“American Sniper” is a difficult movie to criticize, partly because of the pro-war jingoism that's long been a staple of post-9/11 society and partly because the movie itself is competently made, but mostly because of the dogmatic belief among supporters that “American Sniper” is a “human story” and not a political one. And that's exactly the problem. Taking a conflict in which there are deep historical, economic, social and political roots, and then atomizing it as a single man's story, robs the conflict of context, and this is a political act in itself. The act of de-politicization serves to obscure the ideological framework within which the story operates, coating it with a human face. In studying this “face” however, the experiences of sniper Chris Kyle that constitute the film, we can see how beneath the obviously “human” story is a troubling philosophical thesis that speaks to the rise of neoconservatism among the U.S. political and military elite.
This intersection of the personal and political can be seen as early as the first scene, where the titular sniper aims at a man described as a “military-aged male” (borrowing from the language of drone strike casualties) on a cell phone. Of course he is reporting the troop movements below, and from the house he stands atop emerge a woman and her son, who attempts to throw a grenade at the oncoming soldiers. When we return to this scene after a flashback, Chris Kyle shoots both.
What are we supposed to take from this? We're meant to see the “horrors of war” that the protagonist must commit out of a sense of duty — it is a “necessary evil” and Chris is deeply affected by the experience. What distinguishes Chris Kyle from a simple child-killer is that he holds the moral upper hand above the jihadis, who slaughter children to advance their political agenda.
But let's take a second to look at that moral upper hand Chris holds, and the moral theory it operates under, because in this “human” story morality functions as a surrogate for political theory. The scene of sniping the child is broken up by a flashback detailing Chris's childhood/training in rural somewhere-or-other where hunting and church-going are the order of the day (and the transition is impressive — we switch from the adult Chris hesitating to shoot the child to a child Chris eagerly shooting a deer). The sequence culminates in a moral lecture from the authoritarian father after Chris defends his younger brother in a schoolyard brawl. I'll cite the whole thing because it's philosophically quite dense:
"There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe evil doesn’t exist in the world. And if it ever darkened their doorstep they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. And then you got predators. They use violence to prey on people. They’re the wolves. Then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock. They are a rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog. We’re not raising any sheep in this family."
At first glance this theory seems merely stupid, a sort of Saturday-morning-cartoon morality of heroes and villains and the civilians they fight over. When extended not merely to a family, but an entire society, however, it gives us quite a lot of insight into neo-conservative ideology of the “War on Terror.” Because the thing is, this speech is critically important to understanding the rest of the movie, and the slaughter of children within it. It is only after we have this moral thesis that we understand why Chris had to do what he did and flash back to the shooting. The political context is replaced and substituted with this familial moral context that shapes his ascent to manhood. In the movie this classification plays out clearly: His wife, Taya, with her obtuse moral concerns and inability to protect herself from “bad men” is the civilian sheep, the insurgents are wolves, and Chris himself is the sheepdog, “blessed with the gift of aggression” who slays the wolves and protects the sheep. Funny to note here the “conspiracy theorist” cries of Americans being “sheep” when this terminology is being co-opted by the very people they accuse of manipulating the citizenry. More on this later.
What should strike us immediately about this terminology is that it does not cast the hyper-equipped, expertly trained and invading army as the predatory wolves. No. The invaders are, paradoxically, the defenders, the sheepdogs, and the native resistance fighters against them are somehow cast as the predatory wolves. Sheep can seemingly be found in Iraq and the U.S.
The linchpin of this moral theory is the almost cartoonish evil of the native Iraqis. What the instances of child killing in the movie are meant to highlight are the moral complexities of the war, but these moral complexities are smoothed over again and again to cast the U.S. soldiers as heroes whose fault is, if anything, trusting too much. During every instance in which moral complexity arises, the Iraqis are shown to be trying to deceive the troops into letting them carry out terrorist activities. This is shown first in Chris's dismissal of the “military-aged male” with the phone as not being a threat, and again when he brutally occupies the house of a man and his child whom he learns after scream-interrogating them that — surprise, surprise — are sheep being forced by threat of death into working for a terrorist mastermind named “The Butcher” who murders people with a drill. And yet again, when the soldiers are invited to dinner by a man whose home they are occupying, and Chris sneaks off to sleuth around and finds an enormous pile of weapons stashed beneath a stack of rugs. (Those sneaky A-rabs!) These instances of seeming “moral complexity” simplify more than they complicate, as if to say that the appearance of complexity is actually one more trick of the wolves to make us feel guilty. And we can never feel guilt. Not even if we shoot 250 people.
