The Iraq War was a protracted military conflict that began in 2003 when the Bush administration declared—unilaterally and without evidence—that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and was connected (somehow) to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
For months, they pushed for war. They quite reasonably declared Saddam Hussein to be a vicious dictator. However, they glossed over the United States’ support for him in the Iran-Iraq War, earlier administrations’ obfuscation over his use of chemical weapons against Iranians and Kurds, and the failure of Bush Snr. to depose Hussein in 1991, when it was already clear that he was guilty of genocide.
The administration decided that their best course of action was to invade Iraq and ignite a protracted military conflict. In the process, a few hundred thousand innocent Iraqis were killed. A couple of million more became refugees (see ‘boat people’). The United States, which heralded itself as a bringer of democracy, has been accused of complicity in the institutionalised torture of countless Iraqi detainees. A power vacuum was created, which has facilitated the rise of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
It was a very violent, very expensive, very avoidable chapter in America’s history and Australia’s unquestioning and unreserved diplomatic and military support has long been regarded as a source of national shame.
Enter “American Sniper”, the Hollywood action/drama film adaption of Iraq war veteran Chris Kyle’s best-selling memoir.
Directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, the film follows “America’s deadliest sniper” throughout his four harrowing tours in Iraq, his uncomfortable home life in between, and the broader plight of post-war veterans and their plight to re-enter society.
It provides a thought provoking portrayal of PTSD and insight as to the enormous pressures placed on the families and friends of armed forces. Cooper’s performance as Kyle is outstanding, and my inner film critic was awed by the ability of Eastwood to mesh gritty action sequences with the raw emotional trauma experienced by its participants. If this were fiction I’d be screaming “Oscar” louder than anyone.
But Iraq, and Kyle were not fictitious. This was a real war. And he was a real person. We have a problem.
The tale that Kyle tells in his book and which Eastwood translated to the big screen, is very different to that surmised above. It provides a simplistic – dare I say binary – account of good (USA) battling evil (Iraq), where the only victims are US soldiers, and all but three of the hundreds of Iraqi characters are labelled “savages”.
In the film, footage of 9/11 immediately precedes Kyle’s first tour in Iraq, implying to viewers that the culprits of this terrorism were Iraqis and completely omitting the whole Osama-Bin-Laden-explicitly-taking-responsibility thing. To the politically astute, this exclusion is disturbing. But to the politically unengaged, chances are it didn’t raise an eyebrow, feeding droves of moviegoers an insidiously misleading narrative where America’s military aggression was a warranted and necessary response to an unprovoked attack.
Add a hate-inspiring (and factually inaccurate) subplot with parents training their children to become enemy insurgents, and omit the whole the whole “Iraq didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction” thing and voila! You’d forget that pesky ‘ongoing humanitarian crisis’ thing ever happened.
Now let’s be clear about a few things. American Sniper tells the personal story of one American soldier who fought in Iraq. It does not seek to tell the story of all American combatants, and one might rightly assert that the political context surrounding the conflict is comparatively less important that it would be in say a documentary or a history book.
These qualifications however do not justify the revisionist history that Eastwood engages in. Nor do they mitigate the potentially devastating consequences this story will have on the public consciousness.
The fact is that in Australia (and the United States) political apathy is on the rise, with up to 3 million eligible voters opting out of our last Federal election. This indicates that voters – especially young voters – are less and less informed (or interested) about what our politicians are getting up to.
For a generation defined by our short attention spans, a serious problem then emerges if many of us rely on pop-culture flicks like American Sniper to fill in the gaps – which not only gloss over a lot of the inconvenient truths elaborated above, but immortalise the role of soldiers who “kill the most Arabs”.
The Iraq war was a shameful episode in America’s history. The Bush government sent its soldiers to fight and die in an unprovoked war with a non-existent objective, and in so doing brought death and destruction to millions of innocent people. The violence, and US occupation of Iraq, exists to this day, and many who fled this destruction now languish in offshore detention camps on the instruction of our own Prime Minister.
There is no narrative where we are the good guys. But I dare say that few members of the audience will remember that fact as they walk out of the cinema.
Jacob Debets is secretary and co-editor of De Minimis, and a second-year JD student
Originally published "American Sniper: Cultivating Ignorance is Just as Dangerous as Dropping Bombs" at http://www.jdchizzle.com/american-sniper-cultivating-ignorance-is-just-as-dangerous-as-dropping-bombs/