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American Sniper unflinchingly explores the unintended consequences of our complicated international entanglements
By Jim Kempton
Like many Americans, this month I attended our local theater to see American Sniper.
The splendid screenplay and acting aside, the film verifies the superb capability of America’s armed services personnel. From novice corporals, to knightly SEALS to outstanding officers, there may never have been a more magnificent military than ours.
Unmatched in might, superior in strategy, and overwhelming in firepower, the skill, courage and teamwork of our men in uniform is as impressively effective as the film itself. Eschewing jingoism, Eastwood’s tense, incisive direction relies on wrenching vignettes while resisting rigid characterizations.
Barbed with editorial ambivalence, Eastwood constructs a multitude of moral angles as if scanning a combat zone for targets. Similar to his two previous cinematic companion pieces about Iwo Jima, he offers nuanced observations on the thorny dilemmas of American warriors and their Iraqi counterparts. From the outset, the crisis confronting the characters in Sniper are focused and magnified like a telescopic rifle sight—sharp and unsparingly accurate. Within the first battle scene—horrific and indelible—a chilling possibility occurs: what if the roles were reversed?
A foreign army invading California and occupying southern Orange County may seem far-fetched but imagine the scenario: Foreign military vehicles control the roads. Enemy tanks rumble down the streets. Electricity has been cut off. Water supply is restricted to four hours a day. A spirited resistance from the tri-city citizenry has resulted in the enemy’s retaliatory destruction of all societal institutions, from the harbor to the pier. To curtail civilian defiance and the occupying army has seized homes for safe-house quarters, confiscated all weapons, and restricted any group assemblies. Apprehensive attempts to increase security beget constant home invasions often conducted in the middle of the night. Across the city, heavily armed troops move stealthily from house to house, breaking down front doors, yelling commands in a foreign language, and neutralizing anyone who makes an active attempt to physically resist. Inside our homes, men are thrown on the floor and strip-searched and personal belongings are torn apart as terrified women and children cry, cowering at gunpoint.
But Americans are a plucky and determined bunch. One day, as the dreaded Humvees and tanks clank down the street, one of the strong, unbowed California women tucks a loaded explosive into her Macy’s satchel and, with her 10-year-old son in toe, walks calmly out to face the uniformed foe. Nearing the patrol, she hands the device to her son who attempts to throw it at the soldiers. But before he can, a foreign sniper blows his head off. Mad with grief and hatred for these invaders of her home and her street, her city, the mother lunges forward grasping the ordinance herself as horrified neighbors gape, trembling from their windows. In mid-release, a second sniper salvo shatters her spine.
Who would we in America see as the heroes of this scenario—the San Clemente child and mother mowed down in their attempt to resist occupation—or the men with helmets and lethal weaponry? Would we explain to our own children that these superbly trained shooters were just doing their job—saving their brave comrades from being killed by our own irrational resistance and blind bitterness? Would we tell our wives that the slain mother was attempting an act of terror and should expect no less from the valiant visitors who wish only to bring peace and security to our city?
Seeking culpability, the fault cannot be pawned off on our combat troops. Caught in the crosshairs of constant peril, facing daily do or die decisions, our armed forces have acquitted themselves with all the dignity available given the task ordered.
Yet imagining the specter of that young boy and his mother standing defiantly before foreign tanks at Mission San Juan Capistrano or Park Semper Fi—would we Americans assign them to the axis of evil or place them in our pantheon of patriots? And would their memory inspire millions more of us to fight by any means necessary to defeat these invaders? It is a haunting question pugilistic politicians should seriously contemplate before sending our matchless heroes on a fool’s errand again.
Jim Kempton grew up on military bases in Guam, Okinawa, Japan and the Philippines, and believes our own history should be our guide. Redcoats in Boston, Mexicans at the Alamo and Confederates at Gettysburg encountered a Yankee citizenry, ferociously unwilling to submit to military invasion.