The word “American” is the operative term for understanding “American Sniper”—Clint Eastwood’s epic biopic of the deadliest sniper in American history. Although it is full of exaggerated battle scenes in Iraq—with enough sandstorms, kill shots, and cheap moral dilemmas to keep the Call of Duty generation intrigued—its true narrative never leaves American soil. It is not a film about war, but about what comes after.
The United States occupies a unique niche in war history. Unlike almost every other nation, few modern battles have ever occurred on its home soil. The civilian population, while integral to the war effort, has almost never been the target of a foreign enemy. American cities remained almost untouched by war until 9/11. War is, and has almost always been, a foreign endeavor for Americans. And it shows. Soldiers who return home after many months away face a population that largely struggles to identify the locations of most war efforts. Even the Veterans’ Administration—recently plagued by corruption and inefficiency—struggles to identify with the soldiers it serves.
Eastwood’s film attempts to place itself within that group of veterans—to tell their stories through that of Kyle. When the scenes are set in the United States, he is largely successful. Each moment Bradley Cooper spent at home reminded me of Jeremy Renner’s supermarket scene in “The Hurt Locker”. Yet where Jeremy Renner’s quizzical expression conveyed a sense of twisted humor at the disconnect between consumer driven America and the soldiers that protect it, Bradley Cooper’s lost gaze carried sad pangs of cold confusion.
That cold confusion defines the way America conducts its wars today. Fewer and fewer of Washington’s policy makers—the men and women sending soldiers to war—have experience on the front lines. Moreover, the cohorts of highly educated bureaucrats and lawyers that refine and advise American foreign policy come from more educated and more Democratic states. The South provides around 41.0% of US recruits with only 35.6% of the 18-24 population. Likewise, more rural Western states like Montana, Alaska, and Wyoming have exceptionally high enlistment proportion rates to the population. Contrast this with Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York—the lowest per capita contributors of recruits—all home to urban, highly educated populations and Ivy League universities.
In that sense, Clint Eastwood has actually gotten his film right. The movie’s Iraq is seen and portrayed through the eyes of American soldiers following orders and negotiating the chaos of war—not from the perspective of the educated elite criticizing it. For all its factual inaccuracies, its whitewashed portrayal of Chris Kyle, and its dramatized heroics, American Sniper does not deserve to be criticized for stories that it never meant to tell. Critics are right in that these stories—the stories of Iraqi civilians, jihadists, and tribal recruits—must be told. But American Sniper simply was not the film to tell them.
The story it does tell is that of the men and women on the ground. It is the story of those who fought through the streets of Fallujah, who survived IED attacks, who found themselves acting as peacekeepers in a land they hardly knew with a language they could hardly speak. And it is the story of how they came back—suffering from PTSD, suffering from loss, and suffering from national indifference. It is the story of a nation that ignores its soldiers while asking them to fight. It is the American story.