[Warning: this article contains spoiler alerts]
U.S.A. Last weekend, I went to watch American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of the book written by former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle. I’ve grown up fascinated with military movies and TV shows, burning through hours of the Military Channel and the History Channel, and American Sniper did not let me down in its gripping cinematography, pulse-raising action sequences, and earnest attempts to convey the true gravity of war.
Eastwood event ventured (briefly) outside of the military blockbuster archetype by revealing several of Kyle’s more vulnerable moments, focusing on his wife Taya’s battle to “re-humanize” him, and showing some of the uglier sides of war (like how his first two kills in Iraq are a young boy and his mother). Additionally, there is a brief scene at the funeral of one of Kyle’s squadmates, where a woman reads a letter written by the fallen SEAL, expressing his reservations about the endless fighting — something not always found in Hollywood war movies.
Despite these brief breaks from the norm, Eastwood unsurprisingly makes Kyle out to be a true American hero. First off, I respect the sacrifice made by soldiers to their families, and I sympathize deeply with those who have given their lives, minds, and bodies doing what they (often) believe is protecting our freedom. But during these long two hours, I found it difficult to idolize a man who has killed at least 255 people, and found myself particularly taken aback by the scene below.
In one of his tours of duty, Kyle assembles a “direct action” team with the sole mission of hunting down a particularly vicious Al-Qaeda leader nicknamed “The Butcher.” After receiving some intelligence that The Butcher is operating out of a restaurant, Kyle’s team storms an adjacent building in order to scope it out. Inside they encounter an Iraqi family, including a young boy, who they stay with during the stakeout. Several scenes later, the team leaves the neighborhood amidst a throng of angry locals, who are carrying a dead body with them. As the team drives off, we see a shot of their Humvees, which are spray-painted with the team’s emblem: a menacing black and white skull.
Earlier in the movie, Taya asks her husband if he ever thinks about who’s on the other end of the rifle. I didn’t think much of her question until I saw the skull on the side of the Humvee, but the eeriness of that shot made me revisit it. My mind immediately went to the boy in the house, and the look of sheer terror frozen on his face as the American soldiers burst through his door.
I pegged the boy at around ten years old, meaning American forces have occupied his country since before he was born. I don’t know historically how intense the fighting was in this particular city, but a marine makes a comment earlier that “this is a war zone” and most people have been evacuated. Given that the dad doesn’t speak English, it’s safe to say the boy doesn’t either.
Lastly, and this is a bit of a presumption, but not a far cry that the boy has been raised as a Muslim. Now, it’s awful hard for me to genuinely put myself in his shoes, so I decided to flip the situation…
Imagine for a second that another country has invaded your homeland, and its military forces have been occupying and fighting in your city since the day you entered the world. These foreign invaders don’t look or dress like you, they don’t speak your language, and as far as you can tell, they don’t believe in your god. You are in many ways different from them, and you see the world through a vastly different lens. You are maybe ten years old at most, have had only a few years of primary schooling, and little (if any) access to internet — the point is that you know little about these foreigners. Maybe you’ve never met or even seen one before. All you know is that they are at war — in your country, and in your city — killing people you know, and laying waste to the place you call home.
So, here comes your first “up close and personal” impression: you’re at home eating dinner, when you hear a loud blast as your front door explodes into splinters. Out of the cloud of dust emerges a stream of massive silhouettes decked head to toe helmets, armor, and gear, their rifles aimed threateningly between your eyes. They’re shouting loudly and angrily in a language you don’t understand as they flood the room. You throw your hands skyward in submission, and as one reaches you he shoves you to the floor.
Having deemed the situation to their satisfaction, the soldiers let you return to the table, which you huddle around nervously with your sisters, brothers, and parents. You sit there for hours, hostage in your own house, while your visitors make themselves right at home. Tonight also happens to be a holiday, and your dad says to the soldiers that anyone is a guest at his table on this day (which the boy’s dad actually does in the movie). They sit down and eat, laughing amongst themselves.
As the soldiers prepare to conduct their raid, you take cover in a back bedroom while one sets up his rifle on your kitchen table. Having discovered your dad’s weapons stash, the soldiers learn that he is part of the rebel militia, and force him to help get them inside the hideout they’ve located. You can only hear the deafening cackle of gunfire as the fight begins. At one point, a rocket propelled-grenade obliterates your kitchen wall. After several minutes, the gunfire ceases, just as quickly as when it first erupted. You hear the faint roar of engines as the foreigners drive off into the night. When you finally and hesitantly creep outside, your stumble upon the last thing you wanted to see: your dad’s bullet-ridden body, strewn across the pavement, shot by the very people who just dined at your table.
Imagine enduring this scene as an ten-year-old.
Imagine that some alien country has spent your entire life ravaging the place you call home.
Imagine these invaders seeking solace in your own house, only to end up killing one of your parents.
This is the world that many Iraqi children are growing up in — not to mention those in Afghanistan, Pakistan & Yemen, and Somalia (and to a lesser extent, the 134 countries where the U.S. conducts military operations). Now let me be perfectly clear here: I am not sympathetic to brutal dictatorships, terrorism, or any other systems of power and oppression that give rise to the atrocious living conditions that were commonplace in Saddam Hussein’s regime and other violent states. And, undoubtedly, some of these children are actually taught to be sympathetic to
But even before they can be indoctrinated with such toxic worldviews, these children have experiences like the one above, where they come to associate America with sheer destruction and violence. Before they see the blessings of democracy, they see it wreak death upon their families and friends. They don’t take up arms because they hate what America stands and fights for, but simply because we stand and fight on their turf, destroying their homes and killing their people.
Is this the impression of America every child in Iraq grows up with? Not by any means. Do many have positive encounters with Americans? Absolutely. Is this a recommendation that our foreign policy become unwaveringly pacifist? Most definitely not — a truly empty threat of American military intervention will surely lead to more violence. But we must acknowledge the powerful emotional and psychological effects of our wars on local populations. We must acknowledge that we are killing people — people whose children will grow up with these traumatic experiences forever entrenched in their minds.
We must recognize that war is ugly, and it is ugly for everyone. It is ugly for the 10,125 Iraqi and the 4,807 coalition soldiers killed; for the 140,000+ innocent civilians killed; for the 22 veterans per day who commit suicide, the 20% of Iraq War veterans with PTSD or other mental illnesses, and for the victims of the violence this leads to back home. And it is ugly on a societal level, for the American economy and the Iraqi economy; for U.S. healthcare and for Iraqi healthcare.
Since 1980, the United States has “invaded or occupied or bombed” 14 countries: “Iran (1980, 1987-1988), Libya (1981, 1986, 1989, 2011), Lebanon (1983), Kuwait (1991), Iraq (1991-2011, 2014-), Somalia (1992-1993, 2007-), Bosnia (1995), Saudi Arabia (1991, 1996), Afghanistan (1998, 2001-), Sudan (1998), Kosovo (1999), Yemen (2000, 2002-), Pakistan (2004-) and now Syria.” These conflicts have cost both Americans and the people of these countries far
more than it has gained them. Yet, America continues to wage such wars, and naturally, the resentment grows.
Whether we can get off our high horses to admit that we rarely intervene just out of some moral obligation, to spread democracy, or to protect American lives — whether we can acknowledge that far more often, it is fear, lies, and ulterior motives that really propel us into conflict — is another question entirely.
Before we can get there, we must stop unabashedly worshipping American soldiers and making infallible the “American side” of wars in sensationalized movies like American Sniper. Only then will we start to see that we can’t build or develop countries while we are destroying them, and we can’t save or improve lives while we are taking them.