Cool Story, Bro: American Sniper and Toxic Masculinity

I’m a big Clint Eastwood fan. Unforgiven is one of my favourites. But his last few movies have been duds. American Sniper is somewhat of a return to force. A solid 7/10. Certainly the work of a master. There are no wasted scenes or moments. It’s muscular filmmaking.

I was surprised by the controversy and partisanship surrounding the movie. Seth Rogen compared it to “Nation’s Pride,” the Nazi propaganda movie-within-a-movie in Inglorious Basterds. Michael Moore said some shit about snipers being cowardly. Sarah Palin said liberals didn’t deserve to tie Chris Kyle’s shoes (interestingly, Kyle did some private protection work for Palin). And Rush Limbaugh said it was everything liberal Hollywood hates.

Somewhere in the middle of all this sound and fury is a half decent movie with something worth saying about PTSD.

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(Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle)

 

With Bush’s wars in the rear-view mirror, the battle for their legacy begins. Most of the prominent movies about it have been largely critical. Kathryn Bigelow, who has best captured the spirit of Bush’s wars, subverted many of the myths propelling modern war. American Sniper is different in that it is uncritical of the war; Eastwood has no interest in the wars’ merit. Instead, it takes a soldier who bought all the jingoism and what that ended up costing him.

(As a quick side note, I can’t help but observe that a lot of the partisanship around American Sniper is about will to power. Who will define Bush’s wars? Liberals or conservatives?)

There is, however, bi-partisan consensus that American Sniper is pro-war. I disagree. It’s pro-soldier, which sounds lame but let me explain.

Like Saving Private Ryan (which also gives little critical thought to WWII and its dehumanization of Germans), Eastwood celebrates the bravery and ability of American troops. Kyle is passionate about protecting his brothers in arms, and he just so happens to be one of the best snipers to have ever lived.

American Sniper isn’t dumb, but it’s uncritical. Afghans and Iraqis are mere targets and there isn’t much thought given to the telos of Bush’s wars. But that isn’t the scope (pardon the pun) of the film. The protagonist was a patriot and firmly believed in the righteousness of the mission. Whether he’s right isn’t the point. His suffering is the point.

If American Sniper were war-porn, Kyle would just be kicking ass and chewing gum the whole movie. This isn’t the case. The toll the warfare takes on Kyle’s psyche is explicitly shown. Indeed, the heart of the movie is the mental anguish veterans are suffering. (Are we paying attention, Stephen Harper?)

Eastwood is saying, “This is one of our greatest soldiers and he suffered PTSD. No amount of masculinity and patriotism could save him from it.” This is significant because PTSD is still a four letter word in the military, especially the SEALs, who are all about disguising weakness with machismo.

Judging by the box office numbers and Oscar hype, Eastwood has discovered a way to depict Bush’s wars while bypassing liberal criticism. Here is a legitimate way to celebrate American troops. However, if the American myth machine wants to reclaim Iraq and Afghanistan then the toxic masculinity surrounding the military will have to go. It is no longer possible to ignore veterans with appeals to machismo.

I’d also like to address the issue of Eastwood allegedly whitewashing Chris Kyle.

It is true that Kyle was rather flippant about killing insurgents in his book. However, I would argue that Kyle was trained to feel this way. Consider this: It wasn’t until after WWII that the military realized that most troops actually avoid shooting at their targets. Conventional wisdom says that if someone is trying to kill you, your survival instinct will kick in and you’ll shoot back. This isn’t the case. It isn’t enough to just hand a soldier a gun; troops must be taught to kill. Vietnam was the first war where troops were psychologically trained to kill. Kyle then was desensitized. He was transformed into a hammer. And to a hammer, everything looks like nail.

Kyle’s commitment to helping veterans, however, is accurate. And I think that merits our admiration. Many talk the talk about helping veterans, but Kyle walked the walk.

(Are we paying attention, Stephen Harper?)

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~ by braddunne on January 25, 2015.

One Response to “Cool Story, Bro: American Sniper and Toxic Masculinity”

  1. Great analysis. I like that you highlighted what it can say about PTSD or what we should try to take away from it. When watching the movie I thought about the relationship between PTSD and the socio-cultural reinforcement of men not being supposed to ask for help / show emotion / admit weakness or vulnerability. The couple of scenes that depicted Kyle speaking to medical professionals really emphasized for me how so much of how PTSD becomes exacerbated may relate to how we have cultivated masculinity, specifically the form of masculinity that is fostered in military environments.

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