U.S. coalition forces killed at least 1,201 children in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.
And that brings me to American Sniper, whose real-life "hero," Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, was a child killer. Ever since I saw the film, I've been denouncing it to students, colleagues and other poor souls within hearing range as jingoistic, warmongering trash, the popularity of which exposes a sickness in the American psyche.
In this column, I'll try to offer a slightly less obvious perspective on the film--and even draw a hopeful conclusion from it.
First, some context: On this blog I often ponder why we wage war. One popular explanation—advanced by Steven Pinker, Edward Wilson and other prominent scientists--is that war stems from the innate urge of males in one group to band together and attack members of other groups. This "deep roots" thesis is contradicted by masses of data, which reveal that war is a cultural innovation that arose less than 10,000 years ago.
War, once it emerged, proved to be an especially virulent meme, which infects societies against their will. If one tribe in a region starts attacking others, they have limited options: they can flee, surrender, resist nonviolently or fight back. Fear of war can also provoke societies to launch pre-emptive attacks against each other.
Precisely because most people don't relish killing or being killed, societies seeking to win wars must brainwash themselves into embracing militarism as a virtue. Margaret Mead made this point in her classic 1940 essay "War Is Only An Invention—Not a Biological Necessity." "The deeds of warriors are memorialized in the words of our poets," she wrote, "the toys of our children are modeled after the weapons of war."
Dave Grossman, a former lieutenant colonel and psychology instructor in the U.S. Army, presents a similar view in his 1995 book On Killing. Data from World War II, the American Civil War and other conflicts, he contends, reveal that many soldiers avoid firing their weapons in battle. Most men, he concludes, are reluctant warriors, who fear killing as well as being killed. [See Postscript.]
Post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological disturbances among veterans are evidence of our "powerful, innate resistance toward killing," Grossman asserts. This resistance can be overcome by various means, including intense training—the kind undergone by Navy SEALs such as Chris Kyle—and propaganda that extols the soldiers' cause and vilifies the enemy.
Throughout history, certain courageous figures—Gandhi and Martin Luther King come to mind—have urged us to resist this brainwashing and recognize war's immorality. There are signs that humanity as a whole may finally be heeding these antiwar exhortations. As scholars such as John Mueller, Joshua Goldstein and Pinker have documented, annual war casualties have plummeted by almost two orders of magnitude since the end of World War II.
The U.S., however, is bucking this positive trend. The U.S. maintains a global military empire, with a budget almost as big as that of all other nations combined. Since 2001, U.S. interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have resulted, directly and indirectly, in hundreds of thousands of deaths. Iraq Body Count estimates that U.S. coalition forces are directly responsible for the deaths of at least 15,060 Iraqi civilians--including, as mentioned above, at least 1,201 children. The actual numbers are almost certainly many times higher.
These facts surely unsettle even the most hawkish Americans. We see ourselves as the good guys, and we feel cognitive dissonance when confronted with contrary evidence. How can we possibly be the good guys if our soldiers kill innocent civilians, even kids? So we eagerly embrace propaganda like American Sniper, which assures us that those kids deserved to die. [See Post-postscript.]
Clint Eastwood's film glorifies American soldiers and demonizes Iraqis with cartoonish simple-mindedness. Chris Kyle kills Iraqi women and children because they are trying to kill his buddies. He feels awful afterwards, but that just shows what a good guy he is. (The real Chris Kyle bragged in his autobiography, on which the film is based, that he had no qualms about killing any Iraqis, whom he called "savages.")
Actor Seth Rogen compared American Sniper to the mock Nazi movie—which also stars a sniper--embedded within the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds. Rogen later apologized for the analogy, but it was apt. As journalist Chris Hedges points out, American Sniper resembles "the big-budget feature films pumped out in Germany during the Nazi era to exalt deformed values of militarism, racial self-glorification and state violence."
I promised to conclude this column with a hopeful message. Here it is: If the urge to wage war were embedded deep in our genes, we wouldn't need films like American Sniper to persuade ourselves that our wars are just. If we Americans can learn to resist this kind of loathsome pro-war propaganda—whether coming from filmmakers, media or politicians—world peace might be possible.
I try to inoculate my students against the militarism of our culture by exposing them to antiwar films, such as the great 1974 Vietnam War documentary Hearts and Minds. It portrays the killing of children by American soldiers as what it truly is: an atrocity, an abomination, that should fill us with shame, and make us vow, "Never again."
Postscript: Dave Grossman's writings apparently inspired an invented scene in American Sniper, in which Chris Kyle's father tells him that there are three kinds of people: sheep; wolves, who prey on the sheep; and sheepdogs, who protect the sheep from the wolves. The father wants Chris to be a sheepdog. Grossman proposed the sheep-wolf-sheepdog categories in his 2004 book On Combat. The irony is that soldiers like Chris Kyle, who conform to and never question their culture's pro-war values, could be described as sheep.
Post-postscript: It is surely no coincidence that the killing of children arises in another recent war film, FURY, about an American tank crew battling Germans toward the end of World War II. In the film, a green member of the tank crew hesitates to shoot a German boy, who then kills an American soldier. The tank commander, played by Brad Pitt, tells the youngster that he must without hesitation kill anyone--even "a baby with a butter knife"--posing a threat. As in Sniper, the message is that in war, we must do terrible things, like killing kids, and the sooner we accept this truth, the better. This is not truth, of course, it's repulsive pro-war propaganda.
Photo: Warner Brothers.