American Sniper and the Fetishization of Patriotism

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘American Sniper’ success could taint jury pool in trial of Chris Kyle’s alleged killer, says attorney.

Filmmakers Michael Moore and Seth Rogen’s negative comments regarding the movie American Sniper — a contender for Best Picture at the Oscars next month — have evoked a rather colorful response from self-proclaimed “American Bad Ass” Kid Rock.On Feb. 2, 2013, former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was killed at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas while attempting to help fellow veteran Eddie Ray Routh.The box office success of “American Sniper” could hurt the jury box when it comes to the real life murder trial of the man accused of killing Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle, who is portrayed by Bradley Cooper in the critically acclaimed film.In “American Sniper,” the wildly successful yet controversial film that tells the story of Chris Kyle, said to be the most lethal sniper in US military history, the titular marksman has a clear foe: A mysterious insurgent dubbed “Mustafa,” believed to be a former Syrian Olympian.

The musician took particular umbrage with the Bowling for Columbine director’s statement that Moore’s uncle was killed by a sniper in World War II and that he was raised to believe snipers were cowards. “Fuck you Michael Moore, you’re a piece of shit and your uncle would be ashamed of you,” Kid Rock wrote on his website. “Seth Rogen, your uncle probably molested you. The Clint Eastwood-directed film that earned six Oscar nominations and is selling out in theaters around the country has brought in more than $110 million in four weeks.

Those were the days when Ronald Reagan was living in the White House, the Russians were running scared and Clint Eastwood looked cool on the big screen with a .44 Magnum in his hand. While the film portrays Mustafa as a mighty rival to Kyle, in the autobiographical book upon which the film is based, Mustafa earns just one paragraph.”From the reports we heard, Mustafa was an Olympics marksman who was using his skills against Americans and Iraqi police and soldiers,” Kyle wrote. “Several videos had been made and posted, boasting of his ability. I hope both of you catch a fist to the face soon.” He also paid his respects to the deceased Navy SEAL whose story was the basis of the movie. “God bless you Chris Kyle,” he wrote. “Thank you for your service.” On the movie’s opening weekend, Moore tweeted his comments and added, “Snipers aren’t heroes, and invaders are worse.” He later claimed that his tweet wasn’t about American Sniper in particular and posted a lengthy Facebook missive to clarify his thoughts. Some of that ambivalence—are snipers heroes or coldblooded killers?—may stem from the word itself, which has often carried negative connotations over its history.

But the US rightwing has taken a gloomy turn in the years since then, and there is no better example of this darker sensibility than the latest film from Mr Eastwood himself —, a tale of the Iraq war that has stunned Hollywood and stirred US conservatives by emerging as the surprise box office hit of the new year. I never saw him, but other snipers later killed an Iraqi sniper we think was him.” Propaganda videos made by the Iraqi insurgency can still be found showing footage of US soldiers being killed by an Iraqi sniper known as ‘Juba’. Controversy over Kyle’s credibility casts doubts on the film, however—claims that he engaged in a bar fight with former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, sniped looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and killed two carjackers all remain unsubstantiated. (The first was the subject of a $1.845 million defamation lawsuit Ventura brought and won against Kyle.) This, coupled with a New Yorker piece exploring Kyle’s tendency for embellishment, may make audiences ask: Does Eastwood’s American Sniper stick to the narrative as presented by Chris Kyle or to the known facts—or does it blend the two?

But he knows his audience as surely as he did when Reagan was stealing his classic line from the Dirty Harry series of no-holds-barred police films: “Go ahead, make my day.” And, based on what is happening at the box office, red-state America wants pretty grim stuff these days. Probably the most famous was that of “Juba,” a sniper with the Sunni insurgent group Islamic Army in Iraq, whose exploits were touted in several videos released between 2005 and 2007. I’ve had them in the past, and anything that has significant national attention makes it hard to pick a jury.” Routh’s trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 11, two years and nine days after Routh allegedly killed Kyle at a Texas firing range where the U.S. military hero was trying to help Routh cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by taking target practice. Some attributed scores, even hundreds, of kills to the sniper, and accounts from the time suggest that he got deep under US troops’ skins. “He’s good,” Specialist Travis Burress, a sniper based in Camp Rustamiyah near Baghdad, told the Guardian in 2005. “Every time we dismount, I’m sure everyone has got him in the back of their minds. That elusive nature gave rise to an old practical joke, the “snipe hunt.” In one version of the prank, a gullible newbie ends up holding a bag, expecting others to drive in the snipe, which never comes.

Despite those compliments, he criticized the way the movie’s characters call Iraqis “savages” and alleges that Clint confused Iraq for Vietnam with his movie. Eastwood de-emphasizes training and non-Iraq sequences to grant breathing room to a handful of military operations, building a film around Kyle’s tense decisions to pull the trigger or grant mercy. In the 18th century, hunters with an accurate shot pursued “snipe-shooting.” Shortened to “sniping,” it took on a military meaning among British soldiers in colonial India. In that video, the sniper claimed to have killed 143 US service members. “He definitely knows what to do with a rifle,” Major John Plaster, a retired Green Beret sniper instructor, told ABC upon seeing the tape. “And he has the judgment and discipline to take a shot, wisely choose an escape route, and immediately depart to avoid capture.

