Useful Myths

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.

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10 Responses to Useful Myths

  1. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts about myth in film, but I do have one disagreement. The necessity of altering facts in movies about the past (or about real people) is driven by the requirements of a dramatic structure, not a need to preserve or perpetuate previous myths.

    There’s no such thing as a “historically accurate” scripted film. (Try naming one, then look up all the things they chose to change.) History happens too slowly, and involves too many side characters and events to include in a story that MUST be told in three hours or less, preferably with heavy concentration on four (or fewer) lead characters. When faced with concrete time and budget limits, filmmakers and writers will ALWAYS combine and invent characters, and alter events, to fit dramatic goals. It’s a huge inside joke in Hollywood, finding ways to structure the “based on true” disclaimers.

    That’s different than the fact that movies also reflect culture of the times in which they are produced, and may (or may not) include homage to previous films, plays, or other art. So, the 1915 and 1930 Abraham Lincoln (Griffith) won’t ever be the same as Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford) or Spielberg’s Lincoln. And none of the versions are “right”, each one being crafted to support points of view.

    Like

    • The Question says:

      “There’s no such thing as a “historically accurate” scripted film.”

      That is a very good point. I personally love the film Braveheart but it is one of the most historically inaccurate films I’ve ever seen.

      “The necessity of altering facts in movies about the past (or about real people) is driven by the requirements of a dramatic structure, not a need to preserve or perpetuate previous myths.”

      Another good point. For example in Braveheart they changed the Battle of Stirling Bridge because of logistics to not have a bridge in the scene. It had nothing to do with rewriting history, because the Scots won that battle in real life as well.

      Likewise, in the film Rudy they have the coach at the end oppose having Rudy suit up when in real life he was fine with it, but the story needed a villain/heavy for dramatic effect.

      However, there are things Eastwood changed in American Sniper that were not necessary changes for dramatic effect, and in fact he could have written a better film had he not been determined to make Kyle a hero. Setting the opening scene in Fallujah, for example, instead of during the initial invasion, was done because it would have hurt the story’s theme of him being a hero. Or how he had no qualms killing the people he did.

      Think about it this way; it’s a movie about a “hero” who shot children. It wasn’t a movie about a soldier who shot children and whose actions the movie examines from a moral perspective. From the get-go Kyle is the hero and so any facts that contradicted this had to be omitted even if they might have made the story much more interesting.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree that film had serious flaws, and you’ve listed important ones. The one I disliked was the dearth of scenes about the process of therapy and recovery, leaving the impression that Kyle “got better” magically.

        My wife’s in WGA so we got a script before the movie came out. There were originally more scenes at the VA, but they were either cut or not filmed. My assumption (without evidence) is that Eastwood, being more comfortable directing action, wouldn’t care as much about guys sitting in a room crying. Or they shot it, and felt it took out the forward motion energy of the narrative. Or it was cut for time, since the film was already 2hrs/13min.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The Question says:

        My wife’s in WGA

        Nice!

        I was thinking this over and one film that really came to mind was biopic The Aviator. Not only was it a great film and story, but it also perfectly captured who Howard Hughes actually was, but that’s because the director wasn’t trying to make him something he wasn’t. Lots of details got left out of the film about him but nothing was changed to fit a perception of him that doesn’t match the real person. He was a terribly flawed genius and innovator and the film shows it all.

        I also interpreted it as a very pro-free market story.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Excellent choice, and a terrific movie all round. Well, there were still things changed about what really happened in The Aviator. Hughes liked black people about as much as he liked germs, but you wouldn’t know it from the film, where he’s more of a Howard Roark (The Fountainhead) with money, a socially beneficent hero with neuroses.

        He never had to “duck” while in the air filming Hell’s Angels. That happened to Paul Mantz. They toned down his profound deafness, which Kate Hepburn wrote was a main reason for his social isolation. His four significant plane crashes (the film doesn’t show them all) likely left him with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, but the film choice for his disintegration was more personal/psychological – better for acting. And Juan Trippe behaved more like the historical Salieri was toward the real Mozart – an emotionally cool character voicing admiration in public for Hughes, while maneuvering against him (for business survival) in private. He wasn’t a monopolist. He was fearful of losing domestic feeder routes. Drama requires conflict, so Trippe and Hughes became more like personal enemies.

        (I’ve enjoyed this interchange a lot!).

        Liked by 2 people

      • The Question says:

        (I’ve enjoyed this interchange a lot!).

        Likewise!

