Guess I’ll have to go see ‘American Sniper’


Has anyone seen “The Master,” one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films? I saw it last night on Netflix (still fighting a cold, I’ve been vegging out in front of the tube a lot in my off hours) and was impressed. Not that it seemed to have much meaning, but it was interesting and well done, and had a couple of roles in it that actors would understandably kill for. Anyway, I was curious as to whether any of y’all had any thoughts about it.

I got up this morning thinking about that, but now, I think I may have to make one of my rare trips to the actual cinema to check out the subject of this Tweet from this morning:

Yes, that’s the kind of post that makes you give a second glance to see whose feed this is, and then you say, “The Guardian, of course.”

This particular writer was bending over backward to defend Clint Eastwood, saying that however much “we diverge politically… he is not a black-and-white ideologue.”

No, the problem that the writer decries is that “much of the US right wing” has failed to appreciate that this is a “morally ambiguous, emotionally complex film,” and regard it “with the same unconsidered, rah-rah reverence that they would the national anthem or the flag itself.”

This is supported with examples from some extreme trolls who wish that critics of the film would eat s__t, be raped and die. The usual sick puppies who, I guess we are supposed to assume, represent “much of the US right wing.” Trolls. Really nasty ones.

And of course, you have to be a pretty sick puppy, or challenged in the reading-comprehension department, if you can read the movie’s subtitle — “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History” — and not pick up on the idea that there’s a pickup truckload of moral ambiguity churning about here.

I know y’all all think I’m an incorrigible warmonger and all, but I’m someone who does not blink at the dark thicket of morally impossible choices and ethical quicksand into which war leads us. And I’ve always marveled that anyone can live with himself after having killed as a sniper. Yeah, I know; a sniper can save a lot of his comrades’ lives and perform a useful function in a just cause. But a sniper isn’t running and firing at people firing at him, with his blood pounding in his ears and adrenaline drowning his senses. He calmly, analytically, scientifically, artistically, with great care, observes his magnified victim close-up through his scope for much, much longer than any other soldier ever has an enemy in his sights. And the target is unsuspecting. He has no idea that his death is coolly studying him for long minutes, and then choosing the instant to calmly blow his head apart.

A sniper can be a hero. Everyone he knows may praise him for his skill and devotion to duty. But how do you live with yourself after that?

I wonder at such things. So I wanted to see the movie anyway. But I wanted to see it twice as much after reading this actual review of it, also in The Guardian. This writer doesn’t bother making excuses for Mr. Eastwood, basically lumping him in with the rest of those thoughtless rah-rah American nutters. “American Sniper is so conditioned by its first-person shooter aesthetic that it never widens its focus or pans left or right… while the war on Iraq is a just, noble cause.”

Did you catch that? War on Iraq? This, apparently, is what passes as cool, analytical rhetoric in The Guardian, distinguishing right-thinking people from the “black-and-white ideologues,” all of whom, evidently, are neoconservatives.

Anyway, I was grabbed by this passage from the review:

In one early scene, Kyle’s father tells him that the world is divided into three types: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle sees himself as a sheepdog, a noble protector of the weak and the innocent, and it is clear that Eastwood does too. But is the world that simple? A different film (a better film) might have asked the wolves what they think, or at least wondered why the sheep behave as they do….

This grabbed me because that sheep/wolf/sheepdog model is central to Dave Grossman’s study of what he terms “killology,” a field of inquiry he has invented and generally has to himself. Lt. Col. Grossman is the author of that book I’m always going on about, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. It demonstrates, through statistical analyses of battles and other means, that through most of human history, most soldiers have not fired their weapons in combat, and most who did fired over their enemies’ heads, for the simple fact that however they may have been trained, the training failed to overcome their profound aversion to killing fellow human beings. (Actually, in the past generation, U.S. and other advanced armies have overcome that reluctance through conditioning, which has led to more PTSD, which is a reason why Grossman wrote the book.)

That vast majority that doesn’t want to kill, and which suffers tremendous psychological damage when forced to do so, makes up the “sheep” category — not meant as a pejorative, but simply denoting normal, peaceful men.

I’m sometimes unclear as to who, exactly, makes up the “sheepdog” category. Sometimes, Grossman indicates it’s anyone who willingly dons the uniform — of the cop, the soldier, the sailor — and defends his or her society. Other times, though, he seems to be referring to a much rarer breed — the 2 percent of combat soldiers (according to a study from World War II, when there was such a vast cross-section of the male population to study) who “if pushed or given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.”

