American Sniper: Hollywood and Our Homeland Insecurity Complex

Eastwood’s deletion of ‘the enemy’ in this film certainly smacks of Orientalism, but it also indirectly reinforces a popular US media stereotype about Iraqis – that they lack depth as individuals, and therefore, are not worth as much as an American soldier. These are the exact same stereotypes that appear to have inspired the US Army’s 320th Military Police Battalion who presided over the notorious Abu Ghraib Prison photo sessions. Truth be told, I would be much more interested in seeing the ‘Natural Born Killer’-style film study of the US troops and command structure which brought us the twisted, sadism and institutional sickness on display at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. A lot of Americans would like to know how such evil is produced. That is a film we might learn something from, yet, no studio would allow that story to be made into a blockbuster, because as any studio executive will tell you, “that’s the wrong story” (even if it’s the only story worth telling).

As it turns out, most of the iconic signature scenes in this movie never actually happened. The list of outright fabrications is just too long to list here. These include the dramatic opening scene (used in the trailer) showing Kyle trained-in on a woman and child who were preparing to throw a grenade at Kyle’s approaching platoon, as well as Kyle’s seemingly impossible record-breaking 2,100 yard ‘kill shot’, allegedly taking out his rival Mustafa. Sadly, these and other liberties were clearly taken by Eastwood and the writing team, as The Slate explains:

“In the movie, Kyle sees this woman remove a grenade from beneath her dress and hand it to her child. He shoots the child, and when the woman wails and picks up the grenade shoots her as well. He visually shows guilt, blinking, sniffling, and refusing the congratulations of his fellow soldier. 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. In his writing, Kyle calls the woman “evil” and reveals that many people, including himself, referred to Iraqis as ‘savages.’”

“As for his longest confirmed kill, Kyle targeted a roof-bound enemy insurgent aiming a rocket launcher at American soldiers outside Sadr City. And the shot did not, once made, alert Iraqi insurgents to their position and create a dramatic firestorm that disillusioned Kyle, as in the movie. (Elsewhere in his memoir he writes: “I loved what I did, I still do … I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.”)”

Again, a central part of Kyle’s Iraq experience in this film – that of dueling with his nemesis, an illusive Syrian sniper named “Mustafa” was more or less made-up. This is Hollywood history at its best: “As with Mustafa, the film exaggerates Kyle’s legendary status among his enemies. 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 detail is absolutely key regarding the Chris Kyle myth-building exercise. One of the prerequisites for legend status (or sainthood) is to ‘do the impossible’, or to pull off a miracle. Without this, Kyle is just one of many tough grunts battling Haji in the desert. Contrast Kyle with another famous US sniper like Carlos Hathcock who served in Vietnam, and you can see that these were two very different animals. Hathcock was often sent out alone, behind enemy lines for days on end. He is not a household name, yet he was arguably the greatest sniper in American military history. As a Vietnam Vet, Hathcock was not worth as much to the establishment, because no matter how talented he was, even the very best sniper could never sell that war.

Aside from this, the film’s creators appear to have taken an enormous amount of creative license in order to write the perfect patriotic story line, including the image Kyle going to a Navy recruitment office after watching a terrorist bombing killing civilians on the news. The real story was a lot more complicated, and much less glamorous, involving Kyle as a penniless party animal in need of cash. There’s nothing wrong with that, but when you’re building a legend, details like that tend to end up on the cutting room floor.

Where does the fiction end and the facts begin? It’s very hard to tell with Kyle, and unfortunately, this film does not make it any easier. The film’s ending was punctuated with a funeral procession for the fallen Navy SEAL, complete with silent closing credits and flashing images of overpass banners being hung over Texas highways in Kyle’s memory.


The Military-Entertainment Complex

It’s important to understand that these big budget Hollywood productions do not exist in a creative vacuum. For most Americans, when they see ‘history’ played out on the big screen, it more or less validates that version of events. Both Washington and Hollywood understand this phenomenon very well. At between $150 and $200 million per production – it’s not cheap, and so the military-industrial stakeholders expect their film will have some desired effect, otherwise it’s a giant waste of money and a missed opportunity to steer public opinion. In many instances, even before production begins on a film like this, the US military industrial complex and the Central Intelligence are intimately involved, either on a consulting level, helping the production, or in a script advisory capacity, with the ultimate objective, we’re told, as far as the film production team and studio is concerned – is to make the film ‘as accurate as possible’. Pentagon officials normally ask to see the whole script, and not just the parts relating to the US military. If a historical film is being made, then it will also require a passing grade from the Pentagon’s historians. In this way, they are effectively writing a version of history for Hollywood. Al Jazeera’s report describes the surface layer of this relationship by profiling Phil Strub,the Pentagon’s liason officer to Tinseltown:

“While Strub is the point man for Hollywood in the Pentagon, usually the scripts come to his colleagues on the other side of the country, in Los Angeles. They work in a nondescript office block along downtown Wilshire Boulevard, in departments belonging to the different service branches of the U.S. military — Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines. They serve tours of duty for several years, just like their fellow troops, but their task is singularly different: to study film and television scripts producers have sent them in the hope the Department of Defense will help them with their project.”

