Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

The problem with American Sniper isn’t Michael Moore or Seth Rogen. It’s Chris Kyle.

This article is not about American Sniper. It is about Chris Kyle.

That’s an important distinction because, as American Sniper continues to break box office records, many of its fans are having trouble separating the flesh-and-blood human being from his celluloid counterpart. This was perhaps best embodied by Kid Rock’s response to the public criticisms of the film made by Seth Rogen and Michael Moore on Twitter. “F*** you Michael Moore, you’re a piece of s*** and your uncle would be ashamed of you,” he wrote. “Seth Rogen, your uncle probably molested you. I hope both of you catch a fist to the face soon. God bless you, Chris Kyle. Thank you for your service.” 

The fact that Moore had focused on Kyle the man and not Clint Eastwood’s movie, while Rogen had limited his criticism entirely to the movie without mentioning a word about the real man, escaped Kid Rock, much as it has eluded others in the pro-American Sniper camp, including Craig Morton, Blake Shelton, and Sarah Palin.

All of this is noteworthy because it’s symptomatic of a larger problem. For far too many Americans, it is impossible to separate criticism of individuals within certain institution—or even systematic injustices perpetrated by those institutions—from the actual institutions themselves.

This was seen last year in the right-wing backlash against those who protested racial profiling among law enforcement. “If you read the liberal mainstream media,” argued Ben Stein, you’d think “that the main problem with race in America was poor innocent black people being set upon and mistreated by the police.” In his dismissal of the #BlackLivesMatter protests, Rudy Giuliani claimed that “they are tearing down respect for a criminal justice system that goes back to England in the 11th century.” After a crazed cop-hater assassinated two police officers in December, New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch blamed it on those who “incited violence on the street under the guise of protest.”

There is an obvious logical response to these attitudes. “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach,” argued Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. “Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”

The same thing can be said for those who criticize Chris Kyle. After all, regardless of one’s opinion on the American military, there is much that is problematic about Kyle himself. His autobiography is filled with distortions and outright lies, from claiming that he shot carjackers in Texas and New Orleans looters during Hurricane Katrina to libel against Jesse Ventura that ultimately led to a civil settlement in the former governor’s favor. He refers to Iraqis as “savages” about whom he “couldn’t give a flying f***,” says he is drawn to killing because it’s “fun,” and brags about telling investigators into his sniping of a civilian that “I don’t shoot people with Korans—I’d like to, but I don’t.”

“In Kyle’s version of the Iraq War, the parties consisted of Americans, who are good by virtue of being American, and fanatic Muslims whose ‘savage, despicable evil’ led them to want to kill Americans simply because they are Christians,” writes Laura Miller of Salon. Tellingly, Kyle’s book never challenges the Bush administration’s assumption that Iraq was somehow involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, even though no such connection has ever been proved; Kyle even claims that he personally discovered some of the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that were brandished as the pretext for our invasion, although all of the confirmed materials found in that country were leftovers from the early 1990s that were already known at the time.

None of these observations are meant to detract from Kyle’s physical courage and unwavering support for his fellow soldiers. If anything, the fact that a man capable of such heroism could also be so flawed only underscores the complexity of human nature—something that those who insist on Kyle’s beatification studiously ignore. In the same vein, drawing attention to Kyle’s faults is not tantamount to attacking the character of every soldier who fought and/or died in Iraq. Kyle was one man, not a symbol for the entire American military.

Of course, the reason we are seeing such reflexive rallying behind American Sniper and Kyle’s character is that there are Americans who wish to turn him into such a symbol. “Treating Kyle as a patriot and ignoring any other possibility,” observes Dennis Jett of the New Republic, “allows Americans to ignore the consequences of invading a country that had no weapons of mass destruction, had nothing to do with 9/11, and had no meaningful ties to Al Qaeda.” Just as important, the canonization of Chris Kyle allows Americans to duck the morally thorny questions involving Kyle’s possible killing of innocent civilians, his dehumanization of both Muslims in general and Iraqis specifically, and his bloodthirsty attitude toward war itself. Because his supporters don’t wish to see these things (or, even worse, secretly condone them), they gloss over the inconvenient details and insist that drawing attention to them is un-American.

This speaks to an issue even larger than questions about the Iraq War, America’s military presence overseas, or even racism among law enforcement (to refer to the earlier analogy in this article). If America is going to have an intelligent public debate on any political issue, it is essential that its citizens be able to participate without fear of having their motives baselessly attacked. More specifically, if we are to hold our government accountable for its actions, we absolutely must be able to criticize its most powerful institutions—particularly those who use violence, be it the military abroad or the police at home—without being intimidated into silence. 

It’s not un-American to question Chris Kyle and the military operation he worked for. In fact, it might just be the most patriotic thing you can do.

Photo via Warner Bros/YouTube

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