A Reflection on American Sniper and the Threat Posed to Democracy Worldwide
Critically acclaimed blockbuster American Sniper (2014) opens with a scene in which protagonist Chris Kyle, perched on a rooftop, gets the green light to snipe an Iraqi woman and child who are supposedly targeting a military convey with grenades. Kyle expresses ambivalence at this order—he is an American ‘good guy’ after all, capable of assessing the ethics of any situation with his finely honed moral compass. When American Sniper made its debut in theaters, the US military had been occupying Iraq for close to eleven years. Public approval for the war had turned in 2007, by which point 73 percent of surveyed individuals were critical of the United States’ handling of the invasion and subsequent occupation.1
In 2014 I was seventeen, and I was urged by some friends of mine to go see the film. Bradley Cooper, Hollywood’s beloved rough-around-the-edges leading man who plays the protagonist in American Sniper, was fresh in the minds of my peers as the comedic star of The Hangover trilogy. As a Muslim-American, I was horrified at American Sniper’s depiction of Iraqis, which only reinforced extremely dangerous Islamophobic stereotypes. To this day, American Sniper is the only movie I’ve walked out of. At the age of seventeen, I did not have the awareness of politics nor the comprehension of collective memory needed to articulate exactly why I despised this film. Now, perhaps five years too late, I will attempt to do so.
American Sniper not only espouses a tired “good vs. evil” narrative, but in altering, omitting, and fabricating aspects of the Iraq War, it perpetuates a chronology in which the nuances and complexities of the war are rendered null and void. Not only does the film grant that the United States was entirely legitimate in invading Iraq—a nation, according to the film, teeming with a supernatural evil—but its direct role in the emergence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Iraq as a consequence of its botched occupation is entirely absent. For the Americans simultaneously internalizing the messages of the film and contending with the global threat of ISIS in 2014, “terrorist” and “Iraqi” become one and the same, and while the fundamental question of why ISIS arose is collectively forgotten, the idea of an armed response to ISIS, and thus a repetition of the events of the Iraq invasion, gains traction.
Perhaps the most important moment in American Sniper is one that occurs during an extended flashback following the opening scene, in which a young Chris Kyle learns of the three types of people from his father: sheep, who in their naivety are unaware of the presence of evil; wolves, who perpetuate evil; and sheepdogs, the guardians of the sheep and the primary defense against the wolves. This is the framework that the rest of the movie follows. Chris Kyle is a sheepdog, protecting American innocents from terrorists. The American public are sheep; their criticisms and supposed misunderstandings of the Iraq war stem from their naivety. The terrorists are wolves, committed to doing evil. Who is left out of this categorical interpretation of the major players in the war? The Iraqi civilians, who for the better part of the film are depicted as aiding insurgents, harboring weapons, and existing in no other capacity than that within the terrorist/American duality. Unlike other depictions of American invasions of the Middle East, the local population isn’t even characterized as helpless, dependent innocents desperately awaiting liberation. American Sniper shows entire family units engaging in acts of terror—the man, woman, and child from the opening scene? When the film returns to them, Chris Kyle watches as the woman hands what is obviously a grenade to the young boy, and then kills the grenade-wielding child and the distraught woman. All plausible deniability is eliminated. The echoes of the hypothetical a soldier proposes, that the aforementioned Iraqi man was simply talking to his girlfriend, is shown to be demonstrably false. Chris Kyle, true to his infallible American form, is shown to be regretful of these kills when in reality he isn’t.2 In fact, the real Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL on whom the film is based, would describe Iraqis unilaterally as “savages,” and was quoted saying “I don’t shoot everybody holding a Quran, but I’d like to.”3 This regret is simply a Hollywood fabrication to cement the ethical justification for these kills, and to prove that Kyle is undeniably one of the “good guys.”
In another scene, Chris Kyle and his troop break into a home in which a family resides. The patriarch claims to have no knowledge of terrorist activity but invites the troop to dine with him and his family. Even this orientalist representation of Arab hospitality is simply a guise for showcasing the Iraqi peoples’ intentions; Chris Kyle finds munitions in the family’s basement, and a shootout ensues in which the Iraqi man is killed. The film’s examples of the Iraqis’ deceiving nature show that Iraqi civilians are not sheep. At worst, they are wolves. At best, they are nameless casualties of what the film construes as an inevitable war.
This deceptive characterization of the Iraqi people leads me to how American Sniper dangerously oversimplifies and fabricates aspects of the Iraq War. In the expository sequence establishing Chris Kyle’s background, the audience sees Kyle, at that point in the movie a rodeo cowboy, watching the Al-Qaeda bombings of US embassies and the planes colliding with the World Trade Center on 9/11. These events have an observable effect on Kyle’s character, and in the next scene he goes to a US Navy recruiter and enlists. The premise for the war established in the film is that it was a direct response to the global threat of terrorism, when in fact it was due to George W. Bush’s vendetta against Saddam Hussein and his claim that Iraq harbored “weapons of mass destruction.” Regardless of whether President Bush knew his intelligence was falsified at the onset of the invasion, by the time American Sniper was being filmed, this justification for the Iraq War had been proven to have no basis in reality, as the few weapons that were found by American forces were so decrepit—relics of the 1991 Gulf War—that they couldn’t be used as designed.4 Yet the film makes no mention of Saddam, President Bush, nor these supposed weapons of mass destruction. Thus it echoes the tactic used by the Bush administration, which conflated terrorism and the so-called “Axis of Evil,” over which Saddam Hussein supposedly presided, creating popular demand for not only an unjust but entirely illegal invasion of a sovereign nation.
