How would Americans react to occupation by a foreign army?
The controversy surrounding the film American Sniper should come as no surprise. We live in an age that is desperately complex, yet we continue to reduce every issue to the simplest of characterizations — most of which are almost always taken out of context. The entrenchment of opinion on either side of this movie has become all too typical of our cultural myopia, which seeks to pass judgment on things we do not truly understand. We continue to grasp at the starkest illustrations of what we perceive to be right or wrong, without ever thinking critically about the ambiguity that accompanies things such as war or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) —everything this film seemingly does so well.
Nonetheless, I thought it was only appropriate to watch American Sniper with my Iraqi colleagues while in Baghdad. They are, after all, the true beneficiaries of America’s liberation war and the one’s most directly impacted by the US occupation. Their commentary is worth more than any perspective opined by pundits, politicians and celebrities sitting safely in the US.
There has never really been a national retrospection on what happened in Iraq or what the war really cost us in human terms. And our refusal to acknowledge certain truths has locked us into a perpetual cycle of shared PTSD. The visceral reaction to this film, from any perspective, only reinforces this point further. Because the truth is that the Iraq War was a horrible experience for everyone involved: soldier, civilian and contractor, along with the entire Iraqi population who had to endure our failed policies and protracted occupation.
American Sniper is emotive because it has triggered all of these extreme feelings within our national consciousness, and we lack the perspective to adequately process what this film has attempted to portray. The sheer chaos and brutality of urban warfare, the unique propensity for violence given the right set of circumstances, and the inability to achieve any real results left us traumatized as a nation. It is a trauma we might acknowledge on an individual basis but never collectively.
There was a level of trepidation in asking my Iraqi colleagues to watch this film with me. Obviously, this was not a war film dealing with some esoteric battlefield, but a film about Americans killing Iraqis, only 40 miles from Baghdad. Fortunately, my discomfort was somewhat assuaged when one of my colleagues commented on how much he liked Bradley Cooper. American movies sometimes have a way of transcending things like politics, war and cultural differences.
Chris Kyle was, indeed, a complex man and like most soldiers lived larger than life. Yet the discrepancies in his character are somehow being presented in a way that underscores our entire failure in Iraq. This is unfortunate and diminishes the very real struggle with PTSD and other symptoms associated with long-term deployments. It also moves us further away from reconciling what really happened during the war, as does idealizing him as something he clearly wasn’t. The failures in Iraq are well known, look no further than the Islamic State, but they can stand on their own merit and do not need to be projected through any third party. And until we can have an honest dialogue about the war, this kind of counter-productive controversy will continue to manifest each time a piece of art about Iraq is made.
I must confess that my perceptions of the film, up until this point, were predicated on the controversy, commentary and articles I had been reading while in Iraq. So much so, that I was expecting a traditional American war film replete with brave US soldiers battling throngs of evil Muslims, who clearly hated the freedom we were so desperate to spread. But as the movie progressed, so too did my perspectives on the film. Perhaps this was connected to my own experiences in Iraq and how the film was forcing me to confront them, but more intuitively, it was connected to my Iraqi colleagues who were enjoying the film immensely.
For them, the most striking observations originated with the usual clichés that all war films are inevitably prone to. As the family back-story was unfolding, one of my colleagues casually asked me: “Is this how all Americans are raised, like that?” They had seen this scene before in countless films, and I responded with a casual shrug. The cinematic trope that usually accompanies stout middle-class American families was too much for me to explain at that moment.
Around 30 minutes into the film, once Kyle passed SEAL training, got married and was deployed to Iraq, someone blurted out: “… wait, is this based on a true story?” We both looked at each other and laughed out loud. If there was ever a moment of cultural dissociation between friends from different countries, this was surely it. He then pointed out: “Somehow this is true for most Americans.”
