A Sheepdog without a Flock

A country unfamiliar with war just made a film about the deadliest sniper in U.S. history a record breaker.

Pulling in over $100 million its opening week, American Sniper looks poised to become a cultural phenomenon in a nation weary of foreign interventions and where military experience is few and far between. It hasn’t only been a success among average Americans. It’s earned six Oscar nominations, with spots for Best Picture and Best Director.

This created an uproar in light of the Martin Luther King biopic Selma not receiving enough nominations to placate racism accusations against Hollywood. Because we all know the film industry is a hotbed of White supremacy. This fact led many to condemn Sniper as a production that celebrates murder, and that it was, in the opinion of a White Daily Beast writer, “bland, macho, and…white.” In addition, the film has earned scorn from a few Hollywood figures who’ve described it as celebrating a “coward” and that it resembles the fictional Nazi propaganda film shown in Inglorious Basterds.

However, the tastes of Middle America differ from that of effeminate men employed at left-wing outlets and far more Americans have flocked to see the “macho White” movie over the latest iteration of civil rights porn. Though the critics are right about American Sniper. It is a film about a man who kills people and enjoys his grim task. It is bursting with machismo and the values of conservative White America. There’s no major characters who are White, and the only non-Whites in the movie are the bad guys and a few token minority SEALs. Like most of the work of director Clint Eastwood, this is a film with a heavy dose of heartland appeal that makes many dwellers in urban centers hold their nose.

However, this is not Dinesh D’Souza’s Imagine America without Navy SEALS, and it’s not a jingoistic work. The story of Chris Kyle is truly what lead actor and producer Bradley Cooper says it is—a character study. That character, though, happens to be a conservative White warrior, which naturally results in a film with a patriotic bent. But there’s something more here when vital questions like “What am I fighting for?” and “Why are we here?” never pop up in the movie. The larger context of the Iraq War is never hinted at and there’s hardly any depiction of the greater America Kyle came back to.

In many ways, Sniper is the American war film for the post-patriotic era. While the film fits in with the larger trend of patriotic films released recently—such as Lone Survivor and Unbroken--it differentiates itself through the total focus on the main character and barely touches on patriotic themes. It’s less hokey than those two films as well. It is worth nothing tough that Kyle, the man outside “The Legend”, made up stories about himself in his civilian life. It’s pretty clear he did not gun down two men trying to rob him at a gas station. He probably didn’t snipe looters in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is also legally a fact that Kyle didn’t sucker punch Jesse Ventura because of an insult directed at the military. But these events are never brought up in the movie.

Instead, we get a story (with some dramatic license, of course) of his war exploits and the legend he represents.

The Story

The film features a relatively straightforward plot that oscillates between Kyle’s experiences in Iraq and his struggles with adjusting to life back in the states. Kyle served four tours before hanging up his rifle in 2009.

American Sniper begins at the scene featured in the film’s trailer. Kyle has a young boy holding what appears to be a grenade in his crosshairs. His superiors tell him it’s his call whether to pull the trigger. His lookout tells him they’ll “fry him” if he’s wrong and the kid is not a threat. What does Kyle do? The audience has to wait until later on to find out as we are quickly transported to his rural upbringing in Texas. As a child, he demonstrates superior marksmanship and a warrior spirit early on.

A quintessential scene is a lecture a young Kyle receives from his father about the three types of people in the world. According to his dad, the three types are: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheep are those who live in comfort and are unable to protect themselves from the dangers of the world. The wolves are those who prey on the sheep. Then, there are the sheepdogs who exist to confront the wolves to protect the sheep. Sheepdogs are decent folk who have the capacity for violence that wolves have, but channel their violence for good.

This scene interpolates Kyle’s younger brother getting pummeled by a large bully on the playground before the young Chris attacks the bully and dominates him. The father concludes his speech by slamming his belt on the table, declaring: “I don’t raise wolves.” Kyle explains he was only defending his weaker brother from a stronger aggressor. This prompts the question of whether he finished the job of making sure the bully got the message. “I finished the job.”

Flash forward several years, and now Kyle and his little brother work as bull riders. He comes home one night to find his live-in girlfriend with another man. To demonstrate that he’s an alpha male, Kyle manhandles the homewrecker and calmly tells his girlfriend to leave—without deigning to listen to her whining for attention. He then settles down to a beer and TV, when he is caught by news footage of the 1998 embassy bombings. Taken aback, he exclaims, “Look what they did to us!’

This begins his path to the Navy SEALs and his completion of the grueling training program. After finishing training, he meets his future wife in a bar, starting with a conversation about his chosen profession. She’s skeptical of SEALs as she considers them as self-centered douchebags. Kyle, dumbfounded, asks how he is selfish if he is willing to lay down his life for “our country and our freedom.” He wins her over with his Texan charm and they soon move in together.

