Earlier this month, BuzzFeed posted a video under the headline “People Try Military Field Rations For The First Time.” The three-minute piece, light in tone, features a group of attractive Millennials, clad in plaid and old-timey battle helmets, poking fun at the portable military meals that have sustained soldiers in the field since the early 1980s. “I’m just confused by the lack of plate,” one girl says, gazing at the packets spread before her. “There’s a lot of science going on in this pack of food,” says a guy. “I would definitely,” another guy muses, “mix this stuff with, like, some Fritos.”
The video is funny, as most such cultural mixology-themed productions are, but it's also a reminder of the attitude so many Americans have adopted toward their armed forces: one of detached wonderment. The military, as James Fallows put it in this month’s Atlantic cover story, has become “exotic territory” to most of the American public. “I’ve never even thought of what a soldier would eat,” one of BuzzFeed's designated wonderers says in the MRE video. He pauses. “They never show that.”
Indeed. We tend to talk about “the troops” only in an insistent plural, distancing ourselves from them—their complexity, their individuality, their humanity—through the lens of the heroic collective. Bumper stickers remind us to “support the troops,” which is the functional equivalent of a bumper-bound request to “imagine world peace.” Newscasts feature “In Remembrance” lists of “The Fallen,” which fill our screens for five seconds before the rerun of The Big Bang Theory begins. Memorial Day may involve parades and solemn services; primarily, though, it involves barbecues.
It's not, of course, that “the troops” don’t deserve our admiration; it is that they deserve much more than these weak displays of convenient gratitude. A hero-happy treatment of the military—damning, you could say, with quaint praise—does no favors to our service members (or to the people, and the country, they serve). Not only because the world isn't a Toby Keith song, but because the easy, empty logic of “supporting the troops” gives civilians leave to do a disservice to the people we reflexively thank for their service: It allows us to be ignorant of what that service entails in the first place. We live in a world newly obsessed with the realities of otherness—headlines prefixed with “What It’s Like to Be,” questions asked and answered on Quora, Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything”—yet it rarely occurs to us to ask what it’s like, what it’s really like, to be a soldier.
As Fallows summed it up: "We love the troops, but we'd rather not think about them."
The best thing you can say about American Sniper, which enters into wide release today after an official, Oscar-contention-timed premiere in December and a long period of controversy and critical praise, is that it is, above all, complex. Painfully, productively complex. It revels in its own ambiguities, ethical and otherwise—and this, in a world of bumper-sticker morality and patriotic pablum, is itself a significant achievement.
Based on the book American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, the movie is simple in its form: It's a character study of a single, and singular, soldier. It tells the story of Chris Kyle—played, subtly and powerfully, by Bradley Cooper—and his path to record-breaking lethality: a childhood spent as (as Kyle put it in the book) a “regular redneck,” a young adulthood spent on the rodeo circuit. The embassy bombings of 1998— "look what they did to us," Cooper’s Kyle tells his brother, as the footage of the wreckage plays on TV—led him to enlist as a Navy SEAL, quickly distinguishing himself for his prowess with a sniper rifle.
Then came 9/11. Kyle deployed. He proved to be exceptionally skilled at the job he'd signed up for. If you were to tally it up—and Kyle became famous because many people have—Kyle officially killed 160 people over his four tours of duty in Iraq. If you include probable kills, the number jumps to 225.
If you're aiming to create a film that explores the wrenching moral complexities of war, it’s hard to imagine a better character to focus on than a sniper. A sniper, after all—an almost mythical union of man and gun, a modern-day mixture of centaur and centurion—is the closest the military has come to creating a human killing machine. The sniper may, like other soldiers, be subject to the cold anonymities of bombs and bullets. But his mission is specialized, and personalized. He finds his target, moving and warm. He aims. He “eliminates” and “neutralizes” and every other euphemism we use to separate the logic of war from the logic of murder. The result, though, is the same: The sniper ends lives. And through that work—as Kyle in his book, and Clint Eastwood in his film, repeatedly emphasize—he saves lives, too.
American Sniper makes little mention of the politics of war. George Bush and Colin Powell are never named; neither is Saddam Hussein. The uncomfortable matters of how and why when it comes to the war in Iraq—WMDs, oil, “he tried to kill my dad”—are also notably absent from Eastwood’s moral-martial universe. The tensions here are instead microcosmic and personal, concerned with the conflicts inherent in the work that Kyle, repeatedly, refers to as “my job.” This is psychodrama, rich and taut. On the one hand, the Kyle of Eastwood’s telling is motivated by patriotism and principle. He loves his country; he fights for it; he sacrifices—his comfort, his family, and eventually, circuitously, his life—for it. In that, he fully embodies the bravery and stoicism and, indeed, the heroism we talk about when we talk about “the troops.”
And yet. What tends to happen when you’re good at your job is that you also come to enjoy it. In Kyle’s book, he admitted, “I love war.” He described killing as “fun.” He noted that “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” going on to explain that “I hate the damn savages.” But are the sacrifices of war still sacrifices when you enjoy them? Is heroism still heroism when you’re motivated by hatred?
The moral element of war's theater—in Kyle's book, and again as Cooper portrays Kyle in the film—is populated in his mind by good guys and bad guys, by superheroes and villains, by, essentially, cowboys and Indians. (At the Washington, D.C. premiere of the film this week, Bradley Cooper described the film not just as a character study, but also as a classic Western.) Just as foxholes have no atheists, battlefields are not places that tend to afford moral ambiguity. But if the job you are so good at exists on a separate moral plane from the rest of your life, what happens when that job ends? What happens when the soldier, groomed to kill, returns to the world of bumper stickers and barbecues? The film explores the psychological consequences of the military industrial complex, not just for soldiers, but for the network of people they affect. As Kyle’s wife, Taya—played by a wonderful Sienna Miller—tells him, revealingly, when he returns after his final tour: “I need to you to be human again.”
Those matters of humanity are not things we tend to talk about when we pin polyester ribbons to our lapels. But they are things American Sniper, through its messy hagiography, is asking us—daring us—to pay attention to. Through Eastwood’s confident, if occasionally strident, direction, we see the other side of support for the troops: how a man, cocky and charming and strong, gets groomed into a “killing machine.” How his fervent idealism, the admirable stuff that led him to enlist in the first place, gives way, shot after shot, to an almost animalistic revenge. As the war wears on, Kyle and his fellow SEALs begin sporting Punisher logos on their uniforms. Kyle becomes obsessed with killing his Iraqi-insurgent equivalent. A friend is injured on the battlefield. Kyle, visiting him in the hospital, promises: "You're my brother, and they're gonna fucking pay for what they did to you."
Is that heroism? Does it matter? This is one problem, American Sniper suggests, with a culture that insists on treating "the troops" as an anonymous collective: If everyone is a hero, then, heroes being what they are, nobody is.