But first things first: it's very well done – Bradley Cooper really can act, Clint Eastwood really can direct, and it doesn't pull any punches about what really went on over there.
As far as I can tell, it's a Rorschach test. It doesn't really have a message, it just throws paint against the canvas and lets you imagine whatever picture you like. So when the movie opens with that old chestnut about the world being divided into "sheep, wolves and sheepdogs," is it supposed to be sincere or sarcastic? Are we supposed to see that ideology informing Kyle's quest to be a good soldier (sailor? What's the correct nomenclature for a SEAL?), or are we supposed to see his military career as an complete indictment of it? Paul Bibeau over at Goblinbooks has a pretty good takedown of that whole ideology, On The Stupidity of #Sheepdogs: personally I just find it suspicious that nobody who says the world is divided into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs ever seems to believe they're sheep or wolves.>
I really don't know what they wanted us to think. Director Clint Eastwood is a registered Republican, but he was against going to war in Iraq; it's so finely balanced I don't know which side it's going to come down on. I'd say they were trying to withhold judgement, to merely show Chris as he was, except they change so much about him (mostly by papering over his scarier side) that that's not really true either.
But I really think a lot of the movie's message is hidden under the skin, quietly implied rather than stated outright. Let me take you through the segment simply called "First Tour." It starts off with a scene of Hummers rolling down Iraqi main roads, with an officer giving us the following pep talk:
Welcome to Fallujah, new Wild West of the old Middle East. AQI put a price on your heads and now extremists from around the globe are flooding the borders to collect on it. You snipers are gonna be paired with a Marine to watch your back and inserted along the main road to do overwatch for 1st Marines* going door-to-door. Your job is to protect those Marines at all cost. The city has been evacuated. Any military-age male who is still here is here to kill you. Let's bring these boys in safe, and get our asses back home.It's hard not to hear the line, "Any military-age male who is still here is here to kill you," and not think of Full Metal Jacket: "Anyone who runs is a VC! Anyone who stands still is a well-disicplined VC!" But American Sniper puts its own spin on that cliche, because what follows is one of the few moments they make Chris look worse than he really was. He gets his first two kills and – spoiler alert – one's not military-age, and the other's not male.
Anyway, the keywords here are "Fallujah" and "1st Marines." Know what that means? That tells us we're heading into the First Battle of Fallujah. Now I know it's been 12 years, but have we maybe forgotten what "Fallujah" means? One of the biggest fuck-ups of the entire war? I'll let Gary Brecher tell the story.
We zoomed into Fallujah way back in April 2003, all fired up – and ready to smoke anything that moved.The cycle of ambush and counter-raid – just normal ambient violence in an urban guerrilla environment – went on for a year before the insurgents won a big propaganda victory. On 31 March, 2004, the local insurgents ambushed and killed four "private military contractors" (read: Blackwater thugs) while they were escorting a food convoy. A mob set their bodies on fire then dragged them through the streets before hanging them up on a bridge across the Euphrates, resulting in those classic pictures you can't unsee:
Fallujah was a classic “Sunni Triangle” town, with about 300,000 people. They’re usually called “Saddam loyalists” and most of them are, for the simple reason that in a gangland country like Iraq you better stick to your own people. But from what I hear, Fallujah was more like a country town, more old-fashioned than anything. What counted most was family, but not the nuclear family thing, the older version: the clan. You belong to a clan, like a real big family or a small tribe, and you stand up for your clan. If people mess with it, you mess back.
Killing is part of the culture, the way it’s part of every culture if people had the guts to face that little fact. In Iraqi culture, just like it was for the Vikings, killing somebody is a commercial matter. It’s like the sign in secondhand shops: you break it, you own it. Only it’s “You kill my kin, you owe me money.”