This was an astute observation, and he was all too correct. We are led to believe that the events in American Sniper were somehow sequential, linear and entirely simplistic. September 11, followed by the invasion of Iraq, followed by the Battle for Fallujah. This is where American Sniper fails as a movie, because everything that was wrong about the invasion of Iraq — the lack of strategies, the conduct of the war and the false pretense for invasion — all preceded the assault on Fallujah and the deployment of Kyle. The movie lacks all but the thinnest veneer of context and, as a result, the usual stereotypes are allowed to form, especially the ones American audiences are so desperate to believe.
One of the biggest complaints throughout the entire film was the way in which Iraqis were portrayed, not necessarily their conduct, but their dress, cars, locations and accents (Egyptian). At one point someone chimed in: “No one would wear those kinds of clothes, well maybe a thousand years ago.” Iraq is a cosmopolitan place and the people are proud of this sophistication, even through the many years of occupation, terrorism and insurgency. This could be a general laziness with regard to the film, but it could also be the established caricature of Arabs and Muslims we have become so accustomed to, or maybe it is a combination of both.
Not long after this, as they were deploying to Fallujah for the first time, one of the soldiers in the film comments: “Any military aged man that is here, is here to kill you.” I looked over and asked if this was true, and I was given a dull look as he shook his head “no.” Military aged males can roughly be defined as anyone between 18-35, but based on a body count which is almost incalculable, that criteria was clearly flexible for the US military.
The casual indifference displayed to the scenes of Americans killing Iraqis was one of the more revelatory experiences of watching this film with a group of Iraqis. The only awkwardness was coming from me, as I constantly glanced in their direction every time someone was killed or a home was invaded by US soldiers. Someone commented: “So much violence, on both sides.” As the battle scene reached a crescendo, the same person said: “After all these battles, nothing has changed, and now we have ISIS [Islamic State].” We all laughed. The irony is ridiculous.
Those that came of age under American occupation also came of age in an era of unprecedented national terrorism, which developed after the removal of Saddam Hussein. While the two are obviously linked, US soldiers, for them, were not necessarily worse than the terrorists they were fighting, such was the level of hyper-violence in Iraq. The scene of “The Butcher” power drilling a young boy was entirely accurate, but not isolated to that one place in time. Incidents like this were pervasive throughout the occupation.
There has always been an understanding that the occupation was bad but not responsible for the kinds of extreme violence, which was endemic between the different sects or factions.
This kind of actualization can only prevail in a place where the concepts of right and wrong exist outside the pragmatism of daily life. In Iraq, things just are and people adjust their lives accordingly. Part of our inability to make peace with what happened in Iraq continues to stem from a dissonance that they should have somehow acted more like us. It does not conform to the American expectation that good can always triumph over evil.
I often wonder how Americans would react to occupation by a foreign army. Would we just get on with our lives, or would we resort to the same kind of ferocity portrayed in this film?
Much emphasis has been placed on Kyle referring to Iraqis as “savages,” in both the book and movie. While some are keen to make this a racist statement and others are quick to agree to support their own prejudices, the reality is much more nuanced. The Iraq War was a savage conflict, regardless of the politics, which did not always apply on the battlefield. Everyone who has spent time in Iraq or in any hostile environment is prone to these nomenclatures, myself included. More than once, my colleagues watching the film expressed the exact same sentiments.
As the movie concluded, everyone looked at each other and nodded. Someone finally said, “That was an excellent movie,” and I cannot help but agree. There could have been much more, obviously. The lack of Iraqi perspective was irksome, but not entirely unexpected. What this film achieved was to show an American point of view without the familiar righteousness that usually accompanies these kinds of modern war films. Kyle’s experience in Iraq might have been extra-ordinary, but there was nothing sensational about the war. Regardless of how much we want to believe in the mythos behind Navy SEALs and the US Military.
Hopefully one day soon we can come to grips with our time in Iraq, and maybe then we can have a film about what it was like to live under American occupation. Until then, the entrenchment of insufferable opinions will continue.
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