in some Aristotelian vacuum, was really not the point. Americans are not much interested in art for its own sake. In the spirit of our Puritan forebears, we’ve always preferred art as moral instruction, as a vehicle for lessons that support our own views and undermine those of our enemies. At the risk of reopening old wounds, the “American Sniper” case is somewhat similar to that of “Zero Dark Thirty,” which clearly was not intended by its makers to support or justify the use of torture but which became that in public discourse. I wouldn't claim that an author’s intentions are irrelevant, but no one who creates a cultural work is entirely in control of the signals it sends, and “meaning” is a moving target, shaped in the mind of each audience member and by the collective consciousness of the audience as a whole. Milton did not mean Satan to be the hero of “Paradise Lost,” but that has become the standard reading delivered to every English major.

After writing that article, I received a supportive email from a reader who facilitates meetings for a group of veterans’ wives. She wrote that the women in her group whose husbands had served multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan responded to “American Sniper” as a highly accurate portrayal of PTSD and its devastating effects on soldiers and their families. She didn’t say anything about patriotism or freedom or the reasons the war happened or the nature of the enemy. So for her infinitesimal audience slice, that’s the meaning of the film. I was moved and gratified to be reminded of those real people and their real suffering – yes, the people of Afghanistan and Iraq suffered worse, but it doesn’t have to be a competition – because the film’s social and cultural meaning, as it now stands, has nothing to do with them.

Instead, “American Sniper” is “about” some irritating picayune things and some very big and disturbing things. It has been boiled down and passed through the filter of the great and moronic American schism between liberals and conservatives, heartlanders and cosmopolitans. It has become a litany of Fox News and MSNBC talking points, a pointless debate about the personality of a dead man who lent his name (and not much else) to Cooper's character in the film, an incoherent celebration of antiquated neocon war ideology and a mystical veneration (from a safe distance) of America’s soldiers as a class of saintlike supermen whose idealism and self-sacrifice and purity of heart we cannot begin to understand. In the guise of “honoring” the troops, the “American Sniper” moment is about shoving them away into the deep mythological distance, as remote from lived reality as Hercules or Iron Man. To use the Freudian cliché, it’s about the return of the repressed -- the cultural comeback of a war we did not want and did our best to ignore, but whose toxic effects will be with us for generations.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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