In just three weeks, Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” has become the highest grossing war film of all time, with a domestic tally rapidly approaching $250 million. The Oscar-nominated film is an adaption of the eponymous book by the late U.S. Navy SEAL Christopher Kyle, who endured four combat tours of duty in Iraq and is credited with 160 confirmed kills (out of 255 claimed), making him probably the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. Eddie Ray Routh, the former U.S. Marine who admitted to killing Kyle and another man in 2013, is set to go on trial this month.
Set during the backdrop of a war that was regarded by some as illegitimate or illegal, the film was always going to draw fire from those looking to politicize it. But “American Sniper” is not about politics – it’s about exposing the impossible choices soldiers face in 21st century, asymmetric conflicts. Many who have never been directly exposed to the horrors of contemporary warfare were quick to judge.
Filmmaker Michael Moore took a swipe at the film in a tweet saying “we were taught snipers were cowards. Snipers aren’t heroes.” Seth Rogan implied that the movie was akin to the Nazi propaganda film about a German sniper in Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds.” But for those who have breathed the burnt air of Iraq or Afghanistan (and a let us not forget that many U.S. troop have experienced both), or have felt the vulnerability of being thrust into a war where the enemy plays by no rules, Eastwood’s film holds a very different and important message.
Having served three tours of duty in Iraq and three in Afghanistan (I hasten to add my tours were half the length of many U.S. troops), the opening act of “American Sniper” snapped the hairs on the back of my neck to attention, and forced me back to a dark place that my memory had compartmentalized. From the outset, Eastwood strives to expose the immense pressure that is placed on the shoulders of soldiers, sailors and airmen before a trigger is pulled and a life is taken.
The opening sequence presents a complex and increasingly common scenario that requires all soldiers to use a decision matrix, known in government circles as the Rules of Engagement (RoE). Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) has to gauge the threat posed by a man in civilian clothing – as well as a local woman and a child – as a U.S. foot patrol and convoy approach in an urban environment. That decision-making process is generally based on the following: Any action taken should be graduated and proportionate, up to and including the use of lethal force; and the escalation of force should be commensurate with the perceived threat to life by the actions of the subject in the cross hairs.
In less than 100 seconds, the film’s trailer establishes a scenario that has tormented thousands of soldiers on recent operations in the Middle East:
“I got a military aged male on a cell phone watching the convoy over,” Kyle says.
“If you think he is reporting troop movement, you have a green light,” his commander replies over radio. “Your call, over.”
“Maybe he’s just calling his old lady,” Kyle’s spotter suggests.
In just three sound bites, Eastwood has illuminated the conundrum of asymmetric combat. Discerning between combatants and non-combatants is impossibly difficult: Judging the capability of a suspect against the suspect’s intent requires rapid assessment – an insurgent adheres to no rules, and the soldier can and will be held accountable for every kill made. Making the right call protects friendly ground forces and, equally as important, the lives of non-combatants caught up in the crossfire.Later in the movie, the scene is played out to its full conclusion: Kyle waits to the last possible moment before shooting the child as he launches an improvised explosive device at a foot patrol. Kyle’s decision was legally sound within the framework of his RoE and within the rules of war regarding children in a combatant role. But what if the child was throwing a rock? Regardless of the legality, taking a child’s life is one of the most punishing decisions a soldier (and in many cases a parent) will not only have to make, but have to live with.
Misjudged situations are, sadly, not uncommon. U.S. Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance was given a 20-year sentence after ordering the fatal shootings of two men while on patrol in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in July 2012. Lorence, after being attacked the day before, and with intel indicating the enemy was watching U.S. troop movements in the area, misidentified the two Afghan civilians approaching on a motorbike as Taliban suicide bombers.
Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military theorist, was correct when he said: “War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means.” As servants of the political elite, there is no room for polite negotiation when you are ordered to fight an unknown enemy in a faraway land. It is the soldier that bears the physical and psychological consequences of political indifference, both on the battlefield and long after conflicts subside. It is this story, I believe, that Eastwood successfully told.
Michael Kay is a British TV host, foreign affairs reporter, regular contributor on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg and the Huffington Post, and director and producer of current affairs documentaries. He previously spent 20 years as an assault helicopter pilot in the British Royal Air Force.