The fabricated antagonists of American Sniper bear some analysis. Not only did the writers and producers for the film realize that the reality of the story, as was, did not offer a compelling enough villain simply because in the Iraq War, there was no monolithic evil, so the film constructed a villain predicated on popular conceptions of “insurgents”: individuals showing a callous disregard for human life, an inhumane disposition towards violence, and an ambiguously Arab looking face. There is “The Butcher,” whose name is vaguely reminiscent of a 1960s mafia movie, and Mustafa, a bizarro Chris Kyle: equally skilled with a rifle but using his abilities for the purposes of evil.
The reality of Fallujah was quite different than the movie would have its most likely ill-informed audience believe. Fallujah’s actual residents are characterized by Ross Caputi and Donna Mulhearn as “religiously conservative, tribal and traditional”; their resistance against British imperialist invaders in the 1920s cemented a reputation of their bravery, rebelliousness, and patriotism.5 Ironically, Al-Qaeda did not exist in Fallujah, or Iraq, before the onset of the invasion. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a key member of Al-Qaeda, reportedly entered Iraq specifically because he hoped that the US-led invasion would create the exact climate of chaos and resentment his terrorist organization would need to flourish.6 The siege of Fallujah, the backdrop for American Sniper, began on March 31, 2004, when four US Blackwater contractors were killed in the city and their corpses were defaced and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates.7 In response, in April of that year, US forces surrounded Fallujah and lay siege to the entire city, an operation codenamed Vigilant Resolve, perhaps too on-the-nose in retrospect. The operation was a complete and utter failure, and due to Al Jazeera’s detailed reporting of the siege, American atrocities were broadcasted to the world. Sensing opportunity, Al-Qaeda forces joined Fallujah’s resistance, so that by that summer, a relatively domicile and isolated population attempting to resist the occupation of their homes had been transformed into a fully militant insurgency.
Following their defeat, in November of that year, American forces launched their second siege of Fallujah, code-named Operation Phantom Fury, in which large parts of Fallujah were leveled, thousands of civilians killed and even more displaced. The response from the American public was abysmal: “Despite the unfolding realities on the ground, Western audiences, encouraged by a compliant and uncritical mainstream media, cheered what they believed to be a victory against al-Qaeda—the arch enemy of the United States.”8 This devastation is what the American public celebrated in both 2004 and 2014, when the narrative was repackaged as American Sniper.
American Sniper fails to explore an aspect of counterinsurgency instrumental to the US military: informational operations. Perhaps this is because the film, inadvertently or otherwise, functions as an informational operation; it, like forms of informational warfare employed by the US military, perpetuates a meticulously crafted narrative that extends “warfare well beyond the boundaries of the traditional battlefield to the ‘hearts and minds’ of civilians living . . . on the home front.”9 Informational operations became critical in this new, post-Cold War era of warfare that the Iraq War exemplifies. Leading up to the second siege of Fallujah, the US military articulated a story that Ross Caputi argues “achieved far more than simply legitimising the operation to domestic audiences. Propaganda was also integral to the violence itself, shaping, facilitating, and motivating it.”10 The implications of this statement are straightforward. The official story of Fallujah was “largely false and devoid of reference to Iraqi suffering,” and thus it left a void in our collective rendering of the situation; we weren’t explicitly told how to perceive Iraqi civilians, but we were repeatedly warned of dangerous terrorists, and the capacity for ordinary Iraqis to seemingly radicalize overnight. So naturally in the American collective consciousness, “Iraqi” and “terrorist” became synonymous monikers, and if we take into account Carl Becker’s proposition that history is predicated on our remembrance of events of the past, the official history of the Iraq War also conflates the Iraqi and the terrorist, which American Sniper only reinforces. 11
So why is American Sniper’s gross oversimplification and intentional misconstruing of the Iraq War so dangerous? If we look at the recent history of Fallujah—not the official history disseminated by the US government, but the history written by reparations advocate Ross Caputi, we see that the sectarian government installed by US forces contributed to the persecution of Sunnis. Predictably then, sectarian conflict, resultant of a sectarian government, ensued in 2014, in which various militant forces vied for supremacy. 12 Out of this chaos, ISIS emerged as a global threat, so that the withdrawal of US troops was reversed and several thousand troops were redeployed to Iraq to contend with this new extremist militia.
