Once you’ve seen one American war-in-the-Middle-East movie, you’ve seen them all. That’s what I thought. But the controversy surrounding American Sniper somehow persuaded me to pay a visit to my local multiplex. As the lights dimmed and I positioned my popcorn, something unexpected played out on the massive screen. We open with your cliché American troop caravan moving through a generic Middle Eastern ‘urban warzone’. As the story played out, my mind fell into the sniper’s scope as a dazzling, yet tragic metaphor materialised.
American Sniper is loosely based on the book by the same name that gives us the story of the late Navy SEAL, Chis Kyle – a man who became famous for killing people. When I think of other such Americans, I think of Timothy McVeigh or Charles Manson, yet this man has been made into an iconic celebrity. An American hero. By his own account, he is your average American, born in Texas, simplistic, and a good friend. He came from your typical Leave It To Beaver style family and dreamed of being a cowboy. This should be troubling to American ears. After having seen the film, I forced myself to plough through ‘The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US History’. It is 377 pages of remorseless arrogance with a soupçon of love letters to his departed fellow American troops. The film gives us the development of a character, the book, from its first sentences reveals a monstrous product of the American mind. There is no development, the damage is done. The training is complete, his humanity stripped, and I am amazed at how good a distance shot he was when I doubt this individual had the ability to see beyond a mirror what else exists in this world. It’s really quite sad, because perhaps at one time this individual could feel empathy without callousness. His volunteering after his tours of duty, that gives him the impression of being a real hero, is only a minor end note to the book and appears more as a distraction or something other to do than war. War and killing were his only problem-solving mechanisms. Tragically, he meets his end at the hands of another twisted mental product of contemporary America. The vicious cycle goes on. Clint Eastwood’s film takes this tragic American alloy and turns his story into a surreal metaphor that dares to teach us a lesson that Kyle could not express in his own words – thanks, to the structure of his manufactured mind.
Much of the film has the all too familiar feel of your prototypical dystopian post-9/11 American war flick. A background, not to down play its significance, story developed that even gave one the feel of a Robert Ludlum cat-and-mouse suspense. The audience is also given a tasteful broad brush stroke approach to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and naïve youth’s loss of innocence to modern warfare. I am not sure if it was the audio toggle between the real and the protagonist’s internal soundtrack or, to the best of my knowledge, the first drone’s-eye-view camera shot, but as the reel rolled on, a deep significance was revealed.
Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle, our sniper. The film plays with the idea of Kyle’s legacy. But its conclusion, he remains, at the very least, a metaphor for the good ole U. S. of A. A metaphor of what the United States has become since its rise to global dominance, leaving the audience with a choice as to the trajectory of the future course. We meet a young Kyle in an America long tarnished by recent history. His father has taken him for his first kill, a buck. A prodigy is born, as he sets his gun aside to bask in its glory, but his father is quick to scold him for he is never to leave his gun in the dirt. We see him save his younger brother from a bully as his father gives us the good old romanticised idea of a world where there are the meagre, the predators and then, a superior being, the guardian. He loves Texas, he loves guns, and he wants to be a cowboy. More importantly he has the classic American, preternatural sense of justice. Bullies must always be finished off. The father uses an interesting choice of words for his children’s lesson. The metaphor used resembles countless other empty metaphors about wolves and sheep that draw on a fundamental world view disconnect from reality that exists in the radical realist American psyche. Then Kyle is given a higher calling, similar to America’s call to protect the world. While America’s need to be the globe’s shield against evil perhaps predates the Monroe Doctrine, a heightened divine calling follows George W. Bush’s presidency. In the film, Kyle watches a news report of the US Embassy bombings in Kenya in 1998 as though he is seeing his little brother beneath the bully’s pummel. This minor shot elegantly captures this world flipping moment. A society so bent on a fundamentalist individualism suddenly feels for strangers only when connected to them by the word ‘American’. This feeling is echoed later in the film as Kyle and his wife watch the horror of 9/11 play out on their television screen, an all too familiar memory for Americans who lived through that particular day.
The news voice’s commentary spews forth chaotic fear and a deep uncertainty over the new enemy. This enemy is not as easily identified as our prior enemies. The Communist, The Japanese, The German, all with distinguishable characteristics easily caricatured, now are usurped by a shadow. The enemy is no longer a human who can be diminished through multiple rinses of nationalism and racism. The enemy is a spectre, almost inhuman. Thus, America must also lose its humanity. We watch Kyle’s SEAL training, which is expected to be a stripping of humanity, but instead the training feels more like manual online training, a nuisance that we must all endure in order to get an extra hour of pay for the week. Then reality settles in.
