Friday, January 23, 2015

The ethics of American Sniper

There are critics of American Sniper who evaluate Chris Kyle and the film based on their views of the Iraq War. My post is going to comment on that approach.

By way of disclaimers, I haven't seen the film. I've only read reviews. I don't plan to see the film. 

I haven't done in-depth research on the life of Chris Kyle. I have limited interest in that topic. 

i) Even when films are based on a "true story," we expect directors/screenwriters to exercise artistic license. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that American Sniper is factually inaccurate to some degree, it's not a documentary. In the first instance, whether a film is good or bad is an artistic judgment, not a historical judgment. Does the film work on its own terms? Does it exemplify cinematic values? 

Take the 1993 Tombstone film. That's based on a true story. The gunfight at O.K Corral. But if would be off-base to pan the film if it took some artistic liberties. 

That doesn't necessarily mean it's wrong to compare a historical film with what really happened. But as a rule, that isn't the only or even primary criterion for judging a film. 

The Kyle of film is a movie character, played by an actor

ii) From what I've read, American Sniper is an accurate depiction of Kyle's career as a soldier. When critics impugn his credibility, they cite incidents outside the war theater. But that's an exercise in misdirection:

Likewise, from what I've read, some of their allegations are dubious:

iii) Some historical films are subversive. The director rewrites history, not for dramatic reasons, but ideological reasons. He wants to change how people view a historical event. Indeed, he wants to change how people remember the past. 

That is certainly more open to criticism. Even in that case, you'd still need to distinguish between rating the film as a film and rating the film as a historical record. 

For instance, Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will is an artistic masterpiece, even though it's a classic propaganda film. And not merely propagandistic, but propaganda in the service of a deeply evil cause. But from what I've read, Eastwood is not a war apologist:

iv) From what I've read, Kyle joined the military in 1999. That was well before the Iraq war. He didn't sign up to fight in Iraq. 

As a rule, when you join the military, you are expected to obey lawful orders and go wherever you are deployed. Soldiers don't choose where they serve. It would be impossible to have an effective military if soldiers were free to choose where to deploy or what orders to follow. So, unless you're a pacifist, you can't fault Kyle for ending up in a theater you disapprove of. 

v) Ultimately, foreign policy is the expression of voters, through their duly elected representatives in Congress and the White House. That's the democratic process. The US military is under civilian control. 

Unless critics of American Sniper think they have a superior alternative, it's unclear why they are blaming soldiers for executing the policies which–rightly or wrongly–reflect the will of the electorate. The Iraq War resolution passed with bipartisan support. And the Iraq war was initially popular. For better or worse, that's popular sovereignty in action. 

vi) Some critics go so far as to say military snipers are "cowards" because it wasn't a "fair fight" between the sniper and the target. However, that treats war like a sport, in which you're supposed to have an equal number of players on each team, same equipment, same rules, to give each side an equitable chance at winning.

But there are people who are not entitled to have an equitable chance at winning. For instance, do you have a moral obligation to give a murderer a fair opportunity to kill you? Even if you can protect your life with a gun, should you lay that aside to make this an even match? 

Critics who raise that objection are morally frivolous. They disqualify themselves. 

Part of the problem is that only a fraction of American males have been in a combat situation. If they found themselves in a life and death situation, their attitude would instantly change. But as it stands, they can be contemptuous of soldiers. I'm not suggesting we should have universal conscription or anything like that. Just that, for many people, unless something happens to them, unless they experience it personally, it just isn't real to them. 

Like Congressmen who cast free votes. They know their votes will be outvoted, so it doesn't cost them anything. By the same token, we have critics of the film who indulge in moral grandstanding. They don't really believe what they say. If they were actually in a situation where they had to save their own skin, it would be a completely different story. But these are safe abstractions.

vii) I will conclude with this article on military snipers:

1 comment:

  1. The left-liberal critics are verbal snipers.