militarism

Stop Glorifying Ignorance: ‘American Sniper’ in the Context of Mass Media

I’m not going to watch American Sniper. The name is enough to keep me away. Reading the synopsis in this Atlantic article praising it as “complex” leads me to register my disagreement.

This is a movie based on the autobiography of a self-described “redneck” who embraced an us vs. them worldview after the 1998 embassy bombings and enlisted in the Navy, where he was trained to kill people at a distance with a rifle. He discovered that he was good at it. And that he liked doing it. So he kept doing it; after 9/11, he had plenty of opportunities to pick people off in the battlefield. By some estimates, according to the Atlantic, he killed as many as 225 people over four tours of duty.

I’m not going to read Chris Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History, on which the movie is based. The few words that I read in the Atlantic are more than enough. Chris Kyle wrote, “I love war.” He wrote, “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” He wrote, “I hate the damn savages.” He wrote that he finds killing “fun”.

I wish I couldn’t give a flying fuck about Chris Kyle. But here’s the thing: Chris Kyle is in the popular imagination of America because America lacks the imagination and will to be peaceful. This is no easy task, to be peaceful, given history, given mass media, given the glorification of the military in America. But to be peaceful is a necessary task. It always has been, though it’s been neglected in favor of the lazier task of belligerence.

Chris Kyle would not have been empowered to kill from a distance, he would not have been given a book deal in which to glorify his ignorance, and he would not be the subject of an Oscar-nominated film if America had the courage and imagination to actualize a just society.

Captured tweets illustrate how 'American Sniper' perpetuates white supremacy. via @LeslieK_nope

Captured tweets illustrate how ‘American Sniper’ perpetuates white supremacy. via @LeslieK_nope

The questions we should be asking ourselves as a society don’t have to do with the moral ambiguities of war. Let’s go back. The United States has the most advanced military in the history of the planet. On September 11th, 2001, two airplanes slammed into the World Trade Center, causing the collapse of the twin towers and the death of 2,997 people, leaving aside the 19 hijackers. The American government and media served the interests of the military-industrial complex by overwhelming public consciousness with fear and initiating the War on Terror. For more than 13 years, American military forces have been engaged in foreign operations. Overnight, American public life transformed from a dream of vanity and ignorance into a nightmare of fear, xenophobia, and ignorant patriotism. Since the beginning of the War on Terror in 2001, over 350,000 people have been killed, including approximately 220,000 civilians, according to the Costs of War report.

One of the salient features of American life in the age of mass media is ignorance. The ubiquity of television and the 24-hour news cycle pioneered by CNN in the 1980s has created a culture where people are fed opinions. CNN provided constant coverage of the first Gulf War. The phenomenon of corporate media news streaming into homes and public spaces has been continually ratcheted up over the past three decades. Immediately after 9/11, that corporate media infrastructure deployed an immense campaign to instate fear in the American public consciousness. That fear was twofold. On the ostensible level, the coverage and lack of analysis served to stoke fears of further terrorist attacks on American soil. On a more subtle level, the coverage and lack of analysis made clear that a paradigm hostile to public inquiry and dissent had swiftly taken dominance in the American public consciousness.

Rather than promoting free inquiry, objective analysis, and encouraging civic engagement, the corporate mass media, especially television–a technology that 87% of Americans turn to for news throughout the day–serves short bursts of stories and sound bites to deliver a narrative of news, an interpretation of events; in short, to deliver an opinion of the news to viewers.

And this is the context in which we’ve been sold the War on Terror, and in which the stunted life of a miseducated Texan bronco rodeo rider turned professional killer is celebrated as “complex”. Chris Kyle was not very complex. Tragic, I’ll allow; yet the tragedy is not solely his. The tragedy belongs to America.

How did we arrive here, in a dystopian 21st century where we’ve spent trillions on the War on Terror, where we criminalize people based on color, yet become indignant or tepid about prioritizing public healthcare? This is a deeply ill society that we live in, not a paragon of freedom, equality, or justice. The prominence of a story like American Sniper is just a minor symptom of the illness that pervades American society.

America Needs a Radical Revolution of Values

American society suffers from a profound clash of professed values and actual practices. We profess the value of education, but criminalize our children with a school-to-prison pipeline. We profess a love of liberty, but imprison unprecedented numbers of people, most for non-violent drug offenses, and the majority of those we imprison are people of color. We profess equality and security, yet our police departments operate as judge, jury, and executioner in the most disadvantaged communities–the ones that most need police officers to serve and protect. Those communities also need social services, yet social services are routinely cut in favor of corporate profits and privatization, and so the professed rights to life and the pursuit of happiness are compromised.

Chicago activists protesting criminalization of black youth at Cook County Detention Center on January 15, 2015 (photo by @MinkuMedia)

Chicago activists protesting criminalization of black youth at Cook County Detention Center on January 15, 2015 (photo by @MinkuMedia) Click image to read “Willing to Live for Our People”, about the young students who led the Chicago action

The roots of this clash grow from a contradiction at the core of our nation. The “unalienable rights” asserted in the Declaration of Independence have been denied, in some way or another, to African-Americans for the entire history of our nation. Unalienable rights, denied: a contradiction between the professed philosophy of the nation and its lived experience, its history.

This lived contradiction is similar to the notion of cognitive dissonance, the stress experienced by an individual who holds two contradictory beliefs. America professes equality, but practices inequality; this mismatch creates stress in America’s image of itself and in our public discourse.

American practices violate American ideals in the realm of foreign intervention, as well. Throughout American history, the nation has violated the sovereign rights of other nations: Cuba, the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq, to name a few. While many apparently find it easy to dismiss military interventions as irrelevant to the unalienable rights of U.S. citizens, the professed philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is violated by foreign interventions that aim to subjugate populations to American interests.

Speaking on April 4, 1967, about his opposition to the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that America had chosen to:

make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

In 21st century America, King’s recommended revolution of values has never occurred. From the perspective of militarization and violent foreign intervention, our practices have changed little, and arguably worsened, since Vietnam. Our media is complicit. The propaganda drilled into the American people after 9/11 had a profound effect, obliterating the security that many Americans felt during the 1990s and replacing it with a climate of fear. The violation of reason, the lack of debate and a measured response perpetuated by the military-industrial complex after 9/11 created a climate hostile to democracy in America. The 21st century would be a very different time if, rather than rushing to war, the American people had been able to muster the political consciousness and will to approach the attacks with objective analysis, rather than reactionary patriotism. Questions could have been asked, foreign policy analyzed and revised; America could have wrestled with the contradictions inherent in a nation that has never been at peace with its professed values of equality and liberty.

In a country where King’s “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” have never been conquered, and at a time when the reasons he cited for their continued tyranny are equally, if not more applicable than when he gave his speech, our ability to see the roots of our stress and discontent is obscured. In the pursuit of justice both at home and abroad, America must renounce an economics of consumption for a life of engagement. We must engage in a critical assessment of the ongoing national failure to actualize the ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” that we declared on July 4th, 1776. We must undergo, as King declared, “a radical revolution of values” in order to engage in a correction of course that is long overdue.