Saturday, January 31, 2015

MOVIES | American Sniper (Comment)

The Movie Extends the Story
Beyond the Book
I saw American Sniper last night with my wife Alice. It has six Academy Award nominations, including best picture and best actor, and has grossed $217 million so far [update: $249 million after the first three weekends] on an investment of $58 million.  It has surpassed the war movie that was previously #1 in box office receipts, Saving Private Ryan.

It is well scripted and acted. It is nominated for best picture and best actor.

On the other hand, the movie is controversial on several counts. It has been accused of glorifying killing and a war in Iraq that shouldn't have started. It has been described as propaganda and inaccurate in some details. The treatment of how guns should be handled in the home has become a focus of criticism (see Comment at the end).
  • Yes, it has spectacular battle scenes and the underlying story is authentic. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was a real Navy SEAL hero, born in 1974, the country's most effective sniper ever. He was really good at what he did.
  • Yes, the display of weaponry and military discipline in the movie is impressive. That is one reason that today's wars have a lower incidence of deaths among American soldiers than World Wars I and II. American weapons are the most advanced and so is the ability of U.S. armed forces to rescue injured soldiers and repair their injuries.
  • Yes, the movie fairly shows the great cost of the war for our warriors, veterans and their families, including Kyle. (It shows, not always with the same sympathy, the cost of the war for Jihadists and for Iraqi civilians.) A much higher proportion of soldiers now return with identified physical and mental injuries - the latter because our understanding of mental illness has not kept up with our ability to prevent or repair physical injuries.
  • Yes, Kyle did come home changed by the war, and resigned in 2009 to reconnect with his family. He took years to adjust. Then in 2013 he was shot to death by a fellow veteran he was trying to help. The fact that Chris Kyle died at the hands of another veteran says it all about the cost of the war in mental illness. 
  • Propaganda? Also yes, but not to my mind propaganda directed at warmongering. Countries at war tend to produce films that present their point of view.
The movie starts with Kyle's minister father teaching a young Chris to shoot and explaining that there are sheep, wolves and sheep dogs. The dogs protect the sheep from the wolves, and the father makes clear he doesn't want his two boys to be sheep or wolves. Chris had already shown himself to be a sheepdog. Then we see the inciting events of the Jihadist attacks in 1998 (when Kyle was 24) on the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and then in 2001 on the World Trade Center.

The script is based on Kyle's autobiography (extending it, of course, to describe the circumstances of his death, and the subsequent memorials) and on the family side is reportedly a pretty accurate reflection of Kyle's story. Our American soldiers, veterans and their spouses and families deserve whatever appreciation and support we can give them.

From that perspective, the movie was on message. So far I have two issues with it:

First, it is a pity that the only American military people we see are men. Of course, mostly we are shown SEALs and they are put to physical tests that are hard for women to meet. But the portrayal of today's military in the movie gives a misleading impression that all soldiers are men. An article in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs by Megan Mackenzie summarizes the situation in the year before Kyle's death:
Today, 214,098 women serve in the U.S. military, representing 14.6 percent of total service members. Around 280,000 women have worn American uniforms in Afghanistan and Iraq, where 144 have died and over 600 have been injured. Hundreds of female soldiers have received a Combat Action Badge, awarded for actively engaging with a hostile enemy. Two women, Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester and Specialist Monica Lin Brown, have been awarded Silver Stars -- one of the highest military decorations awarded for valor in combat -- for their service in Afghanistan and Iraq. 
Clint Eastwood may not have wanted to mix up his message, which relies on switching between the warrior in the field and his wife Taya Renae Kyle (Sienna Miller) and children back home stateside. Women are limited in what roles they can play on active duty. But women have been serving on the battlefield since the American Revolution. The last "yeoman (F)" from the World War I Navy died in 2007. Military spouses increasingly include men married to female soldiers. The Department of Defense in January 2013 announced it is seeking to open up more active duty positions to women. Ironically, in American Sniper, the only women we see actively fighting are on the Jihadist side.

Second, we don't get to learn much about the enemy except that the target is called The Butcher and he executes his victims with a power drill into the head. In a MercatorNet article, Australian Zac Alstin usefully separates the Islamic faith in general from its violent offshoot, mostly Salafi Jihadism. Salafism is a traditionalist movement within Sunni Islam. Jihadism is a violent movement within Salafism.

Islam > Sunni > Salafism > Salafi Jihadism

The Sydney siege, Alstin says, was perpetrated by an Iranian, which was surprising because Iranian Muslims are predominantly Shiites. But the perpetrator turns out to have converted to Sunni Islam shortly before the siege. He pledged allegiance to the head of the Salafi Jihadist Islamic State. The article continues:
[T]hat’s a little like a Roman Catholic "converting" to a break-away Adventist group and calling the Pope the Antichrist. ... Is Salafi Jihadism inherently violent? Yes. Are all Muslims Salafi Jihadists? No. Is it possible for a non-Salafi Jihadist Muslim or a non-Muslim to convert to Salafi Jihadism? Yes.
Salafi-Jihadism is a relatively new name for an evolving movement. I recommend a RAND Corporation report on this released last year. Americans need to know more about who their enemy is, and who it is not.

Comment on Using Guns at Home (the Scene at the End)

February 6, 2015: Gail Collins, in The New Yorker, says that the scene at the end where Chris Kyle points a loaded gun at his wife and says, jokingly, "drop them drawers" is "insane". I have to agree. The idea that leaving the gun on top of a door frame is a safe place for it is likewise troubling. 

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