The Universal Notebook: 'American Sniper' hits the wrong target

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“American Sniper” is a powerfully dramatic film. It features a timely and riveting story and compelling performances that have made it a box office smash.

I saw it in a packed movie theater the weekend it opened. When the movie ended and the lights came up, many in the audience had tears in their eyes and one gentleman, presumably a veteran, shouted the Navy SEAL “Hoo-yah!”

Director Clint Eastwood’s Hollywood version of the combat career of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. history, with some 160 confirmed kills among the 255 kills he claimed, necessarily simplifies and sanitizes Kyle’s story. Though I enjoyed it and found it thought provoking, I left the movie theater with an uneasy feeling that I had been manipulated.

Eastwood, who served as a lifeguard at Fort Ord in California during the Korean War, is famous for portraying tough-guy heroes. If he were younger, I’m sure he would have played Chris Kyle himself.

But “American Sniper” is not a pro-war propaganda film, as some have charged. In fact, Eastwood considers it an anti-war film that portrays the impact of war on one man and his family. But the film also leaves the impression that the Americans are the good guys, the Iraqis are the bad guys and Chris Kyle is a hero.

Eastwood chooses to ignore the uglier side of Kyle, the man who wrote in his memoir that killing was fun and that he hated the Iraqis, the man who claimed to have gone to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and shot some 30 looters.

My initial reaction to “American Sniper” was that a man can’t kill 255 people without 1) making a mistake and 2) being permanently damaged himself. The debate rages now online and in the media over whether Kyle was a war hero or a racist killer. Personally and politically, I want no part of that conversation, because I think it’s the wrong conversation to have.

The conversation we should be having is over the wisdom and efficacy of sending American troops to Iraq, or anywhere else for that matter, to fight terrorism.

“You want this evil to come to San Diego or New York?” Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle asks in the movie. “We’re protecting more than just this dirt.”

That’s all the rationale the movie gives for the war. But Garrett Reppenhagen, an Army sniper who served in Iraq at the same time Kyle did, writes in Salon, “Kyle views the occupation of Iraq as necessary to stop terrorists from coming to the mainland and attacking the U.S.; he sees the Iraqis as ‘savages’ and attacks any critical thought about the overall mission and the military’s ability to accomplish it.”

Reppenhagen, who was the first active-duty member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, came to reject the “kill them over there before they kill us over here” mentality.

“A lot of people were fighting us because they did not want to be occupied or because they had family members who were hurt or killed and they wanted to get some sort of vengeance,” Reppenhagen said. “By the end of my tour, it was really hard to justify killing them. We should not have been there in the first place.”

We should not have been there in the first place. That’s what’s missing from “American Sniper.”

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a pacifist. I have no sympathy for terrorists who behead and burn alive their captives. If we could hunt them down and bomb them off the face of the earth, I’d be all for it.

But we can’t.

All the evidence suggests that U.S. military action has created at least as many terrorists as it has killed. The U.S. invasion of Iraq destabilized the country, precipitated a civil war and gave rise to al-Qaida and now ISIS. Not only that, but every time a U.S. bomb blows up a terrorist installation, or a sniper takes down a terrorist, thousands of new recruits sign on to go fight the American invaders.

The danger of “American Sniper” is that it will inspire some patriotic young American to want to be a hero. We should all be grateful to the brave men and women in uniform who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way to protect us, but what if their sacrifice does not result in a safer or freer America.

The danger of the way we are waging the war on terror is that it just seems to perpetuate terrorism.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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