Asia Defense

‘American Sniper’ and What it Says About Civil-Military Relations in the US

Recent Features

Asia Defense

‘American Sniper’ and What it Says About Civil-Military Relations in the US

Is there a problem with the way the media portrays American soldiers?

‘American Sniper’ and What it Says About Civil-Military Relations in the US
Credit: Warner Brothers

Like no other American war movie of the last couple of years, American Sniper, depicting the life and military service of former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, has polarized the United States over the last few days. Amidst the debate, the usual suspects (Michael Moore, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich etc.) have been lining up to the left and right of the aisle, discharging their usual 140-character long tirades, and defending or attacking the glorification of an American soldier. The movie (and book) has already been dissected by multiple outlets, so I will neither try to validate the rather parochial discussion about the Truth behind the sniper’s military service in Iraq, nor will I attempt to uncover the “real Chris Kyle”(side note: he had proclivity towards bending the truth). What I would rather focus on here  is how the current debate around the movie is emblematic of the ambiguous state of civil-military relations in the United States.

As James Fallows pointed out in a rather controversial article, there is a growing gap between those who have and those who have not served in the United States (I have written about civil-mil. relations in the U.S. here, here, and here). Yet, as I pointed out before, there is also a growing gap between how the United States (and Western Europe) and the rest of the world experiences war. The result of both gaps is a narrowing of the discussion on both war and the nature of being a soldier. As Rudyard Kipling said: “And what should they know of England who only England know?” To paraphrase: What should they know of U.S. soldiers who only U.S. soldiers know?

The problem arising from this closed American mindset is that, counterintuitively to American tradition, U.S. soldiers can never be truly apolitical. Every American soldier by definition is a political soldier, because to the American public and to American politicians he has to be an example of American values and (as a corollary) an American hero. It is not a role he chooses (by taking the oath, every American soldier has to abstain from public political involvement), but rather a role chosen for him by the public.  So he – like a Norman Rockwell illustration – needs to stand for everything that is good in this country (freedom, human rights, democracy etc.).  Consequently, anyone attacking an American soldier like Chris Kyle ultimately attacks the very foundation on which this country is built (of course, Kyle was no ordinary soldier but that’s beside the point).

On the other side, those who think that Chris Kyle was a coldblooded killer, a Christian fanatic who despised Islam and Arabs, and who on top of all that fought in an unjust war also miss the forest for the trees.  He was a soldier, pure and simple. Many Americans do not know what it truly means to serve in the army, or any army, a problem caused by the widening civil-military gap detailed in James Fallow’s article. The “Western Way of War” does not center on the individual combat effectiveness of a single warrior, but rather on the delivery of deadly force by a collective of warriors trained as a team. The logical consequence of this is that individualism and the free thinking that goes with it often has to be (cruelly) suppressed. As Frederick the Great once remarked: “If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army.” We tend to think that this is no longer true with all the talk about innovation, a revolution in military affairs, the army of one, etc. Yet, at the core, this will remain true, because the nature of any Western style army is collective, not individual. Nevertheless, this stands in blatant contradiction to American values like individualism and free expression.

As a consequence, the public is getting served stories about elite units such as Easy-Company of the 101st Airborne, Seal Team 6, and people like Chris Kyle, since their individualism is much more in tune with American values. This inadvertently camouflages the fact that the brunt of most prolonged fights is still being borne by average dogfaces.

All of this makes objective discussions of war and soldiers very difficult in the United States.

The simple truth is that the act of fighting a war for your country is not moral or immoral but amoral (of course, pacifists and patriots would beg to differ). For a soldier, there is no inherent goodness in killing the enemy in war, nor is there anything particularly bad about it (the 10 commandments aside), unless we add our peculiar political or personal rationale to it (“He wears the uniform of the state my state is fighting against and it is therefore my duty to kill him” or “He was shooting at my friends, therefore I had to shoot back”). The soldier is just “doing his job,” as most men I talked to in Afghanistan would say. Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Man He Killed” expresses this sentiment succinctly:

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have set us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.

The forced polarization of the country over American Sniper and all the vitriol that came out of it implies that people on both aisles, left and right, are merely politicizing an individual who, by any theory of democratic politics, ought to be perceived as apolitical.

The killing of enemy soldiers by the German Wehrmacht sniper Sepp Allerberger  and the American sniper Chris Kyle can only be judged to be good or bad based on the regimes they served. People like Clint Eastwood pay lip service to the fact that individual heroism and brilliance in battle can be separated from the political aims for which battles are fought, but the truth is that this is not what the American audience or political leadership expects to see in a war movie. They expect the depiction of the quintessential American hero (or villain). However, as I pointed out above, the field of battle is conspicuously apolitical — its only cause, victory; its only redemption, survival. Thus, to infer a political agenda from individuals engaged in apolitical activities appears ludicrous at best.

The bigger question, however, in this context is whether we can admire the deeds of justly famous soldiers and generals like Robert E. Lee or Erwin Rommel without also judging them based on the masters they served. There is obviously an ontological distinction between Jefferson Davis and Adolf Hitler, but Davis nevertheless headed a regime responsible for the death of more Americans than any other regime in history. The answer of the American movie industry and the majority of the American public appears to be no. Those who argue that American Sniper is not a political film and merely points out the heroism of Chris Kyle must also be willing to admire brave soldiers who served other (inhuman) regimes.

Thus, the sad truth about the current state of civil-military relations is that much more is amiss than meets the eye. There is a fundamental ontological misunderstanding of what it means to be a soldier in the United States and, more importantly, what the public wants an American soldier to look and act like. This is certainly not a good thing. As Nathaniel Hawthorne said in the Scarlet Letter, “No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”