So shoot me: The last damn thing I’m going to say about American Sniper

February 5, 2015

“Does it bother you that the US has men to keep us free, that the US enemies did not win, or that you perhaps do not have what it takes to fight in a war — courage?”

— W.R., Pine Bluff

One way to play this opinion sharing game is to from time to time dump out the contents of one’s electronic mailbox. and let one’s readers write the column.

I don’t do that, at least not very often, though I understand there’s amusement value in heated arguments It’s good fun to watch people who take themselves very seriously sputter and slap flight with one another. And it’s an easy and safe thing for a newspaper columnist to do, for after all, I get to select and edit and omit any halfway reasonable point my opponent means to make. I can make anyone look like a jackass if I want to — especially myself.

In general, I think those sort of exercises are pretty indulgent and self-aggrandizing thing to do. Everyone who offers up ideas for public consumption has to understand they are subject to public scrutiny and people will make of their words what they will. In 30 years of writing columns like this one, I’ve learned there will always be people who honestly misapprehend your work as well as disingenuously pervert it. You spray words around, you can’t be surprised when people chuck a few back at you. It’s better to try to hold onto the out-of-range high ground than to scramble down and roll around with the rudest and most vociferous detractors. (Some of them might even be as robust and red-blooded as they claim. Apparently our circulation area is rife with folks who have wetwork in their past and are in possession of a particular set of skills, as well as lots of expensive weaponry, some with an maximum effective range of up to 2,300 meters.)

I was reminded of this element after writing about Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. My take on this very good movie is it’s a meditation on the toll that violence takes on those who perpetrate it, even when they’re acting with honorable motives.

When I wrote the column I anticipated disagreement. I expected some people would take Eastwood’s film was an apologia for carnage, a kind of fascist glamorization of remote killing. I expected they might disagree with me.

And there was a bit of that. Some people — some of my friends — told me they found American Sniper distasteful in the same way they tend to find first person shooter games distasteful. They found it distasteful in the same way they might find a any movie in which features human heads dissolving in a spray of blood distasteful. Portrayals of violence bother some people.

But, especially in the context of an anti-war war movie, these sort of scenes don’t particularly bother me, but I’m not sure that’s such a great thing. I’m not sure I haven’t been desensitized by all the on-screen homicides I’ve consumed. I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t damaged by the years I spent hanging around homicide detectives. Not to be overly dramatic, there are plenty of things I wish I could unsee. We are more fragile than we sometimes think — and, when cornered, some of us are capable of unfathomable viciousness.

What I didn’t expect was that people who basically agreed with me — people who liked the movie — to react as they did.

American Sniper doens’t really have much to do with the real-life Chris Kyle, who before he was murdered problematically wrote and said many to give all serious people pause. Eastwood and Bradley Cooper, the movie star who played Kyle, purposefully elided some of the most controversial aspects of Kyle’s character and portrayed him as a honorable (if flawed) man who paid dearly for doing what he understood as his duty.

The didn’t critique U.S. foreign policy; they didn’t even critique the real Chris Kyle — they made up a story based on the character in Kyle’s book American Sniper. That’s their prerogative as artists; sure, they had an agenda, but I didn’t perceive it as a particularly political one. (And both Eastwood and Cooper have made statements that support this analysis.)

What’s interesting and, quite frankly, very disturbing to me, is how many people seemed to read (or I suspect simply assume) the piece as an attack on Kyle and particular and the U.S. military, in general. Which seems to me unfathomably stupid and indicative of a frightening inability to comprehend the English language.

The fellow whose quote leads off this column was actually sent one of the least rude responses. He didn’t threaten me, and he may not have realized how insulting he his message actually was. He almost seemed like a good guy. Still he couldn’t get his mind around my “vehement distaste” for a movie he liked, even though we actually seem to agree on the movie’s merits. So I wrote him back:

W —

I’m baffled. The movie doesn’t bother me at all. It’s one of my favorites of 2014. I don’t have any vehement distaste for it. I’ve seen it twice now and recommended it to friends. I showed a clip of in my LifeQuest class last week. The review was positive. Very positive. …

I challenge you to point out what I said that has you so twisted up.

W. wrote back to say that since I was “a bleeding heart liberal” he doubted “any points I make will be relevant to you.” And he was right, I guess, because I still don’t know what his issues are, other than he doesn’t like Jane Fonda (who, like Sarah Palin, tweeted her approval of the movie), and doesn’t understand that the “breeziest” way to take a movie isn’t always the preferred way. He also indicated that I’d alleged Kyle was a murderer who’d shot people in New Orleans and Dallas when in fact I’d done just the opposite — I had refused to credit Kyle’s stories of killing people in New Orleans and Dallas.

And he suggested that I had accused Eastwood of plagiarism, when I’d simply pointed out a fun fact that’s been widely acknowledged — the movie’s “sheep, sheepdogs and wolves” speech is a paraphrase of something that was in David Grossman’s book On Combat. Grossman, a retired Army Lt. Col., has said he was delighted the speech was in the film.

As for trying to dissaude people from seeing the movie (anothrer charge W. made), it was the lead piece in our MovieStyle section for two consecutive weeks. I’ve now written two columns about it. For the last time: I kind of like American Sniper, I think I see what they were trying to do there.

But I don’t like bullies, and no sir, W., you would not have called me a coward to my face. You are not the arbiter of what’s American and what’s not, and furthermore you have no idea about me and your speculation is unwelcome, uncalled for and a breach of our social contract.

I do not mind disagreement, but here are the rules of engagement, fellows: You don’t get to make up my argument for me. You can’t assume that when I say one thing I mean precisely the opposite. And if you’re going to rude to me — if you’re going to make veiled threats against me — you’ve forfeit any claim to my respect.

I don’t know about fighting a war, but I’ve got enough courage to stand up to you, son.


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