The invasion was going well back in April 2003, and we were pretty cocky. The 82nd Airborne, which did an outstanding job in the charge to Baghdad, rolled into Fallujah, did a few victory dust donuts in the town square (I hear the Bradley does a pretty good dust donut, too) and decided to make the local schoolhouse our HQ. Well, since Iraq has a birthrate like Mormons on ecstasy, this pissed off the local parents – millions of kids hanging around the house, no summer camp to send ‘em to. So on April 28, 2003 they staged a typical Arab demonstration at U.S. HQ. By all accounts a typical Arab noisefest: a lot of yelling and posing, a lotta shoes being waved and thrown, annoying as Hell. Nothing to be afraid of.
Except somebody in the chain of command wasn’t feeling cool, calm & collected that day. Maybe pissed off at not getting enough kills on the Hellride up the river, maybe tired of Arabs yelling – God knows I can sympathize with that. So we started shooting. And by the time we stopped there were at least 13 locals dead. Turned into 20 dead by the time May 1 rolled around.
Even then, we could’ve fixed it up. This is the weirdest part of the story: after the killings, the clan leaders for the 13 dead apparently contacted the U.S. officers in charge for blood money. That’s how it’s done: “You owe us for 13 dead cousins, dude!” It’s not as cheap and moneygrubbing as it sounds. Just like with the Vikings, paying bloodmoney means “OK, I admit I got out of hand with the ol’ battleaxe at the party last night. Um, real sorry about your wife and kids an’ all... so that’s, what? 20 gold pieces per wife, and for the kids, 40 per boy and 5 per girl?” (Face it, they were sexist and proud of it back then).
It’s a way of saying “Sorry, man.” It’s polite.
Maybe if we hadn’t been lying to ourselves about what we were doing there, we’d have paid up. “Yeah, sorry – got a little out of hand with the 25mm cannon there. You understand – 9/11 and all, had to work out on somebody. Now how much is it per dead teenager?”
But nope. We were too snotty to pay up. I mean, think about all the hundreds of billions we’ve poured into fake “aid” to Iraq – and we were too dumb to pay a few thousand in bloodmoney.
So surprise, surprise, Fallujah turns into Dodge City for American troops. Even the Principal at the Fallujah school we’d turned into our HQ got interviewed and said he was looking forward to driving a car full of HE into an American patrol.
From May to July 2003, so many GIs died or were wounded in Fallujah that we did our first whipsaw move: now we were willing to pay the bloodmoney. We paid out $1,500 per dead demonstrator and $500 per wounded. And to pour it on, the U.S. put God knows how many millions into, get this, “civic improvements” for Fallujah. I love that phrase, “civic improvements”: “Gosh, looks like your town could use some nice median islands, maybe some oleander plantings, and diagonal parking spaces to get more retail traffic in your downtown area...”
You can imagine the effect this had on the locals in this country town. They might be slow, but they ain’t stupid. They drew the right lesson: when we ask the invaders for proper compensation, they give us the high hat – but when we start killing their soldiers, they’re suddenly all over us, offering all this CalTrans beautification crap. And they weren’t buying. They took the money, but they kept the guns and RPGs coming at us too.
By this time, see, it wasn’t just the locals. Everybody from Tangier to Islamabad knew that if you wanted a nice, jihad-friendly small town with some of the best American-game hunting in the world, all you had to do was come to Fallujah. And they came. The whole “Have Quran & Burial Shroud, Will Travel” crowd took the next bus there. – Gary Brecher, Fallujah I: The Gaza Strip Snap-On Kit, 8 Jul 2004
That was a big score for the insurgents, because the whole reason Rumsfeld was using mercs was because they're invisible. Their deaths don't appear in the public casualty lists, it's nobody's business but the shareholders and next-of-kin. But far from being invisible, the burned, mangled remains that only barely resembled human bodies became the most famous photos of the war (after the staged photos of that Saddam statue coming down, maybe).
That wasn’t just high spirits, that was strategy. The Fallujah insurgents wanted to get the Marines angry enough to come in blasting. The first ambush was just a way of setting up a way bigger ambush – an old, old guerrilla tactic. Rumsfeld was on TV next day promising we’d “find and punish” the killers.Chris Kyle wasn't such an exceptional figure in this environment; even the normal Scout Snipers the Marines had brought averaged 31 kills each over the duration. But Fallujah continued to get hotter and crazier, and by September the Americans were staring to make a lot of noise about the infamous Zarqawi, the Mister Big who was supposedly behind it all.