Let's look again at the killing of children in the movie. After Chris shoots a child, though he is in the right, he is wracked by a guilty uncertainty about what he has done. Later a fellow soldier comforts him, explaining that the child he shot could have killed “like ten fucking Marines,” which provides some solace. The second murder of a child is a murder by the villainous “Butcher” with his drill of oppression, who (and the audience is shown this) drills a child's brains out in a public square to send a message that collaboration is a death sentence. The scene is tasteless in the extreme, but more than that it seems to answer for Chris's earlier crime. We are shown what it looks like when a “bad guy” kills children, and in seeing his cruelty we are redeemed for the clean, efficient murder of the child that took place before. Never mind that the “Butcher” is a total contrivance. (The “Butcher of Fallujah” was an insurgent who killed four mercenaries by burning them, dragging them through the streets and hanging them from a bridge. No children and no drills. He was also captured after Chris Kyle left the SEALs.) His purpose is to show us the dark, predatory nature of the enemy, and how his atrocities lack the moral rectitude of our own.
The trilogy of child-murders ends with a scene wherein a child picks up an RPG dropped by one of Chris's targets. After a moment of superb tension where he fumbles with the weapon, the boy drops the rocket and runs off, giving Chris and the audience a huge sigh of relief. “Thank god!” we think, “It won't happen again!” The catharsis is thrilling. Yet nothing has changed. There is no reason the same event could not occur the very next day, or next hour, with opposite results. The lucky break is construed as divine judgment.
The Strauss Connection
When we talk about neo-conservative ideology, we have to talk about a man named Leo Strauss. Strauss was an American political philosopher in the mid-20th century who most famously taught at the University of Chicago, where he acquired a following of young non-leftist intellectuals. Central to Strauss's thought was a belief that liberalism would inevitably devolve into a nihilistic loss of values, either a brutal nihilism as evidenced by the Nazis who he himself had fled, or a gentle nihilism that he saw evidenced in American society, which manifested itself in a hedonistic and permissive belief in equality.
To counter these strains of nihilism, Strauss saw the need for an intellectual and political elite capable of convincing the general population of “myths” that they could believe in. Much of his writing was influenced by classical political philosophy, and critically by the theory of Plato's “noble lie.” The “noble lie” was a myth which it was thought necessary to convince the population of, specifically that land belongs to the state even though it is always acquired coercively, and that citizenship is a matter of justice and not an accident of birth. Strauss, while not denying these two virtues, extended the idea to function as a protection against the nihilism that Western liberal rationalism must inevitably reach. In short, “the people” must be led by myths created by the elites so that they will not fall prey to nihilism in its brutal or gentle varieties.
Among intellectuals unsympathetic toward Marxism (which was, relatively speaking, flourishing in universities at the time) and rocked by the catastrophes of ideological zealots across the political spectrum, this philosophy flourished. Strauss acquired a following at the University of Chicago composed of people who would go on to become leading figures in American politics, among them Paul Wolfowitz, Susan Sontag and Abram Shulsky. Neocons who were unable to find posts in leftist politics departments, the “Straussians” often went directly into the intelligence or political communities, where their ideas regarding the necessary secrecy of a political elite found purchase, and continue to influence policy to this day.