THere’s also the business of keeping old myths alive. In American Sniper, one particular terrorist’s name was repeated multiple times. He was a popular character used frequently by the media during the Iraq War, and even by George W. Bush himself. Known as “al Qaeda’s No. 2 Guy”, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was a made-to-order “myth” invented by US intelligence (go figure), and later adopted by the Pentagon as a rallying cry for US soldiers in desperate need of motivation, and also because it suited U.S. government political objectives in establishing Iraq as the primary front in the War on Terror. His appearance  in Sniper serves to reinforce his myth, alongside a number of other popular terror avatars used by Washington and its allies.

As I pointed out previously with Hollywood’s wild stab at writing history in Zero Dark Thirty, the CIA played a pivotal role in making sure that film was actually made in the first place. The film helped to provide a public relations back-stop to a shaky “bin Laden raid” story which was quickly coming apart at the seams after some uncomfortable questions started to be raised from families of Navy SEALS allegedly killed later in the ill-fated ‘Extortion 17′ incident on August 6, 2011. Indeed, Katherine Bigalow’s Zero Dark not only gave the impression that the Bin Laden Raid happened exactly like Washington and President Obama said it did, but it also provided a nice PR cushion for the CIA’s controversial torture program, as the key premise of Zero Dark hinges on the CIA claim that by torturing detainee Ammar al-Baluchi a detainee from whom they were able to extract the information which led them to bin Laden’s courier named ‘al-Kuwaiti’  – which then led to the supposed ‘capture and killing’ of the illusive terror mascot Osama bin Laden. Quite a colorful and intriguing story, but that’s what Hollywood does best.

Just how deep does this relationship really go? Sony Entertainment’s The Interview is another recent example of the Hollywood-Washington-Pentagon Nexus. It lacked the stuff to break out on its own, and so a scandal was contrived between the studio and the White House to help boost the film’s popularity. But the story behind the film is much more interesting than the ‘North Korean Hack’ narrative. 21WIRE was one of the first media outlets to point out that Sony’s CEO Michael Lynton, who also sits on the board of the Rand Corporation, and who had passed an early version of the film on to both colleagues at Rand, as well as his contact at the US State Department in order to receive their blessing on the film and what impact it would have in furthering Washington’s stated foreign policy objective of regime change in North Korea.

It is central to both the Pentagon and the CIA missions, to make absolutely certain that when military blockbuster films hit cinemas they convey the correct message, in the context of what is going on around the world and within the country at that particular time. It’s expected that after this film, the amount of recruitment applications for military sniper positions will skyrocket. Whereas ‘Top Gun’ pilots were once the most revered, ‘safely’ removed combat technician/heroes, unmanned drones have since sidelined most of those men, leaving the snipers as one of the sole remaining ‘super-skilled’ warriors. All the signs are pointing to the inevitability of US troops returning to the Middle East combat theater, either in Iraq, Yemen, or along a new NATO-sanctioned ‘No-Fly’ buffer zone along the Turkey-Syria border. As we speak, media war messaging is centered around ISIS, and that Washington ‘may be forced to send our boys back there.’ To do this, they will need more men, and also more snipers, and more Chris Kyles.

THE CRAFT: Kyle pictured with sniper rifle and his Craft International hat on.

Kyle in Real Life

If you compare this film to real life, there is a big gap between the Chris Kyle played by Cooper and the Kyle America knew. This is not so much as Kyle the soldier, but more as Kyle the media personality and entrepreneur. In the scenes depicting Kyle at home after his active duty service, Eastwood portrays Kyle as a mild-mannered family man who passed the time visiting and helping injured vets at the VA hospital and others suffering with PTSD, like Routh. Although this was the case, the film does not show the larger-than-life media personality which Kyle had cultivated when publisher Harper Collins released of his best-selling book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History in 2012. In addition to his book tour, Kyle was also busy as the CEO of Craft International, a burgeoning young Blackwater-type, Pentagon contractor and security training company based in Dallas. Just before his death, Kyle was embroiled in a defamation lawsuit with none other than fellow ex-Navy SEAL, Jesse Ventura, a case which was settled in Ventura’s favor after Kyle’s death. There were other accusations of lying by Kyle, most notably, the incident where Kyle claimed to have shot looters during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. During the Ventura controversy, Kyle was busy making the rounds on national television, and seems to be anything but the laconic, introverted character which actor Bradley Cooper and Director Eastwood show in the film. Watch this FOX News clip:

‘War and Peace’

Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore appeared to have used the release of Sniper as a media opportunity, regaining some attention to himself by accusing the film of ‘glorifying’ war and more specifically snipers, something Moore claims to take particular offense to after having “lost an Uncle” to a German sniper in WWII.

