July| Vol. 22 No. 8.02 | Christian's Chronicles © 2015 – All rights reserved.
It has become fashionable as of late to propagate and ‘milk’ the current controversy surrounding the hit movie “American Sniper,” based on the book of the same title. It is an autobiographical account of the late Chris Kyle’s Military service as a Navy SEAL, comprising several tours in Iraq during which he became the most lethal sniper in U. S. history. This movie has aroused the passions of critics and fans alike, yielding sometimes intense debate over a variety of subjects which may have only a tenuous relationship to the film itself. As expected, those whose primary interest is to stir up debate are undoubtedly salivating at the prospect of keeping the conversation going, poking and prodding at whatever will stimulate the public to respond. This, after all, is the raison d’être of ‘commentary;’ the ‘analysis’ of ‘important issues’ (imagined or otherwise). Politics, patriotism, war, and the controversial story of a deceased Soldier who became a legend in his own time – what better mix of ingredients for the talking heads to exploit from their pulpits peddling their verbiage. Whatever the pundits may proclaim, their work deals in words, which exploit the controversies derived from the raw material of flesh and blood; war, life and death, and the stories told both by those who lived it and those who did not.
Not to be outdone, this humble publication would like to throw its own hat into the mix. However, rather than focusing on the man, the book, or the movie, this Chronicle focuses on one particular critic whose critique had apparently caused enough of a blow-back from fans of ‘American Sniper’ to necessitate a response that included a pseudo-scientific statistical analysis of the hate-mail it generated.
Consider this a case-study, if you will, since – for reasons that should become readily apparent in due course – the nature of the critique, the response it received, and the way that response was handled reflects symptoms of wider-ranging phenomena. Perhaps it is not even necessary to mention that in our opinion the ‘negative’ reaction to the purported critique of a movie is precisely what critics, such as the one discussed later on, are after. It is the validation they seek, as will be laid out in more detail below.
The critic in question is Sophia A. McClennen. She wrote two pieces for Salon.com. Readers are encouraged to follow the links below so as to judge for themselves whether they agree with Ms. McClennen or the views expressed in this Chronicle.
In the opinion of this writer, Ms. McClennen is disingenuous in:
As explained below, the first piece was not at all a simple critique of a movie, but rather a thinly veiled attack against a broad group of people McClennen hypocritically lumps into one homogeneous category. Instead of the feigned surprise of the second piece with which McClennen describes how many of her readers expressed their offense at her “assessment of the film,” this reaction from many readers was precisely what she was after so as to exploit it by condescendingly gloating over the “narrow thinking” and “faulty reasoning” of those whom she offended. Worse yet, in her arrogant intellectual hypocrisy she fails to notice that her arguments are chock full of many of the same logical fallacies of which she accuses her critics. She insincerely bemoans the end of reasoned debate and the impending doom of our democracy due to “hate speech,” while this is precisely what she, along with many other snobs who consider themselves academics, are promoting by cherry-picking the easiest targets among those with whom they disagree, and using these straw-men to lump all on the opposite side of the debate into one conveniently inferior category. Perched atop their ivory towers, they crow their insults cloaked as academic criticism.
This, unfortunately, is a position all too frequently taken by those who preach the dogma of the left. Be it from the left or the right, dogma is not debate. Yet what appears to be a phenomenon more frequently appearing on the left is a false sense of intellectual superiority that can barely contain the hidden desire to express the same advantage not just over opposing arguments, but over the people who express them.
Before elucidating the many ways in which McClennen falls short of mounting a convincing argument, some preliminary matters. First, it should be pointed out that apparently there have been numerous inaccurate or unsubstantiated claims made by Chris Kyle, one of which resulted in a defamation lawsuit by former Navy SEAL and ex-governor (not to mention pro-wrestler) Jesse Ventura. Certain other claims made by Kyle outside the context of ‘American Sniper’ have also been put in doubt, thereby possibly raising questions about his overall credibility. Such inaccuracies have no bearing on what follows, as the motive for this Chronicle is not to defend Chris Kyle, nor any of the claims he has made in the book or elsewhere.
Second, no particular political agenda, issue, or point of view is defended here. There may well be many points of agreement between Ms. McClennen’s views and those of the editors of The Chronicles. However, it is with the manner of her argument with which we find fault. The point is merely to provide a critique of a critic.
So, without further ado, let’s begin.
McClennen’s second piece begins with the statement: “I dared criticize ‘American Sniper.’ You’d be horrified by the response from aggressive, deluded ‘patriots.'” Throughout it McClennen continuously portrays her first piece as a critique of the movie ‘American Sniper,’ which overzealous fans in their “narrow thinking” equated with an anti-Military, anti-American view. “If you didn’t know better you’d think it was the Stars and Stripes I had gone after and not a Hollywood blockbuster,” she writes.