The Marines hit Fallujah hard on April 4.
It was a tough fight. The Fallujah insurgents have played it smart all the way, daring us to fight them on their own terms, in the crowded little dirty alleys they know by heart. It was a messy fight. Urban combat is just naturally gory and sloppy...
The Marines were fighting well in Fallujah, but losing men for every street they advanced. And things were going even worse in the rest of Iraq. On April 6, we lost 12 Marines in a classic urban ambush in Ramadi, next door to Fallujah.
Then Bremer shut down al Sadr’s newspaper – now there was a smart move! – and every Shiite slum in Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf turned on our troops. We were involved in urban combat on two fronts, a commander’s nightmare. In two days, April 11 and 12, we lost 23 men.
Bush decided to cave under the pressure. On April 11, Marines were ordered to accept a “truce” in Fallujah. The next week, Bush’s people were desperately looking around for somebody they could make a deal with. On April 19, Bush’s people announced that we had an agreement in Fallujah. The U.S. would call off the Marine snipers (who were doing a great job picking off insurgents – like I said, city fighting is a sniper’s dream), and in return the people of Fallujah would turn in all “heavy weapons”: surface-to-air missiles, mortars and machineguns...
The “heavy weapons” deal didn’t work all that well. Gen. Kimmitt – you know, the skinny guy who gets paid to tell Saigon lies at Baghdad press conferences – said: “There’s been some intangible progress, even though we did not see a tremendous number of weapons turned in.”
I like that bit about “intangible progress.” How do you get “intangible progress” with machineguns? A machinegun is pretty tangible. Love may be just a state of mind, but a machinegun – that’s pretty tangible. Another great line of Kimmitt’s: “...we did not see a tremendous number of weapons turned in.” Turns out that was kind of an understatement: “On Wednesday, [April 21] police officers [in Fallujah] delivered a pickup truck filled with rusty and largely inoperative weapons, not the modern equipment military officers had wanted.”
It was so ludicrous even Bush’s people had to face the fact that the only way to pacify Fallujah was to let the Marines do their job and take the city by storm. Even Rumsfeld admitted that the old men we’d made this phony truce with had no power over the insurgents.
On the April 24-25 weekend, Bush and Rumsfeld flew to Camp David for a videoconference with the Brass in Iraq on what to do with Fallujah. The Marines were psyched, finally sure they’d get the chance to do what they were trained to do.
This is the key moment in the battle for Fallujah, and I suspect for the whole war. And in the end, it came down to one simple fact: Bush chickened out. He or his handlers decided they couldn’t risk casualties on the scale this battle would take while they were going for reelection. Sometime that weekend, they decided the Marines weren’t going to get the chance to win the battle. They were going to be called off in favor of some cheap PR face-saving strategy. Monday, April 26 – and as far as I’m concerned, this goes down in history as Black Monday – the announcement came from Bush that “the U.S. has opted to delay the Fallujah offensive... in favor of joint patrols” of Marines and local Iraqi security forces.
“Joint patrols”! That was it! Bush went on TV to tell the suckers that, “the situation in Fallujah is returning to normal.” Well, if “normal” is leaving the enemy in possession of the city, letting them ambush any Marine patrol they want, then Hell yeah, Fallujah was as normal as it gets. He also said the joint patrols would make the city “secure.” But to be fair, he did admit there were, and I quote, “pockets of resistance” still operating in Fallujah. Yeah. Like there are pockets of gambling in Vegas.
So the battle of Fallujah was over, and we lost. The Marines were ordered to withdraw from the city. From now on they went in only as part of these ridiculous “joint patrols.”
I thought that was the ultimate humiliation for American arms. But I was wrong. There was worse to come: these miserable ex-Saddam soldiers we stuffed into uniform and sent to patrol Fallujah under the command of an ex-Republican Guard general started to whine about having to patrol with the Marines. They said the Marines would draw fire, and that affected their safety. Poor babies. – Gary Brecher, Fallujah II: Bush Bushwhacks the Marines, 22 Jul 2004
The poster boy for the “foreign agitator” theory these days is Zarqawi. I admit, he’s a better candidate than Saddam was. He’s a real guerrilla operator, with a solid mujahedeen resume: born in Jordan, probably to Palestinian refugee parents, grew up in the town of Zarqa (his alias means “The Guy from Zarqa”), went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets and got radicalized.
