American Things

The night before the killings in Charleston, I watched the film American Sniper, and I found it very difficult to get it out of my head.

I had no notion that I would enjoy the movie, but I figured I had to wrestle with it at some point on a critical level. And when I was a graduate student I spent time working on my advisor’s project, which included a good amount of research on Clint Eastwood, the film’s director, and so I was curious to try to understand it in terms of his imprint. Eastwood, I read recently, had declared the film to be “anti-war.”

American Sniper is no Letters from Iwo Jima. In that film, Eastwood told a war story from the perspective of the doomed, and did so, at least for American audiences, from a perspective of the “other,” one that could avoid the nationalism that inevitably comes with identifying with the onscreen protagonists. In perhaps my favorite scene, a flashback scene set at a banquet, Ken Watanabe’s character dines with his American counterparts before the war. They all declare their common humanity while at the same time acknowledging how they would fight one another to death if their country told them to do it. The irrational nature of jingoism is laid bare. It’s anti-statism at its most humanistic and cosmopolitan form: internationalism.

American Sniper examines the cost of war on an individual level. It shows how Chris Kyle, the film’s red-meat eating, Muslim-killing hero becomes consumed by vengeance, and when he came back to the states, suffers from a lack of outlets for his rage. But he is ultimately redeemed when he finds a new purpose: helping injured veterans. And where Letters from Iwo Jima seeks to humanize combatants on both sides of a conflict, American Sniper is wholly uninterested in doing so. The action scenes are damn good — way too good. It may be that Eastwood was trying to be clever. One could argue that he sought to seduce the audience with the war, in its videogame-like excitement, in order to then show the effect it had on its hero, who was seduced too. If this is the case, Eastwood either severely misunderstood the power of his own imagery, or he was somehow simply blind to the need to humanize non-Americans. Kyle is arguably anti-authority; he challenges the orders of his superiors (and always turns out to be correct). Yet if American Sniper questions the state at all, it does so in the most backward, individualistic way: by reifying Americanness. And this itself is an American thing.

Every antagonist in American Sniper is cartoonishly villainous. And every Arab is an atagonist. Every woman and every child walking Iraqi streets turns out to be bomb-wielding member of Al Qaeda. And outside of the action scenes, the dialog serves to reinforce these ideas; Kyle insistence on calling Iraqis “savages” and declaring the U.S. “the greatest country on Earth” goes unchallenged. In the film’s central metaphor, it suggests, as previous Eastwood films do, that heroes are needed to act as “sheepdogs,” keeping the “sheep” safe from the “wolves.” I don’t know if these came from the book or if it was cooked up for the movie, but all I could think of was how closely it aped the central metaphor of Team America.

There’s nothing ironic or clever about the titling of the movie or the book from which its name comes. But make no mistake, Eastwood’s focus on the problems of the individual, and his elision of the problems of his subject on the national and global levels, are what make American Sniper an undoubtedly American thing. By exploring the toll of war but refusing to source its roots, his narrative draws on the tradition of “American innocence” cited by Marita Sturken in Tourists of History, in which the author explores how our culture explores tragedies such as 9/11 and the Oklahoma City Bombing.

The killings in Charleston were many things: a tragedy, an act of terrorism, a lynching, a pogrom. But I think its what came next that made them an American thing. Because so many commentators, in the interest of preserving American innocence, sought to extricate the event from the woven nest of discourses, symbols, and histories on which it lay. Politicians and commentators defended the Confederate flag while they lamented the attack as one on religious liberty. Like Eastwood in American Sniper, they willfully ignored not just the discursive and material structures that define men and women on the basis of Americanness, but also those forces that alienate the very people who, through their acts of violence, at once heinous and desperate, make those structures intelligible.

Years ago, I was introduced to Tony Kushner’s essay “American Things,” and it still gives me chills when I read it. It’s an old-school celebration of dissent, of Stonewall, and the New Deal, of “traditions [that] exist in opposition to those which make fixed fetishes of democracy and freedom, talismans for Reaction” (9). He concludes, “the frazzle, the rubbed raw, the unresolved, the fragile and the fiery and the dangerous: These are American things” (11). But I’m not sure they are.

And I’m not sure we should care at all about American things. Maybe if folks spent less time trying to find the “American way,” for example, they might have an easier time reconciling the relationship between gun ownership and murders with their own worldviews. They might adopt socialized medicine, or sustainable transportation infrastructure, or any number of un-American things.

Sure let’s keep American Splendor, and American Psycho. Let’s keep The Quiet American and Americanah. These all take as their subject American things in ways that are ironic, humble, comedic, or cosmopolitan. But right now, after watching American Sniper, after watching the events in Charleston, the message is clear, the problem is an American thing.