American Sniper, Clint Eastwood's love letter to decorated, real-life Iraq war sniper Chris Kyle, is dominating America's box offices. But does this movie, much of which portrays intense ground combat in Iraqi cities, have anything to say about the war itself?
The film's star, Bradley Cooper, insists the film is "not a political discussion about war." But viewers of American Sniper are given a highly political re-telling of the Iraq War — and one that so wildly misrepresents the truth of the war that it is practically tantamount to whitewashing history.
American Sniper falsely suggests we invaded Iraq over 9/11
From the get-go, Chris Kyle's military career is all about responding to terrorism. Kyle joins up after al-Qaeda bombs the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. We see him and his wife Taya's stunned reactions to 9/11.
And then, bam. Kyle's at war in Iraq. The film does not contain, as best I can tell, a single reference to George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, or weapons of mass destruction. There's no Dick Cheney, no Colin Powell at the UN, no anti-war protests. The film implies that the Iraq War was a deliberate response to 9/11.
In fact, the Bush administration premised its 2003 Iraq invasion primarily on the alleged threat of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. As National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice memorably put it, "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." The Bush administration repeatedly asserted that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was actively developing nuclear weapons and other programs it might use against the United States. Bush and some his top advisers had come into office, before 9/11 even occurred, believing that Saddam was a threat and discussing possible ways to remove him.
The war, in other words, was not actually about 9/11. And, crucially, the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were the basis of the war turned out not to exist.
It's not just that American Sniper weirdly excises all of this history; it's that the film replaces it with the implication that 9/11 gave America little choice but to invade Iraq, that the 2003 US invasion was something that happened to us, not something we chose to do. Chris Kyle repeatedly explains that he's fighting to protect his family, again suggesting that the invasion was a necessary preemptive defense against Iraqi terrorists, when no such threat actually existed.
This implication wasn't necessary for the film to work: watching Kyle and his wife react in horror to 9/11 didn't add anything to our understanding of his character. All the scene does is recast the Iraq war in a false, noble light.
American Sniper presents the war as a response to al-Qaeda. In fact, the opposite is true.
In the film's narrative, the Iraq war begins with Kyle's first mission against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Over the course of four tours, Kyle fights a number of vicious AQI operatives, including a Syrian sniper named Mustafa that serves as Kyle's foil, as well as another guy nicknamed The Butcher.
Viewers are left with the impression that the Iraq war was against al-Qaeda at the outset, and that the fighting was chiefly against them. You could be forgiven for thinking that America invaded Iraq because it had become a hotbed of al-Qaeda operations.
In fact, Iraq did become a hotbed of al-Qaeda operations, but it was not until after the invasion, and indeed the invasion and bungled American occupation were what allowed them such fertile ground.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq did not exist at the war's outset. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would later form the group, entered Iraq specifically because he hoped the US invasion would provide the chaos and anger he needed to succeed, and he was right. The group only established its large foothold after many Iraqis had turned against the American occupation, which alienated Iraqis with its mismanagement of the country, and with terrible mistakes such as disbanding the Iraqi army, which left many thousands of military-trained Iraqis unemployed and angry.
The real story of Iraq's insurgency is not just one of monstrous al-Qaeda, and it's not just of a fight between good and evil.
American Sniper can be forgiven for not wanting to explore the sordid history of al-Qaeda's rise. Less forgivable, though, is that it portrays the American invasion as a righteous blow against the evil of al-Qaeda, when in fact that invasion was one of the best things that ever happened to al-Qaeda. The film doesn't just skip this history, but actively distorts it.
Iraqis are portrayed as "savages" and mostly evil terrorists
The narrative sets up the war as a morality play: there are evil terrorists, and Chris Kyle needs to kill them. It's as simple as that.
In an early speech that basically defines the film's politics, Chris Kyle's father declares that there are three kind of people: sheep, the wolves that prey on them, and the sheep dogs that hold them at bay. "We're not raising any sheep in this family," Kyle's father tells his son, "and I'll whup your ass if you ever become a wolf."