The WWII study found these men to have a tendency to be “aggressive psychopaths.” But Grossman defends them from that damning term, explaining that they are just natural-born soldiers who “apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing and the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat.”

In that set of competing definitions, you’ve got enough ambiguity to employ an army of moral philosophers for a century.

Their the sort whose comrades might see as heroes, while those who have no military experience and look askance at those who do view as, well, psychopaths, in keeping with the time-honored tradition:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot…

This 2 percent cadre of men tends to gravitate toward the special forces — toward jobs such as that of the subject of “American Sniper,” who was a SEAL.

Anyway, I need to see the movie, and see what I can learn from it. As should anyone who wants to take some responsibility for what we send other men to do for us.

14 thoughts on “Guess I’ll have to go see ‘American Sniper’

  1. Burl Burlingame

    When I was drafted in ’73, I had aptitude testing. The determination was that I was best suited for a military job that called for patience, a high degree of technical skill and little direct supervision. It was explained to me that my Army career would either be in the motor pool or as a sniper (and since both required technical training, something the Army was loath to do in the mid-’70s with a draftee, I was sworn in, put on hold with a 1A-H category and sent back to college. Never heard from the draft board again, likely because the draft ended just after my call-up.) I joke that I was in the Army for 15 minutes.

    We can all kill, dependent on circumstance and the heat of the moment. To do so coolly, however, takes a special kind of abstract mentality. Shoot a guy shooting at you? No problem. Shoot a guy eating his lunch or smelling the flowers, even though he’s a direct enemy? A tough call. Shoot a guy simply because he has a different religion? Won’t do it.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Burl, I wonder — if the Army had decided to keep you and actually train you as a sniper — would they have subjected you to further testing to determine whether you had what Martin Blank would call that “certain… moral flexibility” to be successful in that specialty…

  2. Bryan Caskey

    Excellent post. My only comment is another poem.

    The Sheepdogs

    Most humans truly are like sheep
    Wanting nothing more than peace to keep
    To graze, grow fat and raise their young,
    Sweet taste of clover on the tongue.
    Their lives serene upon Life’s farm,
    They sense no threat nor fear no harm.
    On verdant meadows, they forage free
    With naught to fear, with naught to flee.
    They pay their sheepdogs little heed
    For there is no threat; there is no need.

    To the flock, sheepdog’s are mysteries,
    Roaming watchful round the peripheries.
    These fang-toothed creatures bark, they roar
    With the fetid reek of the carnivore,
    Too like the wolf of legends told,
    To be amongst our docile fold.
    Who needs sheepdogs? What good are they?
    They have no use, not in this day.
    Lock them away, out of our sight
    We have no need of their fierce might.

    But sudden in their midst a beast
    Has come to kill, has come to feast
    The wolves attack; they give no warning
    Upon that calm September morning
    They slash and kill with frenzied glee
    Their passive helpless enemy
    Who had no clue the wolves were there
    Far roaming from their Eastern lair.
    Then from the carnage, from the rout,
    Comes the cry, “Turn the sheepdogs out!”

    Thus is our nature but too our plight
    To keep our dogs on leashes tight
    And live a life of illusive bliss
    Hearing not the beast, his growl, his hiss.
    Until he has us by the throat,
    We pay no heed; we take no note.
    Not until he strikes us at our core
    Will we unleash the Dogs of War
    Only having felt the wolf pack’s wrath
    Do we loose the sheepdogs on its path.
    And the wolves will learn what we’ve shown before;
    We love our sheep, we Dogs of War.

    -Russ Vaughn
    2d Bn, 327th Parachute Infantry Regiment
    101st Airborne Division
    Vietnam 65-66

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Thanks for sharing that, Bryan. It’s not Kipling, but it certain speaks directly to our topic…

      As Bryan knows, in the heat of the moment, when it’s kill or be disgraced, I do not hesitate at all to fire, with deadly accuracy… at clay pigeons.