The point is that we cannot understate the influence of Strauss among the political class, so often allergic to critical thinkers but staunch in their support for this particular philosopher. And when we look back to the moral theory under which “American Sniper” operates it isn't hard to see. The classification of “sheep-wolves-sheepdogs,” in martial terms, mirrors the political outlook of Strauss's stratified class system. The “sheep”— the weak/stupid general population — maintains the same place of vulnerability, protected by the aggressive/cunning elite of “sheepdogs/philosophers.” The character of “the wolf” is most interesting though, because “political Islam” (a complicated term which I use for expediency's sake) is exactly the sort of radical ideology that Strauss saw as a manifestation of nihilism in its brutal form. Or, rather, this is how it is represented in the film. Characters like “The Butcher” and “Mustafa” — the mysterious and exotic sniper, always portrayed with an Arab choir chanting faintly to reinforce his place as the mystical “Other” — are necessary to substantiate the idea that what we are fighting is not the resistance to a complicated interplay of historical forces (which would call into question the history of our own “sheepdogs,” the military and intelligence communities), but the outburst of a nihilistic and essential force that will always prey on the sheep. As Chris Kyle's father puts it in the film, the “evil” that exists in the world.
This overblown sense of brutality permeates the entire film. Remember when Chris is consoled by the marine who tells him the child he sniped could have killed “like ten fucking Marines”? If we look at the actual scene there are not even ten soldiers within range of the bomb — there are four and then a tank, which, if it is an A-1 Abrams, has at maximum a crew of four. Even within the context of the film itself the blatant, contradictory nature of this fear is apparent. But Chris Kyle is a soldier, and while under his father's theory he is a “sheepdog,” according to Straussians he stands well outside of the actual elite — indeed his religious convictions and organic morality are evidence that he has internalized their myths. Soldiers are the same intellectual sheep as civilians, and must also be led by fear.
This is the film's ultimate ideological maneuver as a form of propaganda: Even as it explains the conflict it obfuscates the higher framework that the policymakers who got us into it -- and whom the film has attracted so much criticism for omitting -- hold to. The moral truth the audience is delivered is a stunted version of the “real” truth which the elites hold. When we watch “American Sniper,” we are literally watching the “noble lie” in the act of being told. This is the myth the sheep need to save them from the nihilistic reality.
“American Sniper” is not a political movie because it was never meant to be. Politics is an arena reserved for the elite policymakers who can handle the brutal realities of the world and safeguard the infantile populace. Instead, “American Sniper” acts as a myth, where the specifics of whether “The Butcher” actually murdered children with drills or if “Mustafa” really was ever Chris Kyle's rival are less important than the essential truth they reveal: That only by dirtying our own hands in protection of the weak can we resist the essential evil that permeates the world. For the elites and the masses this lesson holds radically different significance, but the authoritarian structure remains.
For Chris Kyle, the conflict is his personal war with the supervillains of the insurgency; for the elites it is the greater “War on Terror.” The "War on Terror” has attracted criticism for its seeming “un-win-ability,” but if we consider the conflict under Strauss's framework then this should not surprise us — indeed, the very appeal of the war to elites of military, intelligence and political institutions is that it can go on forever. “Terrorism” can be defined as any ideologically motivated violence against the state, and so to proclaim an “end” to terrorism in its minimal definition is to proclaim an “end” to the political movement of history. For Strauss, terrorism is the brutal manifestation of a nihilism that can never actually be overcome because “nothingness” can, definitionally, never be extinguished. It is inherent and essential.
And if we are willing to look frankly at the situation, we can see that this form of “brutal nihilism” has already come to power — not for our enemies, but for us. In witnessing the horror of nihilism and becoming convinced of the necessity to prevent it by whatever means necessary — to become allergic to doubt in its purest form -- we have authorized the most disgusting acts of inhumanity imaginable. Who can read the CIA torture report and not realize that we have employed rape, beatings, mental cruelties of exhaustion and profound humiliation in an attempt to prevent evil. And this is to say nothing of drone strikes, which can incinerate entire households of dubiously affiliated “military-aged males” and their families, and which, coupled with the program of assassination carried out under the Obama administration, has been termed one of the worst terror campaigns in history.
Our paranoia toward nihilism has made us nihilistic ourselves. In trying to create values for our society we expose the poverty of the philosophical foundation that guides them. Strauss had no real answer for nihilism, and neither do his followers, save for the lies that they can tell to obscure it. The greatest of these lies are not lies of fact, however, but of philosophy. Of the idea that the world is against us, that people are weak, that only the strong can ever truly triumph, and that even then the victory is hollow. This outlook construes bullies as heroes, war as peace and ignorance as strength. To overcome it the “sheep” must withdraw their consent and discover their strength. But they will not find it living a lie, even a “noble” one.