So the mass media debate really come down to this: is it art, or is it propaganda? Received wisdom says that if a film challenges a premise of a war, then it’s art. If the film doesn’t, or is seen to promote, or sugar coat a conflict, then it’s propaganda. However, with Sniper, despite Moore’s two-dimensional rant, it’s not easy to make such a distinction. Yet, Sniper just might just be the most sophisticated, precision of war propaganda tool seen to date.

While films are used to push and pull domestic and foreign policy, or to sway American hearts and minds, studio executives and big-time directors, including Clint Eastwood, are still counted on for their endorsements, and are, financially speaking, directly involved in deciding who wins US elections. However, if you are trying to pin Clint Eastwood down to fit into a nice little political category, or box, you will quickly become frustrated because he doesn’t really fit into any of them. A closer look at Eastwood’s record shows anything but warmongering though, as he has been an outspoken critic of just about every major conflict involving the US – from the Korean War to Vietnam, and all the way to Iraq and Afghanistan. A self-described ‘moderate conservative’, Eastwood has long been a believer that the US should not play the role of global policeman, and has even shown support of some gun-control measures. Some might even call him a ‘liberal’.

After the premiere screening of American Sniper at the Academy of Motion Picture Artists and Sciences’ Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills, 84 year old Eastwood admitted, “I was against going into the war in Iraq since I figured we would probably trip over ourselves in some way.” He continues, “Sometimes the arrogance of wanting just to burst into war and not really researching the value of it and the tragic ending…” 

As Eastwood’s views on war may not have shifted a whole lot over the years, Washington and Hollywood’s have. Presently, their joint efforts are still very much focused on taming the rebellious legacy of Oliver Stone, and evoking the ‘new improved’ world view of ‘warrior’ Chris Kyle. These days, it’s not uncommon to can see that actors and celebrities are now spokespersons for veterans’ charities. After his starring role in the film, Lone Survivor, actor Mark Walberg suddenly became the spokesman for Wounded Warrior Project, a “veterans service organization”, that offers “help for wounded veterans following the events of September 11, 2001″. Two narratives are clearly at play here. The first is a long-tail campaign designed to reform old 20th century language into 21st century Spartanspeak – by transforming previously maligned soldiers and ‘vets’, into brand new “warriors”, or “heroes”. With that, much of the collective guilt associated with Washington’s dirty wars is washed down the drain, as Americans can assuage their guilt by donating $19.99 a month to help their warriors. It’s seems like a noble cause, and for certain celebrities, it’s a safe charity place to position their star brand. It’s unclear whether or not Vietnam Vets are “warriors” too, or is if this a title reserved for Iraq and Afghanistan Vets?

The whole narrative here is disturbing though, and is rarely challenged for fear of being construed as ‘unpatriotic’ – as the dialectic goes, ‘you’re either with us, or against us’. One has to ask the question at this point: what sort of federal government would recruit its young men, promising its soldiers of fortune ironclad medical care for life, before sending them to a proverbial hell hole like Iraq or Afghanistan, and then allow their maimed and disfigured to be exposed so grotesquely, in an infomercial side-show, begging America for more money? Shouldn’t the US government pick-up any and all medical expenses and provide the best treatment for injured combat veterans? It would be refreshing to see Walberg camped out on the White House lawn demanding an answer to that question. And you’re at it, you might also ask the question – what the hell are we doing “over there” in the first place? Oh, I’m sorry – that question is too political, too complicated for the new Hollywood. Let’s not talk about the fraud of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We can just forget about all that and focus on our “warriors” instead, right? Sorry, my bad.

With the Oscars around the corner, it’s a given that this film will take home a few trophies, most likely for best actor, as Bradley Cooper reeled in the audiences’ attention with his stoic, but bold performance, clearly dominating the film with a carefully studied performance of Kyle the soldier.

As successful as this film was in casting Chris Kyle as an American legend, it shied away from the issue of war – a painless approach which actually suits a lot of Americans. In this way, the film was marketed towards a totally new demographic who would support such a film. These are the Americans who say, “We were never there, but we still care”. Undoubtedly, Eastwood knows this all too well, and that is probably why the film does not try, nor pretend to be anything more than it is, but one can’t help but be left wishing that it could have been so much more.

Many will still hold on to the hope that maybe, just maybe, Vietnam taught us something. After watching American Sniper, it’s become clear that politics in Hollywood is a quagmire. Hollywood is already way too far down the road, and too heavily invested in this new genre that makes war eerily palatable.

The reality is that after a decade and a half of brow-beating and synthetic patriotism, the America’s post-9/11 ‘Homeland’ has never been more insecure about its wars, and about its role as the world’s policeman.

Maybe Americans are just tired of their wars, and thus, tired of war films that make them feel bad about war. Or maybe, it’s just that being ‘anti-war’ in Hollywood is just not cool anymore.

Why let the politics of life and death get in the way of a good story? As Eastwood, Cooper et al – and Kyle, would all tell you, “Hey, we’re just hump’in money here. We’re just doing our job.

This must be that ‘brave new world’ they warned us about