January 20, 2015

American Sniper, and the Murderers Hall of Infamy

Just ten days ago, our wondrously life-affirming Western, and especially American, culture offered the spectacle of talk radio hosts giggling as they tried to determine the best way to celebrate the murders of those accused of the Charlie Hebdo killings.

But our glorious culture is capable of achievements greater by far than a few hosts laughing about the deaths of less than a handful of people. When it comes to nauseating spectacles that celebrate violence and bloody death, we are always outdoing ourselves. Perhaps "celebrate" isn't quite the right word in this context. "Consecrate" captures the dynamic more accurately; truly, violence. especially gratuitous violence, and bloody death, the bloodier the better, constitute our civic religion these days.

So this week began with the inspiring news that huge audiences flocked to see the new film, American Sniper. The enormous success of the film, which according to most reports took all the Hollywood-watchers and predicters by surprise (important reminder: so-called "experts" in any and every field -- foreign policy, economics, even Hollywood -- are the last people whose judgment you should trust, save for exceptions so rare they fail to constitute a serious challenge to the rule's application) is described as a "juggernaut," with the film expected to gross more than $105 million for the four-day holiday weekend: "The film is still setting mega-records including the largest January-February opening ever, the largest MLK four-day haul and an uber-career high for [Clint] Eastwood [the director[."

American Sniper is the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty during the war in Iraq. He is considered to be the most lethal sniper in American history, with 160 confirmed kills, out of 255 probable kills. I have not seen the film yet (and have no plans to do so in the near future), but I'm reading Kyle's book. A number of reviews of the movie confirm that Kyle's own view of what he did, as stated in his book, is faithfully rendered in the film.

Kyle's view of his actions is very straightforward and uncomplicated. He considered all those he killed to be "savages" who represented "despicable evil." Kyle's total of 160 confirmed kills may represent a record, but Kyle declares: "I only wish I had killed more."

Kyle also says this:
I loved what I did. I still do. If circumstances were different -- if my family didn't need me -- I'd be back in a heartbeat. I'm not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life as a SEAL.
After reading many reviews and comments about the film, I am confident in stating that the consensus view of Kyle and his "achievement" is that he was a hero. The film, and most members of the audience, are profoundly sympathetic to Kyle. They are keenly aware of the enormous pain Kyle suffered -- all of which had to do with fellow Americans who were killed, especially those Americans whose lives he thought he might have saved. Neither Kyle, nor his book, nor, it appears, the film expends even a moment's energy or thought for the suffering of the Iraqis. (There are brief mentions in his book of concern for those Iraqis who were "loyal to the new government," but it is hardly a subject of great moment to him. And those are the only Iraqis who merit a glimmer of compassion. All the rest of the Iraqis embody "despicable evil.")

Kyle's attitude toward the murders he committed -- that "it was fun," and that he "had the time of [his] life as a SEAL," immediately put me in mind of Matthew Hoh. You may recall that five years ago Hoh was much praised and lauded by the usual suspects among "dissident" writers because he resigned from the military "in protest about the Afghan war." Hoh did not deserve such praise: his only objection to the Afghan war was that it was "ineffective" and "counterproductive," not that it was a war of aggression, or that he objected to the U.S. government's foreign policy of ceaseless bombings, invasions, covert operations, and so on, all for the purpose of American global hegemony. Hoh had no objection at all to any of that. He supported that policy.

I explained why I assessed Hoh's actions in a radically different way from those commentators who praised him in two articles: "The Denial Continues, and the Horror Remains Unrecognized," and "Desperately Seeking Peacenik, Pot-Smoking Hippies." In the first piece, I set forth what I regarded as the worst of Hoh's own comments about his military experience:
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."
Chris Kyle: "It was fun. ... I had the time of my life as a SEAL." Matthew Hoh: "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."

Bloodthirsty killers, brothers-at-arms, soulmates. If you wish to nominate Kyle and Hoh to the Murderers Hall of Infamy, I will offer no objection.

Following Hoh's comments, I offered a concise explanation of why Hoh's view is unforgivably wrong. I repeat it here, for this passage can be applied with full force to Kyle's evaluation of his experience. (Kyle provides a "justification" of his kills which is unsurprisingly identical to Hoh's: "Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.") I wrote:
The critical facts are few in number, and remarkably easy to understand: Iraq never threatened the U.S. in any serious manner. Our leaders knew Iraq did not threaten us. Despite what should have been the only fact that mattered, the U.S. invaded and occupied, and still occupies, a nation that never threatened us and had never attacked us. Under the applicable principles of international law and the Nuremberg Principles, the U.S. thus committed a monstrous, unforgivable series of war crimes. Those who support and continue the occupation of Iraq are war criminals -- not because I say so, but because the same principles that the U.S. applies to every other nation, but never to the U.S. itself, necessitate that judgment and no other.

While it may be true that some "dudes" threatened Hoh's life and the lives of those with whom he served, Hoh could never have been threatened in that manner but for the fact that he was in Iraq as part of a criminal war of aggression. In other words, he had no right to be in Iraq in the first place. And if he had not been, he would never have been in a position to "whack[] a bunch of guys."

