I Served in Iraq, and American Sniper Gets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.

Photo: Warner Bros

I get what American Sniper is trying to do. I really do. Clint Eastwood’s film is attempting to convey the grit, the determination, the pure endurance of seeing a belief through to its end. I served alongside a few guys like Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle in Iraq, guys whom I considered true believers — soldiers who operated in a world that was cut-and-dried, one filled with terrorists and violent extremists and foreign fighters and jihadists armed with RPGs, 9/11 as Exhibit A for why the trigger needed to be pulled. I’ve kicked in doors and taken part in the hunt for some of those same enemies. I was there, and I remember the signature of an Iraqi sniper working in our sector as he adjusted his sight picture — wounding one soldier at a time until he started killing and continued on killing after I’d completed my deployment and headed home. I’ve run for cover when the mortars came down, and I know, deep in my body, deeper than language, what it’s like to be afraid for my life, and yet I did my best to remain professional and true to the guys to my left and right as we saw the moment through to its conclusion.

I remember seeing key chains displayed at a vendor’s booth in a market north of Baghdad — Osama bin Laden’s photograph on one side, smiling, the Twin Towers burning on the reverse side. It pissed me off, holding it in my hands, knowing that merchants only stock what sells. The mathematics of certain moments sometimes have a crystallizing quality to them. When one of the children we often joked with threw a grenade into the vacant building we used as an observation post, a building we’d just handed off to the Second Platoon, it was a hard lesson in the reality of war, one that steeled us away from placing any amount of trust in a single soul during our year in-country. There’s a scene — scenes, actually — in American Sniper where Chris Kyle struggles with the decision to shoot a child. Those scenes dredged up memories of Mosul and Baghdad, where I once heard the words You are authorized to shoot children come crackling over the radio. I also remember watching soldiers in my own platoon lob plastic water bottles filled with their own urine at village children who would run to us as we drove by — thirsty children who motioned with their thumbs to their mouths in a gesture pleading for water. There is truth in American Sniper, whether you think the film is crass jingoism or a portrait of a hero.

The film made me remember something else, too: the oft-repeated phrase We should just drop a nuke and turn this whole goddamn place into a glass fucking parking lot. This was an enlargement of what I’d regularly heard prior to deploying from Ft. Lewis, Washington: I’m going to go over there and shoot somebody in the face. And so, what started as an erasure of the signature of one’s identity, their face, evolved into the complete erasure of a civilization. But the thing is, I don’t think there was any clue about what was actually being erased in the first place. And in that cluelessness lays the problem with American Sniper.

In the years to come, Eastwood and Cooper’s film will surely be held up as a paragon of filmmaking craftsmanship, and the argument around it as being indicative of a specific time in our collective experience. It’s a solid, well-made film, and Cooper, with that great Texas drawl and those heavy eyes, knocks it out of the park. I was grateful that Eastwood chose to visually elide Kyle’s own tragic death, thus creating a space of silence and respect for the soldier and his family. Likewise, the final ride of his hearse poignantly pulled the fictional into the biographical. (It’s also possible that showing Kyle’s murder at the alleged hands of a troubled veteran would’ve muddied Eastwood’s ending. But I prefer a more generous interpretation.) In Cooper’s version of Kyle, I recognized many of the soldiers I served with during my own time overseas, men whose example I respected and did my best to emulate. So, again, I get American Sniper. I do. But it’s myopic. I’m not saying that there aren’t characters in real life like those depicted in the film. And I can see how Eastwood’s gunslinging, black-hat-white-hat approach (replete with dueling snipers) mirrors the controversy and release of, to pick another war movie from another divisive time, John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), which, too, was valorized by hawks and condemned by doves. These are polarizing films, ones that inspired conversation, argument, contemplation. Once the dust settles, though, what do we learn from American Sniper

This isn’t the defining film of the Iraq War. After nearly a quarter century of war and occupation in Iraq, we still haven’t seen that film. I’m beginning to think we’re incapable as a nation of producing a film of that magnitude, one that would explore the civilian experience of war, one that might begin to approach so vast and profound a repository of knowledge. I’m more and more certain that, if such a film film ever arrives, it’ll be made by Iraqi filmmakers a decade or more from now, and it’ll be little known or viewed, if at all, on our shores. The children of Iraq have far more to teach me about the war I fought in than any film I’ve yet seen — and I hope some of those children have the courage and opportunity to share their lessons onscreen. If this film I can only vaguely imagine is ever made, it certainly won’t gross $100 million on its opening weekend.

The biggest problem I have with American Sniper is also a problem I have with myself. It’s a problem I sometimes find in my own work, and it’s an American problem: We don’t see, or even try to see, actual Iraqi people. We lack the empathy necessary to see them as fully human. In American Sniper, Iraqi men, women, and children are known and defined only in relation to combat and the potential threat they pose. Their bodies are the site and source of violence. In both the film and our collective imagination, their humanity is reduced in ways that, ultimately, define our own narrow humanity. In American Sniper, Iraqis are called “savages,” and the “streets are crawling” with them. Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall give Iraqis no memorable lines. Their interior lives are a blank canvas, with no access points to let us in. I get why that is: If Iraqis are seen in any other light, if their humanity is recognized, then the construct of our imagination, the ride-off-into-the-sunset-on-a-white-horse story we tell ourselves to push forward, falls apart. 

If we saw Iraqis as humans, we’d have to learn how to live in a world far, far more complicated and painful than the difficult, painful one we currently live in. Messy, trauma-filled, beautiful, and altogether human; all of us breathing the oxygen of our time. We’d have to learn something more than how to return home and how to reintegrate our warrior class in America — which, to its credit, is a problem that American Sniper acknowledges. We’d have to let go of our fascination with Odysseus and the hero’s return. We’d have to see everyone — not just Americans (or the ones we agree with politically, anyway) — as the family they’ve always been to us. And we’d to have to, as they say, get back to the world.

Brian Turner is the author of My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir.