Saturday, February 7, 2015

America, Snipers, and History

Then Jesus said to him, 'Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.'

-Matthew 26:52

Back in the 1980s and 90s, I was, off and on, a sniper in the Army.  I never employed that skill in a shooting gallery like Ramadi or Fallujah, so I was no Chris Kyle with his remarkable body count.  But I knew the skill sets, the indications for the employment of snipers in combat operations as “force multipliers,” the technology, the applied sciences of guncraft, the hieroglyphic of the subculture.  I also worked closely with SEAL Team 6 from time to time, so I would have have been able to have a conversation with Chris Kyle over a drink.  That's why I know the critical pieces that have been written about Kyle, calling him sociopath and so forth, are polemics.  Polemics and pop psychology go well together, but they create more heat than light.  It's not that I don't find the popularity of the Eastwood hagiography of Kyle's life troublesome.  Militarism is very troublesome; and we are a deeply militarized nation, one that is getting worse all the time.  But neither the popularity of the film nor the idealization of soldiers is particularly surprising unless you've been living on another planet.  I want to point out something about this film, and about American film more generally, that is less remarked and more overlooked – the (re)inscription of a national masculinity by the (re)construction of history.

I have never seen, nor will I ever see, American Sniper.  Nonetheless, I have the screenplay here at hand, which I recommend to others, because screenplays pull back the curtain on the abracadabra audiovisual hypnosis of film.  One can see their constructed-ness.


The sun melts over squat residences on a narrow street.  The MARINE COMPANY creeps toward us like a cautious Goliath. FOOT SOLDIERS walk alongside Humvees and tanks.


(radio chatter)  Charlie Bravo-3, we got eyes on you from the east. Clear to proceed, over.


Sun glints off a slab of corrugated steel. Beneath it-- CHRIS KYLE lays prone, dick in the dirt, eye to the glass of a .300 Win-Mag sniper rifle. He’s Texas stock with a boyish grin, blondish goatee and vital blue eyes. Both those eyes are open as he tracks the scene below, sweating his ass off in the shade of steel.


Fucking hot box.

GOAT (24, Arkansas Marine) lies beside him, woodsy and outspoken, watching dirt-devils swirl in the street.


Dirt over here tastes like dog shit.


I guess you’d know.

This is the opening scene in the second draft.  The scriptwriter, Jason Hall, sets a tone with his own language – “dick in the dirt” - so the director and actors are cued into the appropriate affective register.  This is a film about tough guys, so he uses tough guy talk.  This is a film about Real American Men – a man-movie.  Rosemary Hennessey writes,

As one of the most pervasive forms of cultural narrative in industrialized societies, commercial film serves as an extremely powerful vehicle of myth. The mythic status of Hollywood films is of course enabled and buttressed by corporate endorsement and financial backing for distribution and promotion. To some extent the scripts that do get picked up manage to be supported because they already articulate a culture’s social imaginary—the prevailing images a society needs to project about itself in order to maintain certain features of its organization.

Clint Eastwood is a veteran actor and director, so he knows what works, which film conventions are recognizable by the American public, especially the males. He understands the “social imaginary” at work here.  He launched his career through Westerns, that American mythic genre that revolved around the conquest of the frontier and the men with guns who were unafraid to sally forth into untamed places as the dusty paladins of white civilization.  American Sniper is a transplanted Western, “based on a true story.”

“Men with guns” is a Hollywood staple.  American Sniper is unremarkable in this regard, though this film is part of a sub-genre that taps into gun culture, that peculiar version of white masculinity in the United States that idolizes guns.  Modern snipers actually grew out of that subculture, which was promoted by the National Rifle Association at the turn of the twentieth century, with strong support from the Progressive Movement and its militaristic leader, President Theodore Roosevelt.  Prior to that period, marksmanship was a rare gift for which the technology didn't exist until the American Civil War.  It was only after gun culture gained a foothold in the American male imagination, that a history could be constructed about the United States that put the steely-eyed marksman at the center of a national myth.