But there’s no sign he’s anything more than a small-time recruiter for suicide-bomber volunteers. Zarqawi’s face has been all over the Net for years now, and there’s a $25 million bounty on him. Like they say in spy movies, his cover is blown. No way he can be really useful as a guerrilla leader. That job puts you out on the street all day, moving through checkpoints, changing your identity non-stop.
The reason that both sides in the war – the Pentagon PR corps and these Jihadi websites – keep making such a big fuss about Zarqawi’s every move is that he’s good PR for both of them. The Al Qaeda fundraisers need a Mr. Big for their propaganda as much as we do. Except their version is a hero, Zarqawi as Robin Hood in a greasy skullcap, always outsmarting the big, dumb American crusaders. He’s a great gimmick, a cross-eyed poster boy, for Al Q.
The Pentagon wants to put an outside agitator’s face on the insurgency. America will do anything to avoid having to face the most obvious fact about Iraq: they hate our guts, all of them. Pasting Zarqawi’s face all over the Net also hides the fact that our so-called intelligence units still don’t know a damn thing about the insurgency. It makes it seem as if we’re hot on the trail of the one demon responsible for the whole mess.
Which suits the real insurgents just fine. They must get down on their knees every night and thank Allah for the Z-man, because he keeps the heat off them.
So who are the real leaders of the insurgency? Based on what I know about other insurgencies, I can give you a profile. First of all, none of them are Mister Big. There is no Mr Big in this insurgency. They’re more like a few thousand Mr. Middles, a whole crowd of ex-Army officers and local clan leaders in every Sunni town or village who have some kind of loose control over some of the insurgents. Nobody controls the whole insurgency. There are hundreds of insurgent groups fighting, and they don’t answer to Al Qaeda or anybody else. They started the fight for local reasons, like the demonstrators killed in Fallujah, and they stay in it out of local loyalty, to their clan or the Sunnis or some patriotic idea of Iraq, or Islam.
The most effective leaders will turn out to be the type who rises to the top in any insurgency: solid, intelligent, young-ish men. Guerrilla war is a young man’s game. The leaders are usually in their 20s, early 30s. They’re the cream of the neighborhood, the guys who always got respect – homegrown Alpha-males with real standing in the clan and tribal networks that really run things in Iraq.
They’ll turn out to be downright shy by Arab standards, coolheaded types. Guerrilla war kills off the glory-seekers pretty quickly. The leaders who last will be anonymous until the new regime gives them their medals when we finally give up on this mess. – Gary Brecher, The Insurgency – Neighbourhood Watch, 2 Aug 2005
At the time the Americans said Zarqawi was in Fallujah and at the head of 5,000 trained killers, most of them non-Iraqi, and his capture was now "the highest priority." So by 13 November the Marines gearing up to go big again and kick off the Second Battle of Fallujah. Gary wrote:
Anybody getting that “here we go again” feeling, watching the invasion of Fallujah? It’s like Take 2 of a real bad war movie. In the first place, we’re supposed to own Fallujah. We’ve been conducting air strikes on a city we supposedly took years ago. Rumsfeld’s cronies screwed up the occupation so totally that by April 2004 the insurgents had taken over the city, and we had the Marines, the same Marines who are hitting Fallujah right now, lined up on the outskirts ready to go in. And then, like I wrote in my column, Bush’s PR people called it off – wimped out, because they knew there’d be lots of gore, which would be bad for the boss’s reelection campaign.2nd Fallujah became the bloodiest single engagement of the Iraq War, the heaviest fighting for the Marine Corps since Hue, and it was fought entirely against insurgents – Saddam's former army was completely disbanded by this point. The Wikipedia page lists it as a "Coalition victory," but that's bullshit. The Americans were left holding the field, but they achieved none of their strategic goals because – it finally dawned on them – Zarqawi had fled before the shooting started, if he'd ever been there at all. That left it a stalemate, and in a guerilla war, a stalemate is a guerilla victory, because it pushes the occupier closer to finally getting sick of it all and leaving. And ultimately, long-term, Fallujah was a total defeat, because it "fell completely" to I.S.I.S. in 2014 (meaning it was totally and enthusiastically pro-I.S.I.S. before they even arrived, because I.S.I.S. couldn't storm a shithouse if you left the door open), leaving it with a decidedly anti-Western stance (gee, wonder why?).
