Clint Eastwood’s new movie, American Sniper, marks the return of the American war hero.
Heroism on the battlefield had never gone away, of course, far from it (witness the Medals of Honor awarded for acts of extraordinary valor in Iraq and Afghanistan). But the classic war hero is more than just brave or fierce. He is famous and almost universally acclaimed. On top of his battlefield exploits, he is a cultural phenomenon.
That is what American Sniper unquestionably makes of Chris Kyle. The late Navy SEAL sniper had already written a best-selling memoir and was known as “The Legend” within the military for his record number of confirmed kills during four tours in Iraq. The success of the movie, where he is played by Bradley Cooper, also means he will be remembered as a larger-than-life figure. Such is the power of the silver screen.
American Sniper had the largest opening ever on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, or any weekend in January. It is producing the kind of numbers — a projected $105 million weekend — usually reserved for mindless comic-book superhero movies. It has played especially well in Middle America, with its top-grossing theaters in places like San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Houston, and Albuquerque.
All of this is profoundly disquieting to the Left, which has so much sway in Hollywood. It hates and distrusts the idea of the war hero, believing it smacks of backwardness and jingoism. Its notion of compelling war movies were the tendentiously anti-war flops Green Zone, Stop-Loss, and In the Valley of Elah. Its reaction to American Sniper has been to belittle the movie and smear Chris Kyle.
Actor Seth Rogen compared American Sniper to the Nazi propaganda film featured in the movie Inglourious Basterds. Director Michael Moore tweeted that he’d been taught to consider snipers cowards. Kyle “was a hate-filled killer,” according to the Guardian, which also deems him “a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.” One member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — American Sniper is up for best picture — told the website TheWrap that Kyle “seems like he may be a sociopath.”
Chris Kyle enjoyed combat, as he makes clear in his book. He had no doubt about the righteousness of his mission protecting American troops, or about the evil of our enemies. These are welcome qualities in a warrior, no matter how offensive they might be to people who will never be entrusted with the responsibility of making life-and-death decisions in real time while in mortal danger.
Much is made of Kyle calling the people he killed “damn savages.” The description is typically salty (Kyle had a taste for pitch-black dark humor), but inarguably apt. Kyle was fighting suicide bombers and torturers, the forerunners of the Islamic State that has made a point of advertising its savagery to the world.
One can only imagine, in this spirit, the criticisms that might have been made of past American war heroes. Why did John Paul Jones have such destructive urges toward British shipping? Did Joshua Chamberlain have to be so bloodthirsty when under assault on Little Round Top? What was wrong with Alvin York and Audie Murphy that they were so obsessed with killing Germans?
Despite the reaction against it in some quarters, American Sniper is hardly a simplistic glorification of warfare. It shows its terrible cost, in lost and broken lives. The New Yorker, accurately, calls it “a devastating pro-war movie and a devastating anti-war movie.” Kyle himself is nearly consumed by the horrors of what he experienced in Iraq, and his tragic death at the hands of a disturbed vet is a heartbreaking coda to his service.
Chris Kyle, who had his flaws like anyone else, wasn’t a saint. He was an exceptional warrior whose bravery and feats on the battlefield will now be remembered for a very long time. He is, in short, a war hero.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2015 King Features Syndicate