Just as Kyle has it all, a perfect bride, a child on the way, the American dream, we learn shooting deer or paper targets is no preparation for killing living humans. The enemy is not simply military-age males. In fact, the enemy is an evil force that can possess children and women as well. Contradictions compound as the glorious duty of war turns into a historically ignorant euphemism for murder and assassination. America watches the world through a high-powered scope, and to be the shield the world needs, it must decide, through this false buffer, who lives and who dies. The tragedy begins as we find out a simple fact: Kyle is really good at what he does.
The defence of the greatest country on earth makes him a legend. Americans long to have a symbol to stand behind like Captain America, but punching Hitler on the nose is not enough. The enemy is brutal, savage, and merciless. War for Americans is not men against men, good versus evil, it is what remains of the sacred human verses Lucifer himself. This is how we justify our own savagery. They are waiting to kill when we least expect it and so we must be ever ready. There is the belief that the enemy is no longer human. Much like aliens in sci-fi flicks, they are simply beasts and killing them is no big deal. The other soldiers around him echo the themes of American exceptionalism, racism against the people of the Middle East, and an overall blood lust surrounds questions of good and evil, the nature of God, and the sanctity of life. All of this is a haze of white noise surrounding the cold omniscient scope’s eye that Kyle becomes.
He is even faced with the Other in the form of an elusive enemy sniper. He is the American stereotype of today’s terrorist. He is al-Qaeda, he is ISIS, he is the next Western public atrocity. He wears all black, is clean cut with a mix of ethereal youth and devilish sex appeal. Bouncing from roof top to roof top, this enemy sniper is a ninja with perfect accuracy and precision. He even wears a headband. He calls Kyle out and becomes the microcosm of evil as his and Kyle’s game echo the War on Terror as if it were a one-time Pay Per View event that no one will want to miss.
The very term ‘hero’ is put to the pitch like a soccer ball, kicked back and forth, transformed before the audiences’ eyes. Chris Kyle is our hero. He is not simply a man looking to overcome a challenge and grow from it. Kyle’s war is multifaceted, complex. He has the internal challenge of maintaining his own sanity in the face of utter destruction. The challenge of maintaining his humanity and his family weigh on Kyle’s shoulders as he must persevere through the chaotic character changes that mould him throughout the film. His duty is to kill anyone who tries to kill him or his brothers before they can accomplish their missions. We watch a simple boy from Texas become a complex man caught on the fault line between killing machine and superhero guardian. In this position, we are clearly shown contradictions in his values that pull Kyle into the deep uncertainty of what Ziauddin Sardar calls ‘postnormal times’. The result is a self-detached, quixotic hero whom the audience is perpetually shifting between rooting for and hoping he fails so that he can simply go home and no one has to die.
Postnormal Times (PNT) is characterised by 3Cs: complexity, chaos and contradictions. We live in a world where complexity is the norm, characterised by a plethora of independent parts interacting with each other in a great many ways. Everything is connected to everything else in networks upon networks that generate positive feedback that amplify things in geometric proportions leading to chaos. We thus end up with many positions that are logically inconsistent and contradictory. The end products are uncertainties and ignorance. PNT cannot be saved by Superman flying faster than the bullet or by The Matrix’s Neo accepting his being the chosen one and defeating the Agents. The hero of postnormal times cannot simply defeat the bad guy or defuse the bomb, for PNT cannot be managed toward resolution. The postnormal hero is a navigator above all. This hero is challenged by the complexity of the world and our multiple selves, he is at the mercy of utter chaos, and subdued by countless contradictions. The postnormal hero is faced with taking our old conceptions, putting them to the test, and demanding that we re-educate ourselves or be doomed to fall at the hands of the true enemy – ourselves. He is not an antihero per se, but he is by no means something that can easily be made into an iconic action figure either.
