A commenter pointed out in my post about American Myths the damage films such as American Sniper cause and I though the film was worth re-examining from the perspective of it being a modern state myth.
Having seen it myself, I consider it a case study in how a culture steeped in previous state myths takes a real life person and transforms them into a mythical hero by omitting details and facts that contradict the ideal vision. Keep in mind that the state doesn’t have to be the one to push the myth; what makes it a state myth are the values expressed within.
I find it ironic that Clint Eastwood, whose 1992 film Unforgiven was intended to smash the mythical Hollywood Old West black-white moral paradigm, would create a film that not only ignores well-established facts about what transpired while Chris Kyle was in Iraq (which Kyle himself outright states in his book), but actually changes the historical events in order to fit the narrative.
Swapping Fact With Myth
The opening scene in the film, for example, is during the Battle of Fallujah and has Kyle reluctantly shoot a young boy and his mother in order to save other U.S. troops. In his autobiography, Kyle recounts the same scene – except it’s a woman and during the initial invasion in 2003. He also wrote having zero regrets about it.
This is just one of many scenes that infer, despite all the propaganda about American Exceptionalism, that people still believe in the idea of consistent moral principles. If it were not so, Eastwood would have felt comfortable portraying the incident as it actually happened.
Another crucial area of the real Kyle that was left out of the film is his total lack of remorse or scruples for those he killed. In fact, he wrote that he wished he had killed more. There was no moral conflict within him over what he did. Were Eastwood to paint him in such a light, the audience would have seen a cold-blooded killer as well as a one-dimensional cinematic character and start to question their attitude about what it means for a soldier to “honorably serve” their country if it includes doing things like shooting women and children.
It was interesting to talk to people who had seen the film; on one hand, they respected his tenacity and expertise – but on the other hand some found it hard to think highly of someone who, for lack of a better word, was paid to shoot kids in their own country if they posed a threat. Some might want to justify their killing, but then that would lead us to the question of “what right did they have to be there?” No more than a Soviet soldier had a right to be in Afghanistan.
I understand from a masculine perspective why people want to admire Kyle; on the surface, he has what Jack Donovan refers to as the four “tactical virtues” of masculinity. He’s brave, strong, a master at what he does, and maintains an inter-tribal moral code. But because he kills children, the audience’s ability to admire him rests on the justness of his cause, and since he is there killing on behalf of the U.S. government, the purpose for him and the thousands of other soldiers being in the country must be justified.
Myths Build Upon Myths
One thing I think we have to keep in mind is that American Sniper mythologized Chris Kyle by necessity in order to perpetuate previous myths. We have to think of Kyle as honorable because he was on our side in the war and America is never the oppressor always the liberator. This rationalization stems from older myths. In order to reject Kyle as a mythical hero and see him for who he truly was, we have to, by extension, reject other myths that form the foundation for his tale.
People want heroes to look up to and use as inspiration. Actual myths perform this role well because they convey values and moral principles without the messy bickering over “the real” versus “the fiction” of a person – though people will still do this (think the whole “Han shot first” debate among Star Wars fans).
Twenty First Century technology makes it impossible to hide the unpleasant aspects of real people no matter what we told to think. What causes us to embrace the myth rather than the truth is the terrible prospect of what this will do to our perception of the world. What other “myths” do we believe that we must crush? Just how much of what we think we know is a lie?
The harm of this specific myth is done by having people, young men in particular, see a Kyle onscreen that never existed, yet think the person is both real and someone to emulate. They admire him and therefore will defend his right to be in Iraq in the first place, which means they will defend the Iraq War. They might also want to join the Marines or the Navy Seals and find themselves on the wrong side of war.
Broader picture, it means they will defend the authority of future presidents to send troops to fight in undeclared conflicts overseas against people and countries that never attacked us, because that’s what the Iraq War was and Chris Kyle fought in it and he was a hero, so it must be okay, right?
In my American Myths post I cited the War Between the States as one of the hardest myths for most people to give up when they are exposed to libertarian ideas. Were it not for this myth the war in Iraq might not have happened in the first place. Inevitably someone will cite Lincoln’s action during the war to justify modern presidential powers that blatantly go beyond their constitutional limitations.
A more ironic example recently occurred when Trump called for temporarily barring entry for people from certain Muslim countries. His campaign has been vehemently attacked for it, but things got awkward for the Left when Trump’s people pointed out that FDR did far worse in World War II when he signed an executive order locking up 150,000 innocent Japanese Americans without trial or due process. This contradicts the myth of the Good War and how FDR was one of the greatest presidents for his leadership.
Such is the damage these myths can wreak and how they are utilized by the state to persuade people to support policies and agendas they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Communists referred to people who unknowingly aided their cause as “useful idiots.” Men like Chris Kyle make “useful myths” because as a mythical figure they unwittingly fulfill a vital need to protect and defend the state’s perceived legitimacy. It is all the more fitting when they’re dead. In fact, it is preferred they die before realizing the role they played in creating these myths because, as Smedley Butler showed, a useful idiot can become a dangerous liability once they learn the truth and expose the state for what it is.