        Like

  2. D says:

    I understand that Hollywood has to change stories up to make them more interesting and to fit into the allotted time span, however, there is a difference between changing a story to make money and changing a story to fit a certain narrative. I used to be a big admirer of Eastwood because he had libertarian leanings and we need more folks in hollywood on our side, since, after all, they are the biggest purveyors of myth. But now I can’t even watch Unforgiven or Josey Wales.
    Lets take the new movie coming out, 13 hours. Now unlike lone survivor and american sniper i don’t have any inside sources for this story, so when people ask what the real deal was I have to decline to give my opinion because I’m not any smarter than anyone else on that subject. But a recent stars and stripes article which talked to the CIA station chief, ‘Bob’ gave a different version of events in which he claims that he and a female in the movie were portrayed falsely and made them look bad. I find it a bit humorous but also sad that this guy probably gave close to 35 years and maybe more in the ‘service’ of his country and he is thanked for it by being made to look like a jackass in front of hundreds of millions of Americans for the next several decades or however long this movie will be around. In those 35 years we have no idea how many times he risked his life for his country or what he did, but with the ease of several key strokes his legacy is now almost written in stone because the story needed a bad guy? Im not defending his career choice by any means but at the end of the day its the truth we are after, right?
    Just from a tactical, non political stand point, having patience can often be a good thing. That team could just as easily have been wiped out on their way to the compound. They weren’t because of luck or incompetence on the side of the enemy but the story could have gone much differently very easily. In any case, Im digressing from the topic-myth.
    There is another damaging aspect to this particular myth, in addition to its rewriting of historical truths. Recently Cruz said something to the effect of needing to drop a nuclear bomb on the middle east. I often find people like this when I’m discussing Iraq. An amazing amount of Americans, and soldiers for that matter, have no concept of how to win a counter insurgency or how to behave. Obviously I don’t think we should even be overseas but thats not the point. It means that those who do think we should be over there don’t even understand how to win. And its not by shooting every Iraqi you come across.
    The military has sub cultures within every unit. And it gets very dangerous when a units culture begins to adopt a certain mind set. Then you begin to have incidents like the one in Afghanistan where the SEALs were beating torturing and murdering detainees. They undermine all of the hard work and progress of the units who came before them doing the right thing. Read the comments underneath the articles discussing that event-half of them think we have no business judging or criticizing those SEALs because they are over there ‘allowing us to sleep safely in our beds at night’ or some bullshit. So they should be able to do what they want.
    In other words its the myth that to win a war you kill as many ‘bad’ guys as you can. Nobody even questions the fact that Kyle shot more people than all of SOTF-C did during that same time span. So like you said, instead of filling our military with young soldiers and Marines who understand the current nature of asymmetric warfare and respect human life we are getting Chris Kyle fanboys.
    I think I basically just repeated everything you wrote but with less eloquence.

    Like

    • I got a lot from reading your comment, but I don’t personally think there is any difference between changing a story to fit a narrative or to make money. They ALWAYS change the narrative, precisely to make money. BTW, Kyle never shot a child, if he is to be believed. Here’s a longer piece about all the stuff conflated and invented for the movie:
      http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2015/01/23/american_sniper_fact_vs_fiction_how_accurate_is_the_chris_kyle_movie.html

      Liked by 1 person

      • D says:

        Well Chris Kyle is never to be believed, although nothing I have heard in the SOF community was regarding the shooting of a child. I have put in links to open source stories of his many lies under other articles here so I wont repeat them. From my understanding most of his ‘kills’ were unarmed males of various ages. The one he was investigated for was an elderly man I believe.
        At the end of the day we have no way of figuring out who he killed, since neither the Navy, nor anyone in the DOD, tracks sniper kills. The only one who does that is the sniper himself. And I cant take the word of someone who has such a long history of bullshitting people. Sorry for going down the rabbit hole there.
        Hero worship is an especially big pet peeve of mine, I think it is somewhat related to an earlier topic on this site where the author discusses masculinity in modern America…

        Liked by 2 people

    • The Question says:

      “I understand that Hollywood has to change stories up to make them more interesting and to fit into the allotted time span, however, there is a difference between changing a story to make money and changing a story to fit a certain narrative.”

      I think that is key. Changing historical events to make a story work dramatically and changing them to fit a narrative are different. When it’s the latter it’s often obvious because there are no other reasons for doing so.

      “I think I basically just repeated everything you wrote but with less eloquence.”

      But you bring a perspective I lack, which is highly appreciated.

      “I often find people like this when I’m discussing Iraq. An amazing amount of Americans, and soldiers for that matter, have no concept of how to win a counter insurgency or how to behave. Obviously I don’t think we should even be overseas but thats not the point. It means that those who do think we should be over there don’t even understand how to win. And its not by shooting every Iraqi you come across.”

      It’s amazing how ignorant people are of both recent and distant history. How many are aware, for example, of Britain’s war in Afghanistan and how well that worked? You’d think our own generals would have studied that conflict and understood why the country is called the “graveyard of empires.” Or how insurgencies work, no matter the country.

      Liked by 1 person

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