This subsequent characterization of McClennen’s first piece as a mere movie-review is more than a little disingenuous, it is simply dishonest. A professor at Penn State, she may be described as an academic; thus, calling this academic dishonesty may well be justified.
A more accurate assessment of her own critique would acknowledge that ‘American Sniper’ the movie, was nothing more than a mouthpiece or talking-point through which McClennen expressed her political agenda, and not only criticized a different point of view, but belittled those who may disagree with her.
For starters, the title should reveal as much: “‘American Sniper’s’ biggest lie: Clint Eastwood has a delusional Fox News problem.” Though read literally this would indicate that the movie lies about Clint Eastwood having a ‘delusional Fox News problem,’ the intent is clear despite the confused syntax. If anything, this is an attack on the filmmaker, whose shortcomings are described by reference to a news outlet with a purported right-wing slant. If anything, this is an ad hominem attack, which is a good occasion as any to point out to Ms. McClennen: yourlogicalfalacyis.com/ad-hominem. This fallacy applies both to her attack on Eastwood, as well as Fox News. Any argument attempting to defend the objectivity of Fox News would be misplaced here. Regardless of one’s views concerning Fox News, the term is clearly used in a derogatory manner. The full scope of McClennen’s critique is brought into view by the subtitle, which reads: “The insanities and fantasies at the heart of “American Sniper” explain everything about the state of the 2015 GOP”
This is hardly the stuff of film criticism.
These words are intended to provoke. The first two sentences allude to lies, delusions, insanity, and ascribe them not to the movie, but mainly to the 2015 GOP, which is where the real critique lies. ‘American Sniper’ and its director are merely the tools that reveal and “explain everything” about the state of the “disturbing feature[s] of the GOP mind-set.”
No, McClennen was not aiming at ‘American Sniper.’ She was targeting something much larger, much more vague, which at various points she describes as “GOP mind-set,” “GOP politics,” “GOP beliefs,” the “2015 GOP” itself, and “some members of the GOP.” Though vague and loosely defined, McClennen’s target emerges as flesh and blood. She is describing people, not views or arguments.
In lumping those who disagree with her at various times, whether in her view of the movie ‘American Sniper’ or with regard to her political affiliations (i.e., those of the ‘GOP mindset’), into one category which she than self-servingly describes as having “an attitude that threatens to destroy any chance in our nation of political compromise and productive debate,” Ms. McClennen is again guilty of several fallacies: yourlogicalfallacyis.com/strawman; yourlogicalfallacyis.com/composition-division; yourlogicalfallacyis.com/false-cause; and on and on, including a similar type of over-generalization of which she accuses those who disagree with her. This, of course, is otherwise known as simple hypocrisy.
McClennen’s first piece was calculated to generate the backlash it received. She was banking on a negative response precisely to prove her point, which she aimed to do through a sleight of hand misrepresenting her first piece as a mere critique of a Hollywood hit to which the negative and aggressive responses were unwarranted. Perhaps the manner in which some who expressed themselves was excessive, but McClennen should have – and did – expect this. Her feigned surprise instead reveals her motives, when she writes: “Little did I know that whatever my piece may have lacked in its assessment of the film, it would be the film’s defenders that would perfectly prove my point.”
Quite the contrary, Ms. McClennen. You were hoping for and expecting exactly such a response.
It was precisely those whom she expected to support the film whom she attacked from the beginning, not the film itself. She did so anticipating fiery replies so she can later point to them in an effort to show how ‘narrow minded’ they are compared to her intellectual superiority.
And that is exactly what McClennen did. She was simply looking for convenient targets as exemplars of a ‘small but vocal’ faction, whom she then describes as the “fans defending ‘American Sniper'” who “reveal more about our nation’s problems than the movie itself.” Decrying “their twisted logic and vicious anger,” McClennen reveals not her intellectual superiority, but her snobbish dishonesty.
McClennen admits that the makers of the movie intentionally left politics out of the picture, and focused instead on a character study of a Soldier. However, she laments that “a character study that gives no context for the war depicted in the film is dangerous and deceptive.” The inescapable conclusion is that McClennen will be satisfied with nothing less than an all-out express condemnation of the Iraq war so as to prevent free-thinking patriots from signing up for what she sees as a war under false pretenses.
Contrary to McClennen’s claim, some context for the war was necessarily provided, albeit limited and unintentional. The events of September 11 motivated thousands to volunteer for Military service. If in no other way, by sheer increase of manpower and motivation, the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were enabled by and related to 9/11 in this way.
Once a man or woman becomes a Soldier and wears the uniform, he or she is duty-bound not to engage in the type of political critique of war McClennen is after. Like it or not, Soldiers are, and necessarily must be, required to follow orders into battle regardless of their political views. No armed force could possibly function effectively otherwise.
It is only the naïve daydreams of academia where the lofty ideals and superior intellect of the preferred version of political correctness rules the day. On the battlefield, one does not have the luxury of worrying about the complex portrayal of one’s enemy as a fully human being, the nuanced background of the conflict, and similar matters. One must do whatever one can to survive. For Soldiers in battle, it is kill or be killed.
