This morning I stumbled across a stimulating op-ed by an international affairs professor by the name of Dennis Jett. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s depiction of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, Jett asks incisive questions about recent Hollywood portrayals of controversial topics like torture and the U.S. military disaster in Iraq. According to Jett, films like Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper approach these topics with a level of nuance that they don’t really deserve. Attempting to imbue torture with a sense of moral (or even utilitarian) complexity or ennoble the U.S. military invasion of Iraq is to obfuscate issues that are in actuality quite clear. Torture is a brutal crime against humanity, anywhere and everywhere, and the Second Gulf War is a disaster built on abject lies that, outside the pocket books of certain defense contractors, is best measured in human suffering and pain.
For the most part, the U.S. media has failed to confront these issues adequately. To the extent that our very deep and very human propensity toward tribalism leave us, as U.S. citizens, grasping for a place on the right side of history, this is understandable. Nowhere is this point more obvious than in the sacrifices of the men and women on the front lines, whose work practically begs for justification. Thousands of U.S. soldiers have died and many thousands more will bear the physical and emotional scars of combat for the rest of their lives. The idea so many human lives were extinguished for nothing is repulsive. But the fact remains, and as a result our understandable reluctance to confront it can’t be allowed to serve as an excuse for ignoring it.
As Jett points out, Kyle was probably not the reluctant, duty-bound warrior the film seems to depict him as. Indeed, his own autobiography paints a portrait of cold and vicious killer who regretted the very existence of rules of engagement and dehumanized his victims as evil savages. The Economist ads more detail:
A quick flick through Kyle’s best-selling autobiography is enough to demonstrate how much stronger and stranger the film might have been. “I loved what I did,” he writes in its introduction. “I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.” When he is with his wife and children, he confesses, he wanted to be back in Iraq: “I missed the excitement and the thrill. I loved killing bad guys.” And he recounts those killings with jaw-dropping callousness. Once, he recalls, he fired on two suspected insurgents on a moped. “It was like a scene from ‘Dumb and Dumber’. The bullet went through the first guy and into the second…Two guys with one shot. The taxpayer got good bang for his buck on that one.” He also admits that “there was a bit of a competition between myself and some of the other snipers” to see who could dispatch the most Iraqis. “If you’re interested,” he adds, “the confirmed kills were only kills that someone else witnessed, and cases where the enemy could be confirmed dead. So if I shot someone in the stomach and he managed to crawl around where we couldn’t see him before he bled out, he didn’t count.” So now you know.
Viewing the enemy as an inhuman “other” is a well-documented psychological coping mechanism for the horrors of killing. That’s a big reason behind the use of derogatory epithets like “gook” for NVA soldiers or “nip” for the Japanese in WW2. Further still, there is a good chance some of the people he killed were rabid jihadists. I’m reluctant to use such an infantile characterization as “evil” in describing the vast majority people, but to the extent that these people behaved anything like the members of the Islamic States or al-Qaeda, they were certainly savages. None of which is to say that the sort of blind bravado some people – people like Chris Kyle, for instance – display when it comes to the business of killing is in any sense justified. Precisely the opposite: though there are, I think, occasions when killing humans is necessary, I’m hesitant to accept that there are instances in which it is permissible to relish it. I’m willing to grant that there may in fact be times (rare though they are) when the work performed by people like Kyle is, in balance, beneficial to U.S. citizens. However, I refuse to accept that it is ever worth celebrating.
Which brings us back to the hard facts of reconciling our mythologized sense of American Righteousness with the bare facts of reality. The desire to view the military as an instrument of justice comprised largely of reluctant (but effective) warriors is widespread. But it obscures a number of important facts that we need to come to grips with if we are to wield that instrument both ethically and responsibly. First, there is the simple truth that, since World War 2, the U.S. military has usually been deployed to secure largely dubious ends. It has variously been an instrument of raw nationalism, capitalist world-building, or a profit-driven mechanism of self-perpetuation. Rarely has it been used to defend human rights, liberty, or the general well-fare of U.S. citizens. Nowhere is this point more salient than in the travesty of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Having resulted in the deaths of thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, it is only really one thing in any objective sense: a crime, for which the highest tiers of American government are culpable.
As troubling as this is, the second point is even more difficult to digest. Even when military action is justified on the grounds of practicality or, rarer still, morality (the two, I think, are inextricably linked) it remains a nightmarish and ugly business. Executing a war requires regular people to partake in unspeakable, irrevocable horrors. These are people who sacrifice a large chunk of their humanity to serve a what they hope to be a greater purpose. But there is also a sense in which war calls upon people who are already monstrous – zealous patriots and xenophobes, remorseless and skilled killers averse or immune to the effects of introspection and circumspection. Both practically and ethically, a certain reverence and esteem for the combat veteran seems a necessary – even laudable – response to the work they have done. Even in Iraq, where the soldiers have – in a very real sense – given their all for practically nothing, some respect is perhaps bought by the fact that they said yes to a calling many refuse. Though they didn’t actually defend American lives and liberty, they were willing to do so. However, that still leaves us with the ugly question: what of those who enjoy it? Ethically speaking, this is a Gordian knot that we’ve decided to solve by simply ignoring it.
Going forward, this leaves us in an awkward position. Regarding the war in Iraq, our responsibility is clear. It is our duty to history and future generations of U.S. citizens to remember it for precisely what it was. The war itself was a pure disaster, riddled with atrocities and violations of basic human rights. It was justified by deceit and designed for purposes that will, in many respects, probably remain forever cloudy. It is, perhaps, the purest manifestation of the military-industrial complex. As a result, the primary legacy of members of the highest branches of government – Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush – should be that of war criminals. Anything else and we have failed in our duty as responsible citizens. With respect to the specific horrors of war, a way forward is less clear. Obviously we should avoid war at any and all costs. That’s a bit of a no-brainer. But we should also remember that war is always, regardless of the cause, an ugly business. In that sense, it is crucial to keep in mind precisely what supporting one requires us to endorse.