It seems like everyone who has seen this movie has gotten something different from it, and our minions are no different. We decided to have a few of them give their own impressions. Hell, if none of us can agree then most of you probably can’t either–let us know your take in the comments. Mad Duo
American Sniper: Hernandez’s Take
It is impossible to review American Sniper without addressing the two controversies surrounding it.
First, Chris Kyle has been criticized for calling Iraqis “savages” and expressing joy at killing them (he actually referred to the enemy, not all Iraqis, as savages). Michael Moore famously commented about snipers being cowards who shoot people in the back; as I write this, Moore continues to tweet derogatory comments about snipers. Writer Max Blumenthal tweeted that Kyle was a racist occupier and mass murderer comparable to the DC Sniper. Bill Maher called Kyle a “psychopath patriot”. Rolling Stone published a long diatribe about how American Sniper is emblematic of everything wrong with the American war in Iraq and proclaimed it “almost too dumb to criticize”.
I admit to being severely biased on this issue. I’m a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. I was never a sniper, but was a Squad Designated Marksman and know something of the dedication, discipline and courage required to be a sniper. Due to an odd circumstance I was on several missions with French Marine snipers in Afghanistan. On two occasions when I wasn’t embedded with them, French snipers possibly saved my life. And at least two Marine friends of mine shared battlefields with Chris Kyle. One is extremely protective of Kyle’s memory, since Kyle literally may be the reason he’s alive today.
I see nothing wrong with sniping enemy (or dropping artillery on them, or hitting them with airstrikes, or running them over with a tank while they’re asleep). Despite what much of the left seems to believe, being willing or even eager to kill worthy enemy doesn’t make us sociopathic. It means we soldiers understand some problems can only be solved with violence, and have a duty to apply it. Moore, Blumenthal et al seem to demand we feel bad when we do our duty. They apply their “war is always bad and nobody should fight even if America is under attack” mentality to us, and are shocked when we reject it.
As long as I follow the laws of war, it doesn’t matter if I think the enemy are savages. There’s a gigantic difference between hating the enemy and hating every living being in a nation. I didn’t hate the enemy, but I understood those who did.
It’s vitally important that we Americans don’t rape, murder and pillage; to emphasize that importance, I wrote a long series on American soldiers who committed a horrible rape and multiple murders in Iraq. But Maher and his buddies who think we should never happily kill enemy just don’t understand us. They’d handicap us by having us dread the fight, when we should leave the wire eager for combat. Soldiers who hope to avoid contact are at an automatic disadvantage when a contact starts, but soldiers who want combat come alive when the first shot is fired. I’d much rather have troops who embrace war, like Kyle, covering my back than “soldiers” who dread it. Or brave Twitter warriors like Michael Moore who I believe would shed his uniform, drop his rifle and abandon his countrymen at the first hint of danger.
On one hand, I should respect the opinions of Moore and his ilk. After all, civilian oversight of the military is crucial to democracy.
On the other hand, screw them.
I could give a damn if some latent coward who has never and would never serve looks down his nose at me. My biggest regret in Afghanistan was having enemy in my sights but not being allowed to kill them; my biggest hope is that the one time I might have killed an enemy, I actually did. One of my happiest memories is of watching Kiowas and Apaches pounding hidden, trapped Taliban, and later learning five were killed. I would never feel happiness at the deaths of civilians, but I was ecstatic at the deaths of our enemies.
That makes me what it makes me. Don’t like it? I don’t care. Unless you’re willing to dodge IEDs, bullets and rockets beside me, your opinion means less than nothing.
So the first controversy is functionally irrelevant to me. The second, however, does matter.
Kyle has been accused of telling unbelievably untrue “sea stories” after his discharge from the Navy. A preponderance of evidence suggests he did just that. Three whoppers have been identified: the bar fight where he supposedly punched Jesse Ventura, his alleged killing of two carjackers at a gas station, and his claimed time atop New Orleans’ Superdome sniping dozens of armed looters after Hurricane Katrina. Journalistic inquiries determined those claims at best unverifiable, at worst outright lies.
Whether or not he lied about his actual wartime service, though, is a different matter. To my knowledge, the Navy hasn’t contradicted Kyle’s claims the way Army records contradicted Dillard “Carnivore” Johnson’s “I have 2,746 confirmed kills” claim, or Air Force records contradicted drone pilot Brandon Bryant’s “I have PTSD from killing over 1600 men” claim. Kyle did serve honorably in Iraq and was known to Marines in the Sunni Triangle; not always liked, but known. Whatever his number of confirmed kills, he was a highly successful, highly decorated sniper who saved Coalition lives.
The movie American Sniper, fortunately, only deals with his upbringing, wartime service and home life afterward. Because of that limited scope, questions about his tall tales in civilian life don’t come into play. However, as much as I hate to admit it, doubts about his credibility colored the movie for me. While I believe he was the “Legend” described in the book and movie, I don’t blindly accept his claimed number of confirmed and unconfirmed kills. And even if Kyle’s written account of combat in Iraq is 100% true, the movie’s version certainly isn’t.