Yet American Sniper, by conflating the War on Terror with the Iraq War, and by depicting all Iraqis as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers, has encouraged a collective imagination of Iraq as a hotbed for extremism and Islamic terrorism first, a failing nation-state of religiously conservative savages—as the real Chris Kyle would call them—second. The plight of the Iraqi people, and the suffering they have endured for the past four decades, remains absent in this dominant narrative. What this means is that a sizeable portion of the American public believes that Iraq’s nature is static, unchangeable, and thus the presence of extremists can only be eradicated through violence. Thus, even now, there is potential for a renewed popular approval of American interventionism, even though it’s been clearly proven to have detrimental impacts on regional peace, not to mention the millions of lives that are needlessly lost through American violence. This potential has been aptly substantiated in the political support for intervention in Venezuela.
When I was younger, I used to fervently hate terrorists, not only because their global presence tarnished the name of Muslims worldwide, but also because they demonstrated a cruel and callous disregard for the sanctity of human life. Though I still believe terrorists to be despicable, I do not excise the mental energy to hate them anymore. The insurgents of Iraq have seen time and time again the little value the United States places on the lives of their family and community members. Now I realize that extremists’ capacity for violence and disregard for human life is not intrinsic, as popular media would like you to believe, but in part learned from their exposure to American violence and detachment from carnage. The very definition of ‘terrorist’ is steeped in political bias; one has to only watch news footage surrounding mass shootings with white perpetrators to witness the blatant hypocrisy. Why is it that our media unequivocally denounces violence enacted by the “other,” but refuses to acknowledge the brutality and inhumanity of state-sanctioned or white supremacist bloodshed?
It’s sad to me that even while the insurmountable destruction of Iraq continues, we move further and further from the possibility of reparative justice with narratives that entirely omit the very reason for reparations. Iraq, initially the artificial state of the British, which through the twentieth century forged its own unique national identity and sense of patriotism has been subject to four decades of war and devastation. First, in the 1980s, by the will of Saddam, Iraqis marched into a needless decade-long war with Iran that resulted in the deaths of half a million people.13 Immediately afterwards, with scarcely any time to assess the extent of the destruction or to grieve for the dead, they were forced to battle with a coalition of the world’s most powerful and technologically advanced militaries in the Gulf War, from 1990 to 1991, which left thousands of civilians and tens of thousands of soldiers dead. They were then subject to immensely restrictive sanctions for thirteen years by the hand of the UN—that champion of human rights—which caused one million Iraqis and half a million children to die of starvation and malnutrition, deaths that former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright claimed were “worth it” years before she was awarded the Presidential medal for Freedom.14 And finally, beginning in 2003, they were caught in the middle of the illegal war of George W Bush, which in many forms is still ongoing, and has caused an estimated two-hundred thousand civilian deaths.15
We, the American public, cannot afford to act as sheep anymore, internalizing the narratives perpetuated by the government and the media. We have to reflect on that fact that it is our government, elected to represent our collective will, that has perpetuated atrocities not only in Iraq, but in the greater Middle East, in South and Central America, and throughout the Pacific. Though these narratives are comforting in that they absolve us of all blame, entitle us to more at the expense of others, and justify our actions with no guiding ethical principle, they have caused us to not only be complicit in American violence, but culpable as we enjoy the fruits of American imperialism. We still, as of now, live in a democracy. We still possess the political agency to be able to effect a vision of a peaceable and just American future. We need to collectively articulate that vision, and remain unswayed by the problematic narratives dominant in our discourse.
- “World View of U.S. Role Goes from Bad to Worse,” BBC World Service, January 23 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/23_01_07_us_poll.pdf.
- Giovanni Fazio, “American Sniper: A Refusal to Deal with the Complexity of War,” The Japan Times, February 11, 2015, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/culture/2015/02/11/films/film-reviews/american-sniper-refusal-deal-complexity-war/.
- Kyle in Fazio, “American Sniper: A Refusal to Deal with the Complexity of War,” The Japan Times.
- Jennifer Hoar, “Weapons Found In Iraq Old, Unusable,” CBS News, June 23 2006, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/weapons-found-in-iraq-old-unusable/.
- Ross Caputi and Donna Mulhearn, The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2019).
- M. J. Kirdar, “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” Homeland Security & Counterterrorism Program Transnational Threats Project, Washington DC: Center for Strategic & International Studies, June 2011, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/110614_Kirdar_AlQaedaIraq_Web.pdf .
- Caputi and Mulhearn, The Sacking of Fallujah
- Caputi and Mulhearn, The Sacking of Fallujah
- Caputi and Mulhearn, The Sacking of Fallujah.
- Caputi and Mulhearn, The Sacking of Fallujah.
- Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 37, No. 2 (January 1932): 222.
- Caputi and Mulhearn, The Sacking of Fallujah.
- Ian Black, “Iran and Iraq Remember War That Cost More Than a Million Lives,” The Guardian, September 23 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/sep/23/iran-iraq-war-anniversary.
- Rahul Mahajan, “We Think the Price is Worth it” Extra! Newsletter, November 1 2001.
- “Body Count Database,” Iraq Body Count Project, www.iraqbodycount.org/database, accessed May 1, 2019.