Rogen sparked Kid Rock’s ire by comparing the movie to the fictional Nazi propaganda film, Nation’s Pride, screened within Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. In 1773, newspapers in England carried a “Letter From Bombay” about the previous year’s siege of Broach (now known as Bharuch) on India’s west coast. The letter-writer described how native combatants were skilled with a long musket that would allow “a man to hit an orange at the distance of 150 yards four times out of six.” The letter also told how soldiers, when erecting a battery, would draw fire from these sharpshooters by putting a ribboned hat on the end of a staff. “The soldiery,” the correspondent said, “humorously call it sniping.” On the home front, “sniping” entered the political world. He was awarded two Silver Star Medals, five Bronze Star Medals, one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals.

Finnish sniper Simo Hayha became a national hero after he killed more than 500 Soviet soldiers during the 1939-1940 Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union. In a 1782 letter, alluding to potshots by opponents in Parliament, George Selwyn wrote of how “the individual will be popped at or sniped, as they call it.” Back in India, harassing shooters came to be known as “snipers.” An 1807 report by Major Jasper Nicolls, which was used in a court-martial trial, told of clearing out an area of soldiers, “though much annoyed at times by snipers.” For another century, press accounts of “snipers” in India and elsewhere invariably described such “annoyances” from enemy lines. Iraqi insurgents dubbed him the “Devil of Ramadi,” but the soldiers he protected by taking out would-be bombers and enemy counterparts simply called him “Legend.” A Texan raised to hunt in the wild and stand up to bullies on the playground, Chris Kyle gives up the rodeo for the Navy Seals and dedicates himself to the war on terror. A December 1917 article in the Los Angeles Times detailed how soldiers preparing for trench warfare against German forces were trained at a “school for snipers” at Camp Kearny, an Army base near San Diego. “The main job of a sniper is to see a Hun and kill him, to keep his eyes open and to hit trench periscopes,” the article explained.

Special equipment was developed for military snipers in the world wars, such as the “sniperscope,” a telescope with cross hairs that could be mounted on a sniper’s long-range rifle for more accurate targeting. But even with the “sniper” becoming professionalized, the label has often been viewed negatively, due in part to notorious shooting attacks by criminal snipers. While Chris Kyle participated in “saddle bronco bustin’” from high school into college, his rodeo career ended when a bronco flipped and left him with pins in his wrists, broken ribs, and other injuries.

There was Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper,” who killed 16 people at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966, and more recently the “Beltway Snipers,” two men who went on a shooting spree around the Washington, D.C., area in 2002. Neither his brother nor an unfaithful girlfriend are mentioned in the book, but he did become a ranch hand to pay the bills after partying with rodeo groupies drained his income. Many videos claiming to show “Juba” in action still float around the internet, purportedly showing the mysterious sniper picking off American personnel. During this time, he approached the recruitment office to enlist—not, as the movie suggests, because he witnessed American lives lost on the news, but because he had always intended to join the military following school. He avoids the historical revisionism that has marked so many conservative reconsiderations of the Vietnam war, sidestepping the suggestion that things could have turned out better in Iraq if our political leaders back home had more guts, or our military had been given more leeway to do its thing.

In the movie, this waffling is glossed over to make his enlistment seem like a streamlined response to injustice—Kyle goes straight from busting broncos to SEAL training. In memoir and movie, Chris Kyle and Taya (Sienna Miller) begin their relationship not long after his SEAL training, and Eastwood’s film is painstakingly accurate to their real-life meet-cute—drunken vomiting and dodged calls included. Mr Eastwood largely dispenses with the sentimental conventions of Hollywood war movies: No member of Iraq’s female population notices the leading man’s blue eyes and neither children nor dogs seem to like him very much, either.

The viewer feels trapped in the cinematic equivalent of a violent video game (complete with an Iraqi called The Butcher, who takes a power drill to a child’s head). Mr Eastwood forces us to see it all from Kyle’s perspective, using the images in the sniper’s sight as his own and thereby identifying his view with his hero’s.

And yet, while in the film Kyle decides after killing Mustafa that he is too depressed to continue fighting, according to his memoir he told Taya he wouldn’t reenlist because their marriage was nearing divorce. This is not in Kyle’s memoir, for obvious reasons, but screenwriter Jason Hall writes in an addendum to the new edition of the book that Taya told him she had this conversation with Kyle a month before his death.

Film and memoir begin with near-identical opening sequences: Kyle sees a woman and a few children on the otherwise-empty street of an Iraqi town through his sniper scope. After all the Iraqis killed by Americans and all the Americans killed by Iraqis in American Sniper, all the buckets of blood spilled in all his cinematic shoot-’em-ups through the years, Mr Eastwood ends his Iraq movie by averting his eyes.

However, according to the memoir, Kyle shot only a woman that day, not a child, and he felt no guilt about it: “It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it.” It was his first kill with a sniper rifle, though he had not yet completed his sniper training. However, when Kyle inspects the house more carefully, he finds WMDs hidden beneath the floorboards, and outs the family as pro-insurgency, beginning a firefight.

Kyle believes this lack of faith in the war caused his death; Taya disagrees and they debate that point, focusing on a letter Lee wrote his mother, at the memorial service. In truth, these three milestones—defeating his sniper adversary, avenging Biggles, and achieving his longest successful shot—did not align in one moment. No $180,000 bounty was placed on his head or posters circulated bearing illustrations of his tattoos, as in the film—instead, $20,000 to $80,000 was the reward for killing any American sniper.

This horrible anecdote is absent from Kyle’s memoir, and “The Butcher” is not mentioned at all, though some suggest his origins lie in real-life Shia warlord Abu Deraa. “The Butcher” and Mustafa’s roles seem exaggerated primarily to heighten Chris Kyle’s sense of purpose in combat: Every kill becomes justified when the murdered possess supernatural evil.

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