But a TV report once again changes his life as Kyle and his not-yet wife watch 9/11 unfold before their eyes. He knows he’s going to war and he gets the call during his wedding.

Once in Iraq, we’re brought to the opening scene of the film where America’s soon-to-be-deadliest sniper has to choose whether to shoot the child with the grenade. He pulls the trigger as the boy began running to a Marine convoy. His mother rushes up to grab the grenade and attempts to complete her son’s task. She becomes Kyle’s second kill. And thus, the beginning of “The Legend.”

Kyle’s storyline in Iraq mostly involves his pursuit of an Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader dubbed “The Butcher” and an ongoing struggle with his Islamist sniper counterpart, Mustafa. The Butcher is not a complex character and is intended to remind the audience of the brutality committed by America’s enemies in Iraq. From torturing children to murdering religious leaders, the Butcher presents a picture of the evil enemy typical for patriotic war films. He’s even dressed like a film villain with his all-black dress and sinister scowl.

Mustafa, on the other hand, is a more interesting character. An Olympic rifle champion, the Syrian-born sniper has an implied depth to his actions that his brutal comrade, the Butcher, does not possess. He’s a skilled killer and a legend has grown around his exploits, similar to Kyle’s. Mustafa makes the equal foe for the SEAL sniper and grows into his primary obsession in continuing to venture into dangerous terrain. But we never get a more probing treatment of the counterpart outside of his matches with his American foe

In spite of this film centering around the exploits of a sniper with nearly 200 confirmed kills, the protagonist seems completely unfazed by the execution of his targets. American Sniper only features two scenes where he displays any doubt in pulling the trigger, and both of them involve young children. The men he kills have no effect on him. It’s possibly true that what Kyle did enjoy killing and had no sympathy for the Iraqis. While the movie doesn’t show him taking any satisfaction in killing, outside of the pleasure of knowing he’s doing a good job of protecting fellow soldiers, the film does show a contempt for the Iraqis themselves. There are no good Iraqis shown in the film, except for the translator—who’s only shown when they need to interrogate a shady Arab.

But Kyle, who likely had some form of post-traumatic stress disorder, is deeply affected by the war and develops inner demons. Those stirrings of guilt aren’t caused by the killing of “bad guys,” it’s fueled by the comrades that fell before his eyes. His time at home, mostly detailing tense interactions with his family and his struggle to adjust to domesticity, is overshadowed by the men he feels he let down. The fallen comrades are what drives his hunt for Mustafa and to continue signing up for tours. This war experience alienates him from home life and there’s a brief scene where he decries the American public’s apathy towards the war. He laments that no one cares that men are dying over there and Americans are too concerned with their own petty interests. But that’s a brief diversion, and we never return to a deeper exploration of the disconnect between Kyle’s experience and that of the rest of America. Regardless, the legendary sniper is depicted as humble about his actions overseas and this plays out in a scene where a fellow veteran approaches him at an auto shop to thank him for saving his life. Kyle appears uncomfortable with the hero tag and is initially reluctant to act as a guide to vets struggling with life outside of war.

Eventually, Kyle realizes he’s finished with active duty and returns stateside. A PTSD episode at an all-American barbecue forces him to check in with the VA. While receiving help himself, he finds a purpose in mentoring his fellow veterans—feeling he gets to remain a hero even in civilian life. The film ends with an idyllic scene of family life in the Kyle household before he embarks on the fateful shooting trip with a PTSD-stricken veteran who takes his life. The end credits show Kyle’s real-life funeral procession where an entire interstate was shut down to allow it to pass through, with thousands of Texans coming out to wave flags and show off their patriotism. His funeral was held at a football stadium and drew seven thousand attendees. The intended effect was for audiences to depart the film in somber audience, reflecting on the life that was Chris Kyle.

The Hollow Sheepdog

American Sniper might’ve won the hearts of red-state America, but that certainly doesn’t make it a piece of nationalist cinema. This is the real reason that Seth Rogen’s now infamous comparison with fake Nazi propaganda is off-base. Inglorious Basterds’s “Stolz der Nation” was a work of triumph and pride (no surprise given its name), as was the propaganda it’s based off of. The men the German sniper kills in that movie are clearly enemies of the nation, and the hero himself is a living embodiment of his country. His struggles are his country’s struggles. His triumphs are his country’s triumphs. His actions are his country’s actions. There’s a direct link to the German soldier and his people, and like the propaganda it satirizes, it’s supposed to inculcate the spirit of national struggle. American Sniper conveys none of these things.