      But over the holidays, a small flight of Canada geese flew over me at low altitude, and I looked up and thought how much slower they were than the clays, and how easy it would be to pick one off (the challenge would be not leading them too much). But I didn’t want to shoot them…

      1. Bryan Caskey

        Yeah, I kind of see it as a paraphrasing of “Tommy”. It’s the same idea, anyway. On the issue of where people fall in the sheep or sheepdog classification, I don’t think it’s a black/white; either/or kind of dichotomy. You’re not one or another. I think it’s an interesting way to think about one’s worldview.

        Rather, I think it’s more of a sliding scale, a gradient. Most people aren’t completely unaware and in denial of evil, but the ultimate warrior is also few and far between. Chris Kyle may be at that polar end, though. For most of us, we fit in somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Some people choose to carry CWP for their personal protection and the protection of their loved ones. In fact, that’s probably the reason most of the people I know get their CWP.

        But we’re all somewhere on the scale. After 9/11, I think we all moved a little more towards the sheepdog side.

    1. Doug Ross

      You lost me when you said “The Master” was well done. That was a piece of pretentious garbage in my view. The typical Phillip Seymour Hoffman overacting and Joaquin Phoenix getting paid to act as bizarre as he is in real life. Roger Ebert gave it 2.5 stars and I think he was being generous based on the reputations of the actors and director Paul Anderson (who also made one of my favorite movies Boogie Nights).

      As for the movie, I plan to see it next week and will reserve judgment til then. All I know is that I would prefer our government didn’t find it necessary manufacture a need to place snipers around the world.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I’m not going to argue with you. It’s the kind of thing that makes me keep wanting to yell out, “B.S.!” But I kept watching, largely because I kept wanting to see what Hoffman would do or say next. I think he really did embody the character of someone with the charisma to beguile impressionable people.

        Or maybe I just kept watching to see if all the women’s clothes would magically disappear again, like in that one scene.

        I was struck by how part of the movie’s appeal was so prurient, even pornographic. Was the filmmaker deliberately stringing us along by the simple expedient of making us think, “Will the women get naked again?” “Will Amy Adams start reading porn out loud again?”

        Phoenix’s character was like a pure expression of the id — all animalistic drives. Although I admit that I see the same thing when I look at a Rorschach blot. I’ve never been subjected to the test, but were I honest, I’d probably have to say, “You mean, BESIDES female genitalia?” to each image.

        I was curious, while watching it, whether anyone else had this thought: That Phoenix was channeling Neal Cassady toward the end of his life, with his brain so fried from two generations of ingesting mind-altering substances. Maybe not. But I kept seeing a middle-aged Dean Moriarty there on the screen…

        1. Mark Stewart

          That first link deserves a [NSFW] tag…

          I’ve never heard of the movie before, actually, but it does look worth pulling up on the TV. I like compelling, nuanced films generally, but kind of recoil from deeply crazy characters – and this movie seems to have two of those..

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Finally, someone addresses the original point! 🙂

      If you have a couple of hours to kill sometime, you might find it intriguing enough to watch. It’s something one can appreciate as artful moviemaking, although as I say, it seems to have no point whatsoever…

  3. Bryan Caskey

    Two hostage situations in France now in connection with these terrorists: one at a kosher grocery store, and the other at at an industrial area. Looks like the French authorities have them surrounded. Good.

    A guy like Chris Kyle would be pretty darn handy right about now.

  4. Barry

    I plan to see the movie- and I don’t plan to discuss it endlessly or try to rationalize it like I know how I would react in the same situation. I certainly don’t care what critics think about it or what The Guardian or the New York Times would think about it.

    My grandfather went of to WW2. Fought in Europe – and as he said to me when I would ask him “probably killed a lot of people” and came home and raised a family.

    He didn’t think much about how many died. He did his job. I am sure things crossed his mind, but he didn’t let it keep him from raising his family and going about his life as a gentle, and caring worker in a plant and then farmer/family man.

  5. Ed Ski

    chris kyle was not a hero- a hero is not someone who invades another country illegally and murders their civilians. chris kyle was a war criminal. he shot unarmed women and children from a distance, likely in the back. a real hero sniper, simo hayha, shot 505 russians attempting to invade HIS country in one winter- that’s right, he shot real invaders and killed twice as many as chris kyle CLAIMS he did in 10 years. as to the veracity of chris kyle’s claims, i note that he was proven in court to have lied his ass off about fighting jesse ventura- it never happened. and from that we can determine that much of what chris kyle claimed also likely never happened.

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