By FDRDemocrat/ Daily Kos
The controversy over the movie American Sniper has predictably reopened the divide among many Americans over the Iraq War. What is more interesting is how the choice made by director Clint Eastwood to choose a sniper as a heroic archetype unravels classic notions of what is considered heroism.
The concept of heroism has been with humanity since the beginning. At it’s heart it contains a common thread where the hero (or heroine) risks themselves for the sake of others.
How then to adapt the heroic archetype to the profession of sniper? This is no easy task.
There is no question that sniping is a useful military skill. There is also no question that it can save friendly soldiers and civilians from death at the hands of an enemy. Several ancient battles such as Hastings in 1066 were more or less decided when a skilled archer put an arrow through a key leader. Every army in the world snipes. The trade goes back before gun powder.
Sniping has always had a bad odor about it though. And the distaste often comes from fellow soldiers, who feel snipers don’t really decide the battle or war, they just add to the misery and death toll. The submarine service received similar reactions from battleship officers during World War One. Shooting someone from stealth, or torpedoing them from beneath the waves, just wasn’t “sporting.”
In the 21st century, the advances of technology have raised uncomfortable questions about the nature of heroism. While warfare has always been about causing the greatest harm with the least risk, the advancing state of technology means that people are able to kill from farther and farther away. The person pulling the trigger may not even be on the same continent. That is why it is so unusual that Clint Eastwood chose a sniper to be his lead in a war movie. Useful trade or not, it is hard to place sniping within the classic hero mold.
So what? That is the response of many American conservatives. And to a degree they have a point if you believe, as William Tecumseh Sherman stated, “war is hell” and it is immoral to fight wars with anything less that utter ruthlessness. The concept of total war was not invented during World War Two, but its precepts led to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
If the conservative defense of Chris Kyle is that he saved American lives, then why don’t we have a monument on the Washington Mall to the crew of the Enola Gay? Military historians believe an allied invasion of Japan would have cost at least a million dead on all sides, among them 50,000 Americans. Did not the crew of a single B-29, by incinerating 200,000 Japanese men, women and children, come out 800,000 lives ahead? We are rightly very uncomfortable with this sort of calculus. We are taught (or should be) that all human life is sacred.
What of the conservative defense of sniping itself? Namely, that in war the purpose is to accomplish the mission, not put oneself or other “friendlies” at risk. Again, to a degree, they have a point. We would regard soldiers who needlessly expose themselves to enemy fire not as heroes, but as fools.
But if that is so, how would we react if, instead of featuring Chris Kyle, Eastwood made a movie called “American Drone Operator”? A taut thriller about the American technicians who, from a bunker in the US, manipulate the controls of the missile armed drones that globally take out key Al Qaeda “targets” (as well as, on occasion, un-involved men, women and children who had the bad luck to be nearby). What are Predator Drone operators if not snipers taken to the limits of available technology?
Well, we know that a heroic movie about the Enola Gay would not go down well, even with most Americans. That goes double for a movie about heroic Predator Drone operators.
To take things to yet another level, consider this: the next revolution in military technology – robotics – is well under way. A future Hollywood movie about an American military hero may feature robot soldiers. There is something very unsettling about the idea of America sending waves of robots to kill human enemies in the not too distant future, perhaps robots controlled by a generation of young Americans who grew up learning to kill like this on their Play Stations.
I don’t share his politics, but I like Clint Eastwood. He is a great actor and an amazing director. I wonder though if he is really making the point people think he is.
Not about heroism, but about its twilight. We can attempt to enshrine long-distance, high tech killing as a traditional form of heroism. But in their guts, most people know it doesn’t quite fit. It casts an unflattering light into the darkest parts of human nature. And it makes us all accomplices to actions we’d rather not think about.
I don’t think the movie American Sniper will ultimately settle into place in the classic war movie genre. Rather, it will be regarded like another Eastwood movie called “Unforgiven” – a western many believe was Eastwood’s apologia for his Dirty Harry days. Whether Clint intended this all along is an interesting question.
Originally posted at Daily Kos