Unlike patriotic war films of the past, such as Patton, Sniper does not portray Kyle as a living embodiment of the nation. He is simply a man who snipes fellow men—that’s it. Patton, on the other hand, was about a quintessential American. He was a rough-around-the-edges fighter who did what was necessary for his country. He was a hero, and the example he set was what America apparently needed in the dark days of Vietnam. The story of General Patton extends beyond his immediate experiences and connects him with the country as a whole.

In contrast, the story of Chris Kyle remains a character study and doesn’t extend past his own experiences. The men he kills will not come across as enemies to the audience, but as threats to the soldiers deployed nearby—no more. The reason Kyle gives for killing is not—except for the brief moment flirting with his future wife—for “our freedom”, but for his immediate comrades. He always justifies the people he shot with the understanding that he saved Marines, not Americans in the abstract or his country.

The scenes that that carry the strongest emotions are the ones that convey the turbulence within the soldier. The ones that fall completely flat are when he reflects on his larger mission. Watching the embassy bombings and Kyle’s outrage seems hokey. It’s unconvincing to a viewer that this event would’ve driven Kyle to sign up (and we are right, because this is not what drove him to sign up in reality). The shock he has watching 9/11 also carries the same type of false emotion, as does his declaration that he would lay down his life for “our freedom.”

To the American of 2015, these statements are hard to swallow. Considering these sentiments drove this country into the failure that was Iraq, they carry a weight of skepticism for many. It’s particularly rich that the events that prompted Kyle’s anger occurred to people that he had absolutely no connection to. From the New Yorkers who would’ve viewed him as white trash to the Africans killed in the embassy bombings, these are people he share nothing with—except for some vague connection to America. That’s a strong reason why this film doesn’t dwell on the larger context of why he fights—it would make his actions seem worthless in the grand scheme of things. The viewer only sees the individual that is “The Legend” and the narrow view of America from the perspective of a rural Texan. To Kyle and many Middle Americans, “their” country is what surrounds them. It’s White, it’s conservative, and it’s good. They can’t understand that most of America resembles nothing like their world and it increasingly hates their version. They can’t understand a country that would be more grief-stricken by the suicide of an attention-seeking transsexual teen than that of the greatest sniper in U.S. history. They still view the military as a bastion of tradition in a sea of liberalism, when it really is just as infected by modern America as any other institution. Otherwise, they wouldn’t give out high honors for nannying social media.

Kyle is only a single individual and his actions are not for God or country—they’re for himself and those around him. However, Kyle in the film, doesn’t believe this and a tense dialogue with a comrade illustrates this dissonance. One of his closest friends confides to Kyle that he has lost hope in any purpose for the mission and can’t understand the reasons why they’re here. Kyle, obstinate, replies without any doubt that they are fighting for their faith and nation. That doesn’t convince his comrade and the audience comes away with the opinion that the skeptical soldier is right.

In the end, Kyle faces the tragedy of being a sheepdog without a flock. The lecture given to him by his father, which is popular among military circles, imagines a world where there’s clearly defined good and evil, and the good sheep are always at risk of becoming prey. This kind of worldview was exploited to justify the Bush doctrine and our action in Iraq was viewed as sheepdogs in the form of the U.S. military coming to the rescue of the sheep in Mesopotamia, in addition to protecting the sheep back home. Instead, the war was a grand experiment in political theory that brought misery and death to the Iraqis and had nothing to do with protecting Americans stateside. But Kyle was able to convince himself that he was still a sheepdog over there and was doing what was necessary to defend those incapable of defending themselves. This mindset fails to hold up when he tries to maintain his status back home. His made up stories of gunning down would-be criminals and Katrina marauders reveal a man who was trying to be a sheepdog domestically. The problem is that sheepdogs are not wanted stateside and we punish those who use deadly force against the worst in our society. Just take a look at Ferguson.

He can only be a hero overseas for a cause he can’t really comprehend, and a cause the public now scoffs at. The America he fought for is radically different from his imagining of America. It’s Detroit, it’s Wall Street, it’s Hollywood, it’s gay marriage, it’s affirmative action, it’s materialism, it’s nihilism, and it’s barely a country. Only a small part of it is the heartland, and that’s an ever decreasing fragment. The reason why we can’t make a movie about Kyle as a living embodiment of the U.S. is because he’s not, nor can anyone from the heartland be. This is a nation with no shared set of values, culture, or history. We are all just here glued to our own lives, as Kyle bemoaned to his wife. And few veterans have the happy story of The Legend, many have the story of the man who killed him. Broken souls returning to a soulless country, filled with anguish over what they had to go through for a nation that’s no longer theirs. How can anyone be a living embodiment of a country that only exists in the imaginations of a few?

This is why American Sniper is the war film for the post-patriotic age. It’s about a sheepdog without a flock, a hero without a country.