Hoh joined the U.S. military voluntarily. He was obliged to understand this.
Kyle and Hoh could have acted differently. In the earlier article, I discussed the notable, genuinely inspiring example of Ehren Watada, who refused to serve: "My participation would make me party to war crimes." Watada deserves great praise and admiration; Kyle and Hoh absolutely do not.

In the last few days, I've heard and read many awful and frequently idiotic remarks about the great "success" of American Sniper. I've heard how many audiences apparently cheer wildly at the conclusion of the film, in approval of this portrait of a great American hero. A number of commentators insist that Americans are "starved" for this version of "unapologetic patriotism."

In the midst of this blood-drenched celebration of unnecessary, avoidable murder, I heard one especially stupid comment. A local Los Angeles radio host lamented that, during his time in office, Mr. Obama has never uttered Chris Kyle's name. Obama has failed to grant the recognition due this great hero. When I heard that, I had an odd, funny thought. Of course Obama isn't going to mention Kyle, I thought. Kyle is his competition.

Obama is the Murderer-in-Chief. He devoted years and enormous energy to becoming the Murderer-in-Chief. And you expect him to share this great achievement with some two-bit sniper? 160 confirmed kills? That's a morning's work for Obama. Surely we recall that Obama devotedly continues -- and expands -- the infernal work of American Empire in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and in countless countries around the globe. Surely we recognize that Obama considers the lives of tens of thousands of people, most of them entirely innocent by any standard, as completely expendable in the pursuit of American global hegemony.

On top of this, we surely recall that Obama has a Kill List, and that his Murder Program has been widely publicized in the nation's leading newspapers. The U.S. government has been at great pains to make sure that we all know about the Kill List and the Murder Program in excruciating detail -- and that we know that Obama himself is critical in directing all these operations. The U.S. government, led by Obama, claims that it may kill anyone it chooses, anywhere in the world, for any reason it offers, or for no reason at all. Why would Obama even notice a pipsqueak like Kyle?

Yet the truth is that the overwhelming majority of Americans recognize and remember none of this. Although the Kill List was much written about for a brief period, it has joined the long list of horrors in the cesspool of Americans' amnesia. It's ancient history; who cares about it any longer? Almost ho one. The truth is far worse than that: as I have noted, even during and immediately after the extensive coverage of the Kill List and the Murder Program, as far as most Americans were concerned, all the stories and discussion "caused almost no reaction at all ... It was as if nothing of any significance had been said."

And so we have huge numbers of Americans eager to see this celebration of murder in a criminal war of aggression, and a film which offers an undiluted version of Kyle's view of the Iraqis he killed as embodying "despicable evil." While I've seen a few reports indicating that the film may offer a somewhat more complex perspective, and might even cause a viewer to wonder if the war was "worth it" -- but solely because of the great suffering endured by Kyle, not by the Iraqis -- this obviously is not the primary reason for the film's success. Even the reviews that claim this greater "complexity" for the film stress that the film is enormously sympathetic to Kyle. It is certain that the film does not even begin to approach the idea that Kyle was a serial murderer, who killed people when he had no right to do so -- and when he had no right even to be in their country.

In short: Kyle committed a series of unforgivable crimes. What he did was unforgivably wrong. and unforgivably evil.

That view does not translate into boffo box office, not in these United States of America.

What, then, do I consider the real explanation for the film's notable success? One of the essays linked above provided that explanation, in two brief opening paragraphs. From "To Honor the Value of a Single Life: The First Murder":
We live in a culture drenched with cruelty, violence and blood. From our earliest days as children, we are taught to hate those who are not like us. We learn that compassion and empathy are signs of weakness, and failings to be viewed with contempt. By the time we are adults, most people have internalized these lessons completely. They refuse even to question them. They will despise you, or simply ignore you, if you dare to challenge these beliefs.

We are also taught that the fundamental virtue is obedience to authority. Whatever else we may question -- and, in truth, there is no longer much at all that may be questioned -- the inherent goodness of the primary authority figures we are taught to revere is an absolute that we must accept. The authority figures we are told we must obey, if, that is, we wish to be civilized and decent, are our parents in the first instance; as we grow older, and when the roots of obedience are left to grow and strengthen, as they are in almost every case, the same mechanism encompasses additional authority figures: political leaders, and the military and police, are among the prime examples.
American Sniper mixes these elements together in a lethal combination. Americans' comfort with extreme cruelty and violence, and their unquestioning acceptance of the necessity of obedience to authority (Kyle repeatedly stresses that he was "simply" doing "his duty," but any questions as to why he chose this duty are ignored entirely), are offered to audiences as a version of themselves they view with great favor. Indeed, they revel in it.

The great success of American Sniper immediately follows the latest exercise in the ongoing demonization of Islam and Muslims. Americans' penchant for violence and unending aggression requires the existence of targets who "deserve" whatever they get, even and often especially when what they get is brutality, torture and murder. Empire is greatly skilled and inventive at feeding the appetites of this ravenous monster. Given recent developments, the horrors will not be ending anytime soon. It is more likely that the pressure grows for new explosions of these hatreds. The dedication to violence demands an outlet. Tell many Americans that their hatred and their desire to wreak vengeance are "justified," and they will love you for it.

At this point, it doesn't appear that most Americans can even imagine a profoundly different way of living, let alone begin to make it real. The deadly disease that consumes America can be described in many ways -- but, at least for me, "living" isn't one of them.