But enough about the controversies. Let’s talk about the movie itself, which begs two questions: was it historically accurate, and did it accurately express the essence of Chris Kyle’s service?
In my opinion, the answer to the first question is a resounding no. American Sniper went far beyond artistic license. And did so for no good reason.
Almost right off the bat, the movie makes a point of Kyle being an “old man” of thirty at BUD/S. BUD/S instructors constantly refer to Kyle as Old Man and tell him he’s too old to make it through the training. But after the movie I did the math: Kyle was born in 1974. Yet the movie shows him at BUD/S before 9/11, when he would have been only twenty-seven.
Then I started reading the book. Where Kyle himself wrote that he was twenty-four when he attended BUD/S.
So why did Clint Eastwood “enhance” Kyle’s age? For dramatic effect, I guess. Which shows a willingness to change facts to pull the audience’s heartstrings.
There were other problems. I seriously doubt two carloads of fully geared-out SEALS in soft-skinned vehicles would follow a known insurgent van through an Iraqi city in broad daylight. Kyle’s first sniper kills in the movie are a child and his mother; in the book, it’s just the woman. And regarding the final, climactic battle where Kyle takes the final climactic shot, well. . . I’ve never heard of anyone looking at a blurry target a mile away, with a human form not even visible, and proclaiming he’s got positive ID on an enemy. They sure as hell wouldn’t claim a confirmed kill after not even seeing where their shot went. And I have some doubts about whether that shot happened just before an apocalyptic sandstorm rolled in, while Kyle and his teammates were about to be overrun.
I guess I’m just cynical. But I think Kyle’s actual service should have been put on the screen, instead of what I suspect is Jack Reacher-esque fiction. So no, I wasn’t impressed with American Sniper’s historical accuracy.
But I was impressed with its message.
That message, condensed to one word, is “sacrifice”. Kyle sacrificed much of his youth, and almost his life, in defense of his country and countrymen. That willingness to sacrifice came from Kyle’s earnest faith in what Michael Moore mocks: the inherent goodness of American culture. No movie can ever truly convey the depth of an actual patriot’s love for his country. But American Sniper comes close.
I attribute much of this success to Bradley Cooper. Which leads me to admit another bias: despite my general disdain for the entertainment industry, I admire Cooper. In 2009 he visited my tiny, middle-of-nowhere firebase in Afghanistan, unaccompanied by reporters or fanfare. While he had just a short time with us, he came across as a genuinely good guy with honest admiration for America’s fighting men and women. I suspect he took this role for reasons more altruistic than monetary, and I wish him all possible accolades for his amazing acting skills.
Cooper didn’t portray Kyle as especially introspective, or deep. Kyle was shown as I suspect he truly was: a man for whom good and evil were easily identifiable, who saw his country and values as unquestionably right and the enemy’s unquestionably wrong. He reminded me of Marine Sergeant Major Brad Kasal, hero of Fallujah’s infamous “hell house” battle, and his simple “Marines = good guys / insurgents = bad guys” worldview.
I’m envious of that attitude. I saw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as complex and morally grey. While I was proud to serve in each, I couldn’t help but understand why the enemy would fight us. I remember my reply when a French officer in Afghanistan asked how we could get the local population’s support: “It’s simple. All we have to do is convince them we’re not alien, infidel invaders and occupiers trying to change their way of life. The problem is, we ARE alien, infidel invaders and occupiers trying to change their way of life.” I just never saw the war as simple us vs. them, and never condemned the enemy for attacking us; If America was invaded, no matter the invaders’ intentions, wouldn’t I fight them? Wouldn’t you?
I couldn’t take the grey from the war. That makes me what it makes me. Chris Kyle, however, could. That made him incredibly focused and effective. And willing to sacrifice far more than others.
But obviously, Kyle didn’t sacrifice alone. His wife Taya’s suffering and struggles are beautifully portrayed by Sienna Miller. My wife felt an emotional connection to Taya. They share, with many thousands of other wives, the frustration of feeling like a nowhere-near-close second to the military, of having a husband who spent years preparing for war, going to war, being constantly distracted by memories of war, and wishing he was back at war.
Despite the American Sniper’s significant flaws, it did accurately portray the essence of Kyle’s, and his wife’s, service. Kyle endured great hardships to become a SEAL sniper, then spent years in combat, was nearly killed many times and wounded twice. Like many of us, he left a wife and children behind with no guarantee he’d return. Unlike many of us, he kept doing it. And he didn’t seem to regret a second of his service, or a single shot he fired.
In real life, Chris Kyle was a flawed man. But his real-life flaws don’t erase his real-life dedication and sacrifice. He’s also the subject of a flawed movie. Fortunately, the movie’s flaws don’t erase its message.
If you see American Sniper – and I suggest you do – keep in mind that it’s not a historical record. It’s a message. Hopefully you’ll walk into the theater expecting not to see literal truth. And maybe you’ll walk out with an understanding of the movie’s message about sacrifice. Because that’s where its value lies.
Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris (seen here on patrol in Afghanistan) may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LIGHT writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley and Proof of Our Resolve. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog, Iron Mike Magazine, Kit Up! and Under the Radar. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.