To See or Not to See “American Sniper”: My Iraq War Redux

One week before March 19, 2003, the day that the Iraq War began, I announced to students in my business ethics class at DePaul University in Chicago that I was rescheduling a quiz set for March 19 to the following week. I explained that I was aware that there were rumors of protests against the Iraq War happening on or about that time and that, while I was contractually to be in their classroom that evening, they should feel free to follow their consciences “if their consciences prompted them to be elsewhere.”  At least if they felt the need to be elsewhere, they would not have to miss a quiz.

There were, indeed, massive protests in Chicago on Michigan Avenue in the days after the U.S. invasion.  I can’t recall if there were any protests on March 19.  News archives seem to show much of the activity in Chicago taking place March 20, March 21, and March 22-23, with more than 10,000 protesters and $12,000,000 spent by the city in protest-related litigation. Nonetheless, I arrived at my classroom the evening of March 19 with all of my students present and accounted for, and we proceeded with the scheduled class.  Did I hope that, if there had been a protest , that none of my students would show up so that I could join the crowd on Michigan Avenue?  You betcha!  Instead, my meager contribution to the anti-war effort was to postpone a quiz.

When I first saw a trailer for the movie “American Sniper” and heard rumors of the possibility of it winning Oscars, I thought it might be one of the more serious Iraq War movies–willing to take a critical look at what the war meant, not only for the film’s protagonist, celebrated military sniper Chris Kyle, who before his untimely death at the hands of another veteran chronicled his experiences and exploits in an autobiography, but also for what it meant for the U.S. as a whole.  Serious treatments of the war have been few and far between in a nation and a national film industry known for violence and celebration of the warrior mystique.  But recent news coverage of the film’s cultural resonance and early box-office success have also noted that the film has been politically and culturally divisive, with conservatives and liberals, pro-war and anti-war audiences taking very different messages.There has already been a satirical article chronicling the angst that people, more on the liberal side than the conservative side it seems, have about the film and its message of unrepentant, masculine militarism.

In the years immediately following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I began to hear some of the more serious critiques of American militarism that have continued to shape my thinking about the Iraq War and the role of the U.S. military forces in the world. Central among these have been the writings of military historian Andrew Bacevich, a West Point graduate and veteran of the Vietnam War. Bacevich’s extensive critique of the war in various media became especially salient and poignant when he lost his son to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

At a gathering of the Mass Violence Discussion Group, that I attended regularly while teaching at Harvard Divinity School some years ago, Bacevich was our guest speaker.  I remember, and have continued to remember on multiple occasions since, how struck I was by his description of soldiers as America’s “representatives” around the world in his discussion of his then recently published book, American Empire: The Realities and Consequences of U.S. Diplomacy–sort of like diplomats, but with guns.

I started to think about the nature of that “representation” and what it means.  Among other things, it would seem to mean that even though our all-volunteer military force is sometimes described as a miniscule minority of American society (the figure 1% is often cited, the same percentage as the superrich or the prison population), we are deeply connected to them and they to us.  They are our representatives, literally our stand-ins, abroad.  In some parts of the world they may be all the people know of the U.S.A. We exercise our responsibility toward our armed forces by providing education, training, salaries (albeit too small), and preferential hiring in federal employment. But we are also responsible for them and for what they do in our name.

Chris Kyle is said to have done some very bad things–or least some very morally ambiguous things with highly questionable intentions and motivations.  These are said to be recounted in gory, racist, and hubristic fashion in his book, but glossed over in the movie.  His bravado and braggadocio are reminiscent of Robert O’Neill, the Navy SEAL who pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Osama bin Laden.  Very few people miss Bin Laden, but O’Neill’s revelations have stirred quite a bit of controversy among military troops who are said to be schooled in brotherhood, comradery, and teamwork, rather than cashing in their stories for mass consumption in today’s military culture.

Of course, the probably for many of us opposed the Iraq War is that we didn’t ask for military action in Iraq–or maybe Afghanistan either.  We’re the “not in our name” people–you know, that mantra we’ve tried to demand from Muslims around the world, but sometimes lack the self-reflexive and self-critical guts to apply to ourselves. In that sense, having our military invade foreign countries against our will  creates a situation something like that posed by those squeegee guys who proliferated in New York City in the 1980s, washing car windows and then demanding to be paid.  We are urged to “hate the war, support the troops,” but that can be difficult to do when the wars to which they are deployed seem themselves indefensible. Can we not support the troops best by not sending them into unjustified wars in the first place?

Near the height of the Iraq War, I posed a question to the noted Jesuit priest and just war theorist, J. Bryan Hehir about what the responsibilities of opponents of war are when their voices have been heard and ignored. Should they participate in debates about the means and conduct of war when it all seemed like “fruit of the poisonous tree,” invoking a legal metaphor? He replied that opponents of war should keep fighting and making their case, trying to minimize the evil of war in any way that they could.

Besides squeegees and poisonous trees, there is another analogy that looms in my thinking about war.  That is what masculinity critic and anti-violence advocate, Jackson Katz, describes as the “chivalry trap” in his book, The Macho Paradox. It is an analogy that works on several levels, as it also conjures up notions of the chivalrous knights in the Christian Crusades–an especially problematic analogy in connection with U.S. soldiers going off to fight in the Muslim world.  Katz “problematizes” chivalry in observing.

It is an old tactic: “good guys” positioning themselves as protectors of women from the “bad guys” who would otherwise prey on them. . . . In principle, it is not just about protecting a woman as a woman. It is about the moral imperative of protecting a vulnerable person from harm. But there is more to it.

One pitfall  . . . is the risk that it will tap into some men’s traditional chivalry without challenging the underlying sexism. It is one thing to talk about the problems of men’s violence against women in personal terms, couching it in words that acknowledge a man’s concern for his mother, daughter, wife, or lover. The women and girls who are victimized are not nameless, faceless statistics; they are loved ones. But when the focus remains exclusively on the personal, it may only encourage family loyalty, without truly challenging men to confront the larger problem of sexual inequality and male dominance.

Another danger we have to guard against is the possibility that we might unwittingly perpetuate the idea that the solution to the problem is actually more men’s violence–but done righteously by the “good guys.”

This is the dark side of chivalry. Under the guise of “protecting” or “defending” women, it prioritizes mens’s needs. Besides, if women are always dependent on men to protect them, they will never achieve genuine equality with men, which puts us right back where we started.

Substitute “military” for “men,” “country” for “women,” and “militarism” for “chivalry” in these quotes and you have an analogy to the way in which, after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the country was led  into the Afghanistan War, the Iraq War, the larger War on Terror, and the many abridgments and abolitions of civil liberties that we have had to face ever since.  Indeed, Chris Kyle donned the mantle of “protector” of God, family, and country when he went off to war in the movie, when he claimed to shoot “looters” after Hurricane Katrina, and in some other questionable remarks and behaviors when he returned from combat. Does Chris Kyle “represent” me? I hope not. But I’m really much more afraid of what he might represent to others.  I’ll get a chance to find out.  After much hand-wringing I am going to see the movie tomorrow.