Monday, January 19, 2015

American Sniper [2014]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChicagoTribune (2 Stars) (3 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (B)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Kenny) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

American Sniper [2014] (directed by Clint Eastwood, screenplay by Jason Hall, based on the autobiography [GR] [Amzn] [WCat] by Chris Kyle [wikip] [IMDb] coauthored by Scott McEwen and James Defelice) is a film that will be disconcerting to most viewers and I do believe that like many of Clint Eastwood's films it's intended to be disconcerting.

After all, this is a film about, without a doubt, an American patriot -- Chris Kyle [wikip] [IMDb-w] [IMDb-ch] (played magnificently in the film by Bradley Cooper) -- born and raised in Texas, athletic, good looking, honest / God fearing, with an early discovered gift of shooting very straight with a gun. 

After spending a number of years of soul searching after high school-- initially he just wanted to "live the dream" of being a ranch hand / cowboy -- he decided to join the military.

Though apparently thinking initially of joining the Marines, taking one look at his impressive physical stature and seemingly instinctively confident demeanor, his Navy recruiter immediately steered him to consider the elite Navy SEALS.  Never one to shirk away from a challenge, Chris Kyle took him up on it.  And so it was, though he was significantly older than most of the 18-19 year-olds with whom he entered SEAL training, he breezed through it like a natural.  Again a natural with a gun, he graduated as a Navy SEAL sniper.

A few weeks after 9/11 he married his girlfriend Taya (played again magnificently by Sienna Miller) and soon afterwards went-off to war.

With war came both fame (at least within both American military and Iraqi insurgent circles ...) and ... obvious points of discomfort / concern:

Chris Kyle became by far the most successful sniper in American military history.  Over FOUR tours, the U.S. Navy attributed to him 160 _confirmed kills_ (and those would be kills where the body was recovered and counted, and there were many others that could not be recovered and counted in this way).  He became both a Legend and A GODSEND to the Marines tasked to clear cities like Fallujah, who he helped protect from his (sniper's) position "above."  (On the other side of the coin, he became so feared by Iraqi insurgents that they put a price on his head).

My concern (as a Catholic priest after all) as well as many, many viewers would be: What becomes of someone who's killed (blown the heads off / splattered the brains of ...) at least 160 people, even if every single one of them was a legitimate threat to the U.S. troops clearing streets / performing operations below?   AND HONESTLY RAISING THIS CONCERN I do believe was a good part of intent of this film.

It's clear throughout the story that Kyle was conflicted in his job, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT CAME TO SHOOTING (SHOOTING THE BRAINS OUT OF...) KIDS.  And yet, what to do when that kid's holding an RPG and aiming said RPG at a group of Marines that don't necessarily see the kid coming?  So Kyle did know that his job did save American Marines' lives (and again BOY WERE THEY APPRECIATIVE ...).  Still, the film showed plenty of instances where Kyle had to decide to take shots (AND KILL PEOPLE even KIDS ...) that were _very painful_ to take.

So ... this is a very serious movie.  And I do believe that it is more than just a glorification of what he was doing.  It was clear that his job did cause him significant distress in his mind (and the minds of others who found themselves fighting this war).

The film becomes a very serious invitation to reflect on war.  If one assumes that one's nation needs an army (and most Americans and really most nations would assume this to be simply necessary) then that army needs to have people trained _to kill_ as efficiently as Chris Kyle.  I don't think that anyone would doubt that he saved many, many American soldiers' lives out there in Iraq.  But then, at what cost ... even to himself?

It becomes very, very important that conflicts be managed intelligently so that the sacrifices (of mind, life and limb) of the soldiers that _may be_ deployed would not _be wasted_ or in vain.

A fascinating recent discussion on the PBS Newshour (Thu 1/15/2015) centered on the question of why the U.S. Military, second to none since World War II, has almost never been able to bring the country victory since World War II (and honestly, even World War II morphed rather quickly into the subsequent Cold War).  The suggestion was made that the U.S. Military has been tasked with trying to "win" "wars" for the country that are fundamentally political and unwinnable in simply a military sense.  Yes, armies could be routed even obliterated by ours, but ultimately to no lasting effect.  A larger toolbox is needed, where the military may be a tool in that box but certainly not the only one.

In the Catholic sense, this is an invitation (once again...) to reflect on the Just War theory where the decision to go to war is envisioned as being CONSIDERED SOBERLY and as a "LAST RESORT."  Now one understands that CONTINGENCY PLANNING may be necessary in any case (so that a nation / people don't get surprised by a malintentioned party or neighbor).

However even after the "war plans" are done, the Catholic Church has insisted that they not be put into action unless the criteria of the Just War Theory are met:  That war be declared / entered into (1) for a Just Cause, (2) by Competent Authority, (3) for the Right Intention (and not for ulterior motives), (4) as a Proportional Response, (5) with a reasonably high Probability of Success and (6) as a Last Resort (after less severe methods of rectifying the injustice have been considered, tried and have failed). 

Otherwise we're left with heroic but also tragic stories like the one in this film: Memorializing a soldier who _did save_ an awful lot of people (American Marines) ... by killing an awful lot of other people (Iraqi insurgents among them at times even women and children) which did not just kill them but also damaged his own well-being/spirit ... in a conflict that has since morphed beyond recognition anyway: The same places where Chris Kyle spent most of the active portions of his deployment -- Fallujah and Ramadi are now under control of a crazy Jihadist faction, ISIS, that didn't even exist at the time when U.S. troops were deployed there.  (Yes, _perhaps_ ISIS never would have formed "if we stayed there," but then how many of our people would have died there in the meantime and where would the money come from to keep our soldiers there ... for ... forever?)

In any case, a _very well done_ and _thought-provoking_ film.


The U.S. Catholic Bishops' 1983 Pastoral Letter "The Challenge of Peace" (articles 80-110) provides a very good presentation of the Catholic Church's Just War Doctrine.

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