Yesterday morning, following the previous night’s Academy Awards extravaganza, the folks at Fox News started to crow. They were outraged that the film American Sniper didn’t win more awards (it was nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, and won one in the category of Best Sound Editing). Hollywood’s liberal bias was clearly to blame for the snub, they said.
For the average American viewer American Sniper is just another patriotic drama, replete with all of the obligatory guns, flags, and testosterone that one can expect from American cinema and from its director, Clint Eastwood. For those unfamiliar with the blockbuster, it’s the story of Chris Kyle, a Texan, devoted father, and military man. Most importantly, though, he is a skillful marksman who uses his special talents to kill more than one hundred Iraqis who seek to disrupt the U.S. incursion into their country. To watch the film is to be taken through Kyle’s seemingly frenetic and emotionally tortuous journey, as he seeks to maintain his family and his sanity, while disposing of the various dark and menacing people who seek to undermine America’s mission in Iraq.
The film is also yet another form of American hegemony or propaganda that provides viewers with an incredibly one-sided perspective on a war that has resulted in prodigious amounts of pain and suffering. When I saw the film, the final scene was greeted with applause. People identified with the besieged hero and his desire to protect his fellow soldiers, his family, and his own self. They saw justification in his dealing with the “evil other” lurking ubiquitously and menacingly in the guise of kids and mothers and even shadow assassins. And when Kyle declares his unequivocal belief in his job of shooting those who are ready to undermine the U.S. effort, one could feel a wave of support radiate through the theater that could have unsurprisingly led to either applause or song.
It is for all of those who see the movie and applaud—or break into song—that this article is devoted. Because American Sniper is no better than the carefully choreographed cowboy and Indian movies that we all watched in the 1950s, ’60, and early ’70s—movies that forgot to mention the genocide carefully hidden under the romantic tales of romance and courage, movies that washed away the Trail of Tears and Andrew Jackson with a laconic line from John Wayne or some other distinctively American symbol.
Because at the heart of hegemony or the systematic control of a people is the use of media and education to change and control the national narrative in a way that is decidedly skewed in the favor of those in power. Hegemony uses education and media outlets to tell its citizens that the United States was founded by great men who were wise and brave, and who sought only freedom from an oppressive British king. It tells students that Abraham Lincoln was the great liberator and that Teddy Roosevelt led the rough riders in an intrepid march to liberate Cubans from the oppressive Spanish empire. Conveniently omitted, of course, are the less attractive verities of our national icons. George Washington was the wealthiest man in the colonies because, in part, he had so many slaves, some of whom he later would use as suppliers of teeth to fix his own dental problems.
What about Jefferson? The fact that he raped a slave and fathered children with her or that Lincoln was never much an emancipator as long as the Union could be maintained, has never cooled the zeal of those who aspire to make America into something that it really isn’t.
Which brings us to American Sniper. Just ten years removed from the lies and machination of the Bush/Cheney regime, the movie seeks to recast the entire war into yet another heroic journey into a land that needs some good old fashioned civilizing. Forget the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that the United States had long used Saddam Hussein as a convenient wedge against extremists in Iran. For Chris Kyle and the millions who watch, this is yet another tale of Americans in white hats, vanquishing the dark other. To watch the film is to see history revised so that one could easily believe that Iraq had actually been behind 9/11, which, of course, almost a third of all Americans actually believe. For those of us who did not applaud, there are invidious questions about the future of our nation and the chance that Americans are so stupid, so swept up in hegemonic distortion, that yet another bogus invasion could be engineered by leaders with the same moral compass as Dick Cheney.
But this is how propaganda works. This is how hegemony takes over a national conversation and supplants ugly truths with patriotic songs, stories, and, yes, movies. In the end, we must ask ourselves what the invasion of Iraq meant to us as a people and what is essential for us to remember. In answering that question, we must realize that Chris Kyle is not important, except in how he can be used to become the next face of propaganda—the next cowboy in a white hat, spewing manly aphorisms before raising a gun and killing the designated bad guy.
This is why American Sniper is important: it offers us a lesson not in history but on its revision and shows us how that revision can be tailored to make all of the pain and prevarications seem patriotic. And for that, I say, shame on you, Clint Eastwood, who should know better. Shame on our politicians for not speaking truth to propaganda. And, most importantly, shame on those who applaud a movie that lies to them about the blood they were asked to spill—and might be asked to spill again.