KAMPALA – After a long sit in the cinema with the most horrible of advertisements passing the screen (imagine the dramatic battle soundtrack of 300 (2006) with badly filmed, zoomed-in shots of hotel towels and breakfast trays. WELCOME TO THE MILLENIUM HOTEL, with thunder on the background), American Sniper (2014) finally started. Now, I know Clint Eastwood is the director. I also happen to know Clint Eastwood is a Republican and a patriot (I don’t think he’d disagree on that), so my expectations had prepared me for a movie about the 2003 Iraq invasion that would glorify the American Army and its brave soldiers.
However, the violence that was imprinted upon me was so much more fundamental. Our hero, Chris Kyle, was a legend. A sniper who killed more than 160 people during his four tours in Iraq. His first kill (on screen) is a young boy carrying a Russian grenade towards the American convoy. Our American Sniper has only one duty, which is to protect his convoy at all cost. This alleviates him from personal responsibility and morality, and so he shoots and he kills. First the boy, then the boy’s mother. War isn’t pretty, it is not glorious! It’s messy, and bloody, and look at how our hero is faring under these circumstances. Where other soldiers break, physically and psychologically, Chris becomes the legend. There’s a price on his head during his third tour, – the Iraqis want him dead so badly, our American hero.
There’s three types of people in this world, his father tells him at the dinner table. There are sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The majority of the people in this world are sheep. They’re naive, trustworthy individuals who believe no one is out to get them. They cannot protect themselves. These are the people who do not own guns, do not have a fence around their house, do not live in a compound surrounded by barbed wire, who do not give in to a national culture of paranoia and xenophobia. They’re sheep. Then, there are the wolves. The inherently violent people. The bad guys. If you ever become a wolf, I will kick your ass, son. And finally, there are the sheepdogs. These are the people who protect the sheep. The ones that get to confront the wolf. That is what I want you to be. We look out for our own. The ugly truth about nationalism.
It should be no surprise to you that Chris grew up in Texas. Before our hero finds his calling as a mass-murderer, he’s a rodeo cowboy. You know, the ones with the boots, the hat and the thick accent. Pure American. But, he always thought he was destined for *something* bigger, so after the ’98 bombings of the American Embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, he decides to join the Navy Seals. Oh, yes. He finds a beautiful wife, has marriage plans, and then 9/11 happens. Shortly after his wedding, he is send to Iraq. To protect his fellow soldiers, fight for the ‘best country in the world’, and to kill the wolves, or the savages, as all Iraqis are so charmingly and consistently referred to. And can you blame those soldiers for making that reference? All the horror they witness, the carbombs, the suicide bombers, the little kids brainwashed to kill, Zarqawi’s second man who is called the Butcher and who amputates limbs with a fucking drill. These people are savages, for sure.
His four tours are bloody. The shots are intense. People get killed. But our hero emerges victorious, although damaged. The little time he spends home in between his tours are marked by mental absenteeism and trauma. Of course our hero is haunted by the war, he’s not a mere killing machine. Ultimately, he rediscovers his humanity after killing his adversary, an Iraqi sniper, and coming back to the U.S.
And there it is. The long overdue conversation with the psychologist. How are you feeling, Chris? He’s fine. I see here you are credited with over 160 kills. That’s a lot of people. Are there perhaps some things you did out there that you regret? No, sir. The only thing our hero regrets is that he could not save more fellow soldiers. The patriotism drips off the screen. But, Chris is a man. A real, American man. So no therapy, no counselling, no trauma, Chris decides to help veterans recover psychologically from their war traumas and injuries, and through helping others, he helps himself. How do they do that, you wonder? Well, by shooting stuff with big guns.
American Sniper (2014) celebrates a war crime. Although it contains pathetically attempted nuance, it celebrates an illegal invasion and dehumanises the Iraqi people while celebrating the bravery of the American soldiers. More importantly, it celebrates violence. This element of violence is so engrained in the concept of masculinity that, me being a male, the heroism stirs an emotion in me. Although I abhor violence, the adreneline kicked in and I left beeing thoroughly impressed by violent images on a big screen.
Only when we landed in Fat Boyz, another bar in Kampala, and I heard 50 Cent rap about how he’s been hit with a few shells, but he doesn’t walk with a limp, that I realised to my own horror the fascination of violence that I have. Although I consider myself a pacifist, the victorious glory of violence appeals to me fundamentally. I really wish it didn’t, truly, and my reaction was definitely not as bad as some who were sitting behind me in the cinema, who cheered at every shot Chris took. Aaaaaaand, another one bites the dust, with a red cloud and an almost tragically amusing puppet-like fall to the ground. This guy, he was a badass. Was, yes. Two years ago, Chris got tragically killed by a veteran he so altruistically tried to help. The last few shots of the movie are pictures of Chris’ funeral, with people standing patriotically at the side of the highway, waving American flags. The small town of Stephenville, Texas, is gearing up for the trial of the killer of the American Sniper as we speak.
Was Chris a bad person, then? State-sponsored violence is still violence, and I do not think just “doing your job” alleviates you from personal responsibility. This particular ideology of war is a coping mechanism for those who fight in it. The difference between terrorism and war is an arbitrary line drawn in the sand. No matter who does the killing, people still die. To call one terrorism and the other one war is a political differentiation that extremely loaded. To me, it is no surprise that any approach to terrorism (“the war against terror”) has failed miserably, precisely because it polarises the involved parties in two camps: the goodies and the baddies. They are terrorists, while we are soldiers. They are violent. We are just doing our jobs.
The ideology of American patriotism appealed so much to Chris Kyle he killed for it. Fundamentally, his heroism is defined by the violence he commited. I wonder whether I can point fingers if this appeal for violence as a male construct also appeals to me in some way. George Carlin once stated that war is essentially a bunch of men waving their pricks at each other. Men feel insecure about their masculinity, and so they have to go to war over it. The fact that all the bullets, bombs and rockets are conveniently shaped like penises symbolises the Freudian need to project one’s penis in someone else’s affairs. It’s called the Bigger Dick Foreign Policy Theory.
War is the ultimately battle of male sex, and violence affirms his position of power. He will emerge as a victor, and humanised through trauma and painful memories, he will pick up his role as a family man, sleep with a gun under his pillow, and attack his dog in a moment of weakness. He is the American man, violent to the Other, protective of his own. Hopelessly politicised and abused by those in power who ultimately maintain this ideology.
Perhaps for me, the most frustrating element of this story is how the intertwined conception of violence and masculinity affects my own identity as a man.