So we’ve handed the insurgents six months warning that after the election when PR doesn’t matter so much, we’re going into Fallujah. I’ve had landlords who didn’t give me that much notice.
That’s not how you attack. You don’t give the enemy six months to get ready for you. That’s six months of preparing defenses – those air strikes on Fallujah targeted “enemy fortifications”, which means the insurgents have been digging in, organizing local militias, weeding out informers, plotting mortar zones – while our troops waited at the city limits waiting for Nov. 2.
Conventional guerrilla-warfare strategy says that if your enemy is massing a huge conventional force to attack you, you disperse – just vanish. Mao said, “Lose land and save people, land can be retaken. Lose people to save land, people and land both lost.” In other words, don’t risk your guerrilla force defending static positions.
The real pros, the brains of the insurgency, slipped out of Fallujah weeks ago. They’re already attacking us from the rear, just like Mao suggested, going after the soft targets, like the Iraqi cops. They grabbed a police station way up North and killed 21 poor suckers in uniform the other day.
Meanwhile, we’re running into “fierce resistance” in Fallujah. So who’s still in town, shooting back at us? Well, guerrilla armies are like any other armies; they’ve got their elite, and then they’ve got a lot of cannon fodder. We’re attacking the cannon fodder while the elite watches from a distance.
By cannon fodder I mean kids, local kids who can’t wait to get their 64 concubines in Paradise by dying for the ‘hood. On any other battlefield, they’d be pushovers. But here they’re fighting in their own alleys and back streets. And they’ve had all those months of training, plotting out the best ambush sites, ranging their mortars, burying IEDs under every intersection. Amateur troops with good morale can be very effective defending their home ground. And it’s urban warfare, where armor isn’t all that effective.
So we’re fighting in the worst possible situation: the people we’re really looking for have already left town, but there are still enough wannabe-martyrs in town to kill a lot of our guys.
We’ll take the town, sure. But we’ll lose men, piss off every Muslim from Frankfurt to Jakarta, and we won’t find anybody worth capturing. The serious fighters of Fallujah are in safe houses around the Sunni Triangle, munching pistachios with their big hairy feet up, watching the battle and laughing. – Gary Brecher, Iraq: The Brecher Victory Plan!, 13 Sep 2004
But back up, remind me which four pebbles it was that set off this avalanche? Oh right, those char-grilled Blackwater goons that got hung up by the locals.
So take Blackwater. It’s shock‘n’horror time because a couple of ex-mercs blew the whistle on Erik Prince’s Onward Christian Steroid Casualties operation in Iraq.This is the background upon which they're trying to paint Chris Kyle as a hero. It's not that heroes can't be had in defeat – I'll go for the eyes of anyone who says the Aussies who died at The Nek were less than heroes – but it's not exactly glorious, is it? Sleazy, bloody, dirty and ugly, more like. A typical guerrilla situation.
The Blackwater defectors have filed a sworn deposition in federal court that Blackwater zapped Iraqis at random, aimed to kill Muslims anywhere and any time they could, paid little Baghdadi girls a dollar a head, so to speak, for sexual services and just generally behaved like cartoon baddies... – Gary Brecher, Blackwater: Stop Acting Surprised, 11 Aug 2009
The movie does a fairly efficient job of taking us through the basics of this corner of the war, giving us that "Welcome to Fallujah" speech, showing us the the line between combatants and civilians was largely imaginary, followed by a car-bomber (I'd love to know if there's any hidden message in that number plate – can anyone help me out?), a roadside bomb and an enemy sniper – basically Fallujah 101. After some down time, it steps up again with the start of 2nd Fallujah detailed above, with a commander briefing us that Zarqawi is the target – but it never outright says they're chasing their own tails, wasting lives on a stupid and empty objective.
