American Sniper and the Fetishization of Patriotism – Huffington Post
Warning: the following article contains minor spoilers for American Sniper.
Director Clint Eastwood’s most recent film American Sniper, a biography of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in the history of the United States military, has raised controversy in the midst of the campaign to the Academy Awards. Some have gone so far as to call the film propaganda, which, though a bit extreme, is not entirely misguided.
American Sniper joins the growing list of films that some might describe as “war porn.” Films like Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty, and Blackhawk Down that serve only to turn war into a video game where nameless, faceless bad guys die by the dozens while Americans seem incapable of doing wrong.
In contrast, films like Saving Private Ryan and The Hurt Locker are revered for their accurate depictions of war; they do not glorify combat or the horror and violence that accompany it, and they do not whitewash the terrible acts often committed by both sides. Instead, they serve to document the countless hardships soldiers experience in combat, and how these hardships change them over time, often resulting in severe, lasting physical and psychological damage.
To its credit, American Sniper does have several powerful moments where Kyle is faced with women and children turned into weapons, and must make the decision to shoot them and take the life of someone who may be innocent, or hold off and risk the lives of his fellow soldiers. The repercussions could be haunting whether he takes the shot or not. But these scenes were few and far between, as much of the rest of the film that depicted his service in Iraq was filled with the same Call-of-Duty-like nonsense that most war movies seem prone to nowadays — endless firefights that dehumanize enemy combatants into bloodthirsty savages so the audience doesn’t have to feel bad when they die.
These kinds of films overwhelmingly contribute to the commodification and the fetishization of patriotism that often force people to choose not to voice criticisms for fear of being called unpatriotic. Films like American Sniper or Lone Survivor depict Americans defending America and if you don’t like it, well you must not like America. Patriotism is now as much a product that can be mass produced and sold as much as it is a true expression of love for country. Movie studios take advantage of our patriotic tendencies that have become a cash cow they can dip in to again and again no matter how bad the movies are because the movies are free from criticism. Making films that fit this model is horribly damaging on several levels, not just because they’re simply bad movies, but the pseudo-patriotism they produce poisons our political discourse and dishonors veterans whose combat experience was defined just as much by the bad as it was by the good.
Patriotism is not defined solely by ones willingness to give their life for their country — that’s just a more extreme brand of nationalism. It goes far beyond what Lincoln referred to as “the last full measure of devotion.” Patriots are those who embody the spirit of our nation’s core values — justice, liberty, opportunity — and whose actions consistently reflect a commitment to those values. There are many who would give their lives for the United States who do not deserve to be called patriots. Sexual assault, for example, is a widespread epidemic the United States military is working painfully slow in counteracting. It is all too common for the crimes of service members guilty of sexual assault to be swept under the rug. To call them patriots does an extreme disservice to the real patriots, the majority of service members who join the military with a righteous heart and a determined sense of duty.
Chris Kyle was the most decorated sniper in the history of the United States military, and for that he deserves recognition. But to ignore his mistakes and choose to only show his triumphs is to ignore how his experience in combat changed him, as war has the tendency to do. American Sniper dishonors Chris Kyle’s legacy by glossing over his pitfalls and struggles, allegedly with PTSD, that later motivated him to work closely with veterans trying to overcome their own obstacles.
Far too many bright young men and women have been sent off to war only to return as shadows of their former selves. Our fascination with war as a subject of film and transformation into consumers of this pseudo-patriotism that seems to grip most war films made in the last few years only serves to trivialize the experiences of veterans whose memories of their time in combat don’t go away when the credits start to roll.