Saturday, January 24, 2015

A Celebration of Killing?

The Arts: Film ---

In a speech before an audience at the Riverside Church in New York City, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "America is the greatest purveyor of violence in the world." As I sat in the theater watching the movie, "American Sniper", for some reason those words came rushing to my mind. Famed actor and director, Clint Eastwood, chose to present a slice of Chris Kyle's life through art. And as art, the film in which his life is portrayed is without a doubt a good composition, though not necessarily Mr. Eastwood's best. The film's producer makes it clear that the film is not a debate about the Iraq war but that it is a character study. What is certainly clear in the mind of the main character, Chris Kyle, is that he is simply trying to protect his men and his country; he is doing his job. There is no ambiguity in his mind as to his purpose, and he has no regrets. 

Those against whom Chris Kyle fights, as well as those who are non-combatants are all lumped together under the nomenclature - savages. To him and his "boys" they are not humans. He is incredulous when one of his men tells him that he bought a ring from an Iraqi store for his girlfriend. His response is, "You bought a ring from those savages?" This dehumanizing of those he is fighting against certainly made it easy to kill them with impunity. They are no different from the quail or deer he hunted in his childhood. They are assholes, motherfuckers, hajjis (not because of the trips they made to Mecca), or savages - certainly not humans. The theater of operation is not Iraq, that sovereign country rich in history and culture, but "this dump" - of course reduced to rubble and "dump" status by U.S. "Shock and Awe" doctrine. I make no judgement of Mr. Kyle. By all accounts he was a dedicated and competent soldier. But a hero? There is nothing heroic in killing another human being regardless of how bad he or she might be. I refuse to celebrate killing of any kind under any circumstance.

It is difficult to determine Mr. Eastwood's deeper intent in this film. However, the sentimental music, the pomp of military ceremony, lavish displays of the Stars and Stripe, the apparent "good moral decision-making" of U.S. soldiers, all against the backdrop of the Christian, hunting-loving American family, the bombing of the American embassy in Kenya, and the World Trade Center attack, seem to lend support to the notion that this movie is more about celebration rather than introspection. The average American loves this movie - never mind the omission of certain antecedents that might show the absurdity of such celebration - America has its hero, it's Legend - a killer, the deadliest in U.S. history, trained as such to continue its purveyance of violence. What is interesting is that Mr. Kyle never seemed to embrace the "hero" designation. In fact, soldiers would almost always disclaim hero status and say that they are simply doing their jobs. It's the rest of society who seem to find glamour in the killings. When fawned over by others for his "accomplishments" Mr. Kyle seemed almost distant, annoyed, pre-occupied, dazed, as if he would rather not talk about them.

The fact that Mr. Kyle appeared unaffected by his experience during his four tours in Iraq or said that he was not bothered by it has surprised some. What must be borne in mind is that Mr. Kyle was well-trained. He was trained to endure for hours certain conditions that pushed him and his comrades far beyond the limits of human endurance, and no doubt, he was also able to ward off the assault of conscience as a result of that training - at least for a time. In addition, his ideological stance (buoyed by a firm patriotism, his formed opinion about evil and the necessity of its punishment, his cowboy mindset, and his Christian commitment) also provided a bulwark to any doubt in his mind. But something he said seem to indicate that there might have been a chink in his armor when he said to someone that the tally of kills he had was not a tally that that individual would want to have ownership of. A hint of guilt? A tally, deep inside, too burdensome to bear? For after all, how long can one hide behind, "I was only doing my job." For when all is said and done, ideologies and principles are no match for the human in us. So Americans can have their hero in Chris Kyle, but they must be willing to go all the way; they must also be willing to own his guilt. The hero is American, the guilt is American.

[Artwork by Ric Couchman]