The first of these heroes are almost certainly damned to become tragic heroes, for an unfamiliarity with postnormal times will prove a deadly challenge. I am not ruling out that the postnormal heroes will come in all shapes and sizes. Some will accept the complexity and contradictions of PNT, others will look to transcend it, and still others will be killed by it. The specific type I investigate here are characters faced with a growing complexity that presents greater chaotic challenges, which in turn bring out the contradictions within their very foundational values. These characters will be swallowed by the uncertainty surrounding them; and their options are limited to how they handle their own ignorance. Of course, authentic American characters are inherently assured. The choices they must now make is whether to remain stubborn to their old ways, or to take a new approach to their own ignorance.
And Kyle comes face to face with this choice. A scene gives us Kyle on a distant roof top providing support for his team on the ground. A faceless man with an RPG peels around the corner, his aim set on Kyle’s men. BANG. The man is taken out. Easy, classic, our hero beats evil. Then, we see a native boy watching from a short distance, shocked, pensive. The boy drifts towards the dead, faceless man. He picks up the RPG. Kyle watches, beginning to pray out loud, please put it down. The perfect metaphor for America! We watch through a sniper’s scope as history develops into the chaotic cradle to grave mess of killing and fear. Put it down. Kyle is faced with an impossible decision. Women and children must be spared at all costs. Americans, fighting for justice, must be kept from harm, at all costs. All bullies must be finished. The uncertainty and contradictions play out in a postnormal burst as the audience’s heart rates rise.
After a multi-toured back and forth between Kyle and Mustafa, finally, Kyle has Mustafa in his scope, a shot over a mile away, an impossible shot. Kyle knows he can take it and finish his own war. The man who has killed several Americans can be taken out. Justice. Other soldiers call for him to stand down. If he takes the shot, he will give away their position and they will be swarmed. Kill this one man and Kyle ends his war, the war. Kill one to save a thousand, but in killing this one, you condemn all your men, the men you are sworn to protect faced with certain death. A sandstorm approaches. Kyle takes the shot and the sandstorm consumes the building where the American troops are positioned. Kyle sets his rifle to his side, in the dirt, and produces a radio phone. He calls his wife, sand zipping about in all directions. He pleads to his wife that he is ready to go home. He finds himself in a nearly literal postnormal event, and his attempts to control the convergence of complexity, chaos, and contradictions have landed him in an unmanageable pit of uncertainty. Only navigation will bring him out again. The old methods and the old mind-set will not work any longer. His mind is reverted back to a primitive childhood notion of needing security. The man who never wanted his tours to end, who only wanted to be with his brothers, killing the monsters, now wanted more than anything to go home. A long mental recovery awaits Chris Kyle beyond this deployment. The stories of our childhood that take us to such horrible places but always manage to have a happy ending are, after all, just fictional stories.
There is no awareness in American Sniper of the theory of postnormal times; it’s the reality of postnormal times that is shaping the narrative of the film. And, of course, it provides no answers for how we are going to navigate postnormal times. Yet, quite unconsciously, it portrays the basic dilemmas, internal contradictions and deep ignorance of America in postnormal times.
As the credits rolled, showing documentary style footage, the comfortably packed theatre I sat in remained seated – still. Then the credits rolled against black and no soundtrack played. A phenomenon occurred where the theatre slowly and silently emptied. I only hope the metaphor was not too deep and that my fellow Americans in the theatre were persuaded to reflect on the ridiculous condition we find ourselves in. We still hold to the ‘laws of Americana’ Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies ascribed to the American mind in the current era. ‘Fear is essential,’ ‘War is necessary,’ and ‘Ignorance is bliss’. We live in an America where there are more guns than human beings (an estimated 350 million), campus shootings are the norm, and exporting war is an essential component of foreign policy. We idolise men who are really good at ending human life, and our politics are driven by what we fear: we want guns so no one shoots us, we oppose difference because we don’t want it to rub off on us, we support foreign engagement to kill them before they kill us. America, the proverbial ‘greatest country on Earth’, is skewed by false beliefs in permanence, the innate superiority of its values, and an inability to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Do not get me wrong, American Sniper is quite ridiculous if taken at face value; it is nothing more than another artist’s view on modern war. But on a deeper examination, with all its faults, it gives us an American portrait in dire need of reflection and adjustment. A mirror is presented to the audience, revealing our half-cocked mind-set that is hurling us towards perpetual violence.
Racism, rash decision making, and an attempt to hide from trusting humanity is juxtaposed with a hope that we will stop living in the dark. America’s continued war against shadows fuelled by deep uncertainty and a dedication to ignorance of the world beyond its borders is always going to spell tragedy for our postnormal hero. And, as the metaphor goes, for America herself.