Regardless of what justifications there may or may not have been for the Iraq war, once American Soldiers (the human faces to the proverbial ‘boots on the ground’) were deployed, they only had each other to rely on. Suppose that a particular Soldier finds the war politically objectionable (as I am sure many did, since neither Soldiers, nor the ‘movie’s defenders‘ are as uniform in their views as Ms. McClennen would have her readers believe), the best action for such a Soldier nonetheless remains doing his job as best as he can so that fellow Soldiers can rely on him. That is simply because no one Soldier can, will, or should influence the considerations that caused the war. Their sphere of influence extends to the fellow Soldiers they hope to protect, and the enemy they have to kill.
Regardless of one’s views of the justifications for the Iraq war, and regardless of how true some of his claims may be, one thing appears certain: Chris Kyle excelled at performing his job in the Military. Setting aside the reasons why, and how easily, Ms. McClennen accepts one portrayal of “the real ‘American Sniper’ [as] heartless and cruel” over a different portrayal as a hero and martyr, even she has to admit that his effectiveness as a sniper likely prevented the deaths of American Soldiers who would have been exposed to the same dangers, whether or not Chris Kyle or a less-qualified sniper was providing cover for them. In short, it is at least very likely (if not certain) that Chris Kyle saved the lives of some American Soldiers.
For this alone, he is a hero at least to those Soldiers whom he saved.
Soldiers do not make policy in this democracy of ours. They cannot engage in politics precisely so that arguments, as opposed to arms, may rule our internal governance as a nation. Soldiers simply put their lives on the line so the rest of the country does not have to. Refusing to engage in political dissection of the reasons behind wars is an essential and necessary part of the profession of arms. Wars that to the rest of the country are nothing but entertaining images on television, while to Soldiers they represent the nightmare from which some never return even if they do manage to come back physically.
It is completely irrelevant that American service members did not need to be in Iraq, in the opinion of Ms. McClennen or anyone else. In any healthy democracy, there will always be disagreement about justifications for war. Once there, Soldiers had a job to do and they did not have the freedom to question why.
Finally, let us not gloss over that oft-repeated cliché: ‘freedom isn’t free.’ For the sake of argument, let us grant that not just the conflict in Iraq, but every single war the United States has ever engaged in, was prosecuted under false pretenses and improper motivations. This does little to undermine the fact that our democracy has obvious enemies worldwide, and that our nation survives under the protection afforded it by our Military. Wherever we may send troops and however we may justify doing so, our nation’s enemies (of which there are plenty) are on a continuous watch for opportunities to shift the balance of power in their favor. It is dangerously naïve to believe that dictators, drug-lords, oligarchs, and religious fanatics everywhere are simply airing grievances to our foreign policies when they proclaim themselves to be enemies of America in some form or another. In whatever way we may wish to criticize our sometimes dysfunctional democracy, we nonetheless continue to provide the paradigm for leadership across many dimensions. We may cynically point out our country’s numerous shortcomings, for example in education, wealth inequality, health care, and various other matters. Nonetheless, America remains a global leader because our financial and political systems are comparatively less corrupt and provide greater benefits than alternatives. More to the point, political freedom, the freedom we cherish most, is not only an enduring quality of our democracy, but it is also a value built on the foundation of a strong Military. A Military that protects not only our own nation, but to some degree most, if not all, places where freedom exists in the world today. Imagine the alternative – a world where the U.S. Military is not there to contain the tyrants, the oligarchs, the fanatics. The fact that the United States Military has to intervene in faraway places worldwide, with or without adequate justification, is an inescapable feature of the position into which we as a nation have been thrust by the forces of history: that of being the leader of the free world. Just as the duty of doing one’s job without having the luxury of questioning why one is sent into harm’s way is an inescapable feature of being a Soldier.
So, if ‘American Sniper’ failed to engage in enough of a political critique to satisfy Ms. McClennen’s views, perhaps it was appropriate. Those who disagree with Ms. McClennen need not buy into the false dichotomy she creates between those ‘reasonable’ people who agree with her (i.e., the ‘us’) and the brutes (i.e., the ‘them’) in her own “us versus them” view of things. Maybe her critics have a hunch that despite her best efforts to appear not to do so, she nonetheless engages in a critique of the military and the Soldiers who have to do the dirty work of killing (and dying) without the luxury of questioning the policies that put them in harm’s way.
Perhaps her critique that “the violence suffered by our own soldiers could have been avoided if we simply hadn’t started the war to begin with” is therefore somewhat misplaced and disingenuous because Soldiers, once deployed and engaged in armed conflict, had no way to avoid the violence they suffered. Their options may have limited them to putting their faith in the cover provided by a fellow Soldier who might see and kill the enemy before the enemy kills them.
Maybe their best hope for survival was someone very much like an American Sniper.