That means Kyle is a sheepdog. Kyle and his buddies in uniform are good guys hunting terrorists. It's hardly a surprise, then, that all of the violence in Iraq is attributed to simple evil, and that Iraq's millions of citizens are often barely distinguishable from al-Qaeda.
Kyle repeatedly refers to Iraqis as "savages," and the film makes no effort to prove him wrong. Two out of three Iraqi children the film focuses on pick up weapons (though one puts it down before firing), and the third tortured by another Iraqi. When another soldier questions whether Kyle may have shot an innocent man, Kyle simply shouts him down. The issue never comes up again.
In fact, many thousands of Iraqis died fighting al-Qaeda, and the group's defeat never would have been possible without the 2005 Anbar Awakening, in which many Iraqi communities in al-Qaeda hotspots took up arms to uproot the group.
The film also skips over one of the ugliest but most important aspects of the war: the divisions between Iraq's Sunni and its Shias, both of whom fought the US as well as one another, in what ultimately became a civil war. The words Sunni and Shia are hardly mentioned in the film, if at all. The idea that Iraqis could be much else other than terrorists, or that an Iraqi might take up arms for any reason other than to kill Americans, doesn't really factor in American Sniper's narrative.
Again, it would be understandable for a mainstream Hollywood production to not want to delve into sectarian politics. But rather than merely skirting Iraq's sectarian conflict, the film instead replaces it with a narrative that the war was all about America versus al-Qaeda, which is simply false and misleading.
The dangerous implications of American Sniper's distortions
Once the film has established the invasion as a righteous response to 9/11, which it wasn't, and the war itself as a black-and-white battle against evil al-Qaeda terrorists, when the truth is far murkier, it then carries that narrative to its logical conclusion: opposing the Iraq War, or even insufficiently endorsing its glory, is tantamount to betrayal.
When Kyle's brother, also a soldier, says "fuck this place," Kyle channels the viewer's bafflement. When another soldier dies, and a grieving family member reads an anti-war letter at the funeral, Kyle tells his wife that "that letter" is what killed him. His wife absorbs this line quietly, seemingly accepting it as gospel.
Without exploring why the Iraqis are fighting — America's mistakes, the Sunni/Shia sectarian dynamics — the film gives us no resources for seeing beyond Kyle's "good versus evil" perspective. In American Sniper, the Iraq War is nothing but a just war against al-Qaeda, and the only real casualties are American soldiers.
Getting the Iraq War this wrong is a disservice to the Americans who fought in it
American Sniper is absolutely consumed by questions of good and evil. From the opening sheepdog monologue, right down to Kyle's final assessment of the war — that the only thing he regretted is he that he couldn't save more American soldiers — the question of the war's morality is placed front-and-center.
But the politics of the Iraq war defy the film's simple "wolves" versus "sheepdogs" moral framing. American troops were alternately invaders and protectors. They destroyed the Iraqi state and left murderous chaos in its wake, but also helped defeat the truly evil al-Qaeda in Iraq (at least, until its rebirth as ISIS). The core mission was beyond flawed, but after the unpardonable mistake of invading was already made, American soldiers had some just missions to accomplish.
In the real world, and in any even remotely honest portrayal, it is impossible to talk about ethics of fighting in Iraq without acknowledging both sides of this moral coin. But American Sniper has the morality of an especially simple superhero movie: our side good, their side bad. In order to sell us on that, it's forced to twist history into an unrecognizable pretzel.
What might be the worst part is that it's all so unnecessary. American Sniper could have told Kyle's story while still giving his comic book worldview an appropriate degree of critical distance. Such a movie would not have needed to distort the truth, and it wouldn't have needed to condescend to Americans and American troops by acting as if we could not possibly handle moral ambiguity about America's mission in Iraq. But it did, and that is a disservice not just to film's viewers, but to the millions of Americans who were affected by the war and deserve to have that story told honestly.