‘American Sniper’ and Imperial Impasse

Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle signs a copy of his new book “American Sniper” for a Camp Pendleton sailor at the base’s Country Store, Jan. 13, 2012. “American Sniper” is Kyle's first person account of how he went from a Texas cowboy to one of the most distinguished snipers in the military. The book also offers a view of modern warfare and one of the most in-depth looks into the secret world of special operations. (Credit: U.S. Marine Cpl. Damien Gutierrez / Wikimedia Commons)

Navy SEAL Sniper Chris Kyle signs a copy of his new book “American Sniper” for a Camp Pendleton sailor at the base’s Country Store, Jan. 13, 2012. (Credit: U.S. Marine Cpl. Damien Gutierrez / Wikimedia Commons)

The new film phenomenon, American Sniper, has met with spirited acclaim as well as vigorous denunciation. It is a box-office triumph for Hollywood but also a cultural signpost of imperial impasse in which Americans flail at each other over the issue of war or just withdraw into political disaffection.

The film marks a point at which a demoralized people feel the lacunae of an outworn worldview. Such moments provide an opening for fresh thinking, an opportunity to revise a guiding perspective so that it is better adapted to coping with a recalcitrant situation, even at the cost of “the deceptive comforts of ideological rigidity” (Kenneth Burke, Attitudes Toward History, 3rd ed., p. 231).

Mixed reactions to the film are telling. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee complains that the film’s violent rhetoric caused a spike in threats to Arabs, tweets “loaded with racial epithets and direct expressions of desires to kill Muslims and Arabs” in response to the dehumanizing portrayal of Iraqis as “ragheads” and “savages.”

Others praise the film as an accurate representation of Islam’s threat to America, saying that it “tells the truth about the war we are in and the savages we are fighting” (reported by Abby Ohlheiser, Style Blog, Washington Post, 1/29/15).

“Snipers aren’t heroes,” commented Michael Moore, who grew up being told “snipers were cowards” (but maybe he didn’t really mean it that way after further consideration).

Newt Gingrich retorted that Michael Moore would appreciate American Sniper if he spent a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram.

John McCain said it was “regrettable that critics of US foreign policy would denigrate the memory of a noble warrior.” Jane Fonda tweeted that the film was “powerful.” Bill Mayer observed that its protagonist is “a psychopath patriot and we love him.”

Rolling Stone magazine judged the movie “almost too dumb to criticize.”

A. O. Scott, in a New York Times review, called American Sniper “less a war movie than a western, the story of a lone gunslinger facing down his nemesis in a dusty, lawless place—it is blunt and effective, though also troubling.” (Sarah Larimer, Style Blog, Washington Post, 1/26/15)

Cecelia Kang and Terrance McCoy reported that while some criticize the film as war propaganda, others praise it as a veterans’ paean.

Clint Eastwood, the film’s director, characterized it as an antiwar movie.

These “wildly divergent readings,” argues Ann Hornaday, reflect an emergent genre of war films about soldiers as professionals. This new cinematic sensibility is about warriors as “serious minded operators who are focused on the duty at hand.” Fighting is a career choice. Soldiers are professionals. They are neither “morally damaged warmongers” nor “shinning warrior-gods.” Such films are marked by “evenhanded frankness.” The audience is left to draw its own conclusions in a time when many (maybe most?) people are in some measure disconnected, unresolved, unsettled, confused, and/or demoralized in a global context of unending warfare.

The U.S. has reached a cultural impasse. The logic of the war state is stretched to its limit. It is running on sheer momentum, slowly bogging down in the deep sand of militarism. To re-moralize a worldview of a demoralizing situation will require an act of imagination, a metaphorical feat of extension, transference, and integration that places old and customary terms into new and uncustomary categories. This is Burke’s project of perspective by incongruity, a critical and creative practice of casuistic stretching for the purpose of being able to see around a corner. As a function of myth, it is coyote’s impious act of trespass, of violating linguistic boundaries established by custom.

We should always remember, in the words of Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World.



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