It's still an anti-war movie, though. I mean, look at this shit:
By the "Second Tour" the Punisher skull is showing up on uniforms and vehicles everywhere. How are the Iraqis (let alone a modern cinema audience) expected to see that and know the difference from this?
At the risk of setting off the Godwin Alarm, that's the badge of the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf, or Death's Head – an insignia that technically predated the Nazis, but is pretty tightly bound with them in popular memory. You see dudes rolling down your street in a tank with a skull on the side, you're not going to be reminded of Woodstock, are you? When we pursued aggressive war in the Middle East, it's not hard to paint us (yes, Australia too, whatever America does we dive right in too) as a new generation of Nazis, with an updated design for the totenkopf.
But then they show us Chris being a hero – an actual hero, not just an efficient killer – by showing some younger, less-well-trained Marines how to do door-to-door properly. We get immediately get distracted when that goes ugly with the Imam and his family, which ultimately introduces us to The Butcher – a composite character, because there wasn't just one of him, there were hundreds ("Torture killings are now officially the national sport of Iraq," said Brecher with his usual gallows humour. "I hear Black & Decker is getting its own volume in the next edition of Jane's Weapons Systems").
But that moment is crucial to the redemption of this movie. Because it foreshadows the ending where Kyle finds a new way to be a sheepdog – by helping other veterans back home in the U.S. That's something Kyle really did, which means I'm not quite going to join the rest of the Loony Left in hating the man or his memory. What it does mean is that, as a fan of Lt. Col. Grossman's book On Killing, I'll forever think of him as one of the 2% of all people who are characterised as "aggressive psychopaths," who experience none of the trauma that normally accompanies killing (Grossman is at pains to point out no judgement is meant by the term "aggressive psychopath," since this kind of behaviour is highly desirable in a soldier, and in normal society these people are no more dangerous than anyone else. Go ahead, Ctrl-F that shit. Chapter 5 could've been written by watching Kyle with a clipboard).
Which is, in the end, my biggest beef with this movie. Bradley Cooper wanted to make a movie about how we're treating our veterans. This is not a small issue; you know some of these people. And you also know it's tricky, because with Iraq and Af-Pak, as with Vietnam, we can't tell them it was necessary and they did the right thing, because it wasn't and they didn't. And yet welcoming back the people who killed and bled for us and making them part of our society again, somehow, is a hugely important process that's largely being sidelined. But if you're going to make a movie about a soldier (or a sailor, or a Marine) traumatised by his experiences at war...
...WHY WOULD YOU CENTRE IT AROUND CHRIS KYLE?
Kyle was emphatically not traumatised by his experiences in Iraq. He was good at what he did. He even seems to've enjoyed it. Right or wrong, Iraq it seems was just the place for him. If I was being completely cold-blooded about it, I'd take a resource-management perspective and say the real tragedy was that they ever brought him home (but I'm not saying that, because of the aforementioned redemptive ending. Chris found something to live for before he died, and I respect that. It's sure as shit a job I couldn't do). But there seems to be a complete mis-match between the movie's intentions and its subject matter, which matches the mismatch between the good that Kyle was doing in the middle of a great evil started by our side that was busy killing a million Iraqis.
No wonder it's a confusing movie.
I'll close by seconding what Bibeau said:
You’d think we would finally understand that yes, you need people willing to use violence to protect civilization from others willing to use violence. Yes, you use killers to stop killers... And we should therefore honor those who are willing to kill for us, to try to understand and appreciate what they do. But above all, we need to watch them.
* A bit of trivia: the U.S. 1st Marine Division's official marching anthem is Waltzing Mathilda, a quirk they picked up while they were stationed in Brisbane during the Pacific theatre of WWII. I didn't even know what Waltzing Mathilda sounded like with an American accent.