In truth, during the Westward expansion of the U.S., armed men were generally soldiers, law enforcement, criminals, and semi-official thugs.  Men who hunted with guns, as they do today, would dust off the rifle or shotgun that was stored in the house. Gun control laws in the “Old West,” that is, legendary towns like Dodge City, Tombstone, and Deadwood, were actually far stricter than most gun control laws today. Municipal law enforcement generally required that any firearm inside city limits had to be stored at the local law enforcement office.  Films reconstructed the history of the “Old West” in the American male mind.  Films like Last of the Mohicans and The Patriot have reconstructed history with American male marksmen (no phallic associations between sex and aggression there) at the center of the Revolutionary War, which is utter nonsense.  In truth, during the latter eighteenth century in the thirteen colonies, not one in a hundred men had a gun, and the guns they had were muskets, barely capable of hitting another man beyond twenty feet. A dozen colonials once ambushed Major Pitcairn of the British Army at ten yards, all firing, and neither Pitcairn nor his horse received a scratch. It took up to four minutes to reload a musket. A soldier could run a third to half a mile in that time, the reason bayonet charges followed infantry volleys. The single most effective combat weapon after artillery was the bayonet. The reason the Revolutionary War dragged on as long as it did was the extreme shortage of weapons. Successful hunters employed traps, not guns, and Americans overwhelmingly consumed livestock for meat. Only white male Protestant property owners were allowed by law to have firearms, and most of them opted against it. A decent gun cost as much as a skilled laborer made in six months.

American Sniper, “based” as it may be on a true story, has adapted that truth to a set of well-worm film conventions that – as Hennessey said - “articulate [this] culture’s social imaginary—the prevailing images [we] need... to project about [ourselves] in order to maintain certain features of [our] organization.”  But it has done more than that in its (re)construction of history.  It has turned a brutal invasion that killed, maimed, or displaced more than a million human beings, destroyed the infrastructure of an entire society, toxified their environment, and left what was once Iraq split into bloody, competing militia fiefdoms - including ISIS – into a “war story.”

Susan Jeffords, in her essay, “Telling the War Story,” notes, “This trend away from the war itself to the people who fought in it shifts the war form a national to a personal experience, making it possible for viewers to forget the specific historical and political forces that caused the war.”

Chris Kyle is the story, told with pathos, hitting all the resonant notes (fine job, Mr. Eastwood!), and the utter criminality of the whole enterprise that was the U.S. invasion of Iraq is made to disappear.  What is left, strengthened yet again, is our idolatry of the military, our idolatry of the nation, and our idolatry of an idealized, hegemonic, and violent masculinity.

As a Christian committed to nonviolence, I have to wonder why – in my own church, I can't speak for all of them – these are never called idols.  In many churches, these idols are raised up in the sanctuary.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

-Matthew 5:9


STAN GOFF is a writer living in Southeast Michigan.  He is a retired Special Operations soldier (1970-1996), a Catholic, and a pacifist.  His book, Borderline – Reflections on War, Sex, and Church, about gender and militarism, will soon be released by Cascade Books.


Hennessy, Rosemary, Profit and Pleasure, Routledge, 2000, p. 144
Winkler, Adam “Did the Wild West Have More Gun Control than We Do Today?”, Huffingtonpost, September 9, 2011
Bellesiles, Michael, Arming America, from the Introduction, Knopf, 2000
Watson Institute for International Studies, “At least 133,000 Civilians killed by direct violence”, 2011
Jeffords, Susan, “Telling the War Story”, from It's Our Military, Too, Temple University Press, 1996


  1. Well done as always Stan. I've been waiting for your takedown of this predictably appalling film, and here it is -- with grace and restraint. US gun culture has gone places I would never have imagined when I was young. I feel that a cultural pendulum is swinging further and further... well, let's call it "rightwards" as shorthand, though there's more happening here than the narrow party-political dualism of left/right; I'm wondering whether the reverse swing will happen soon, or whether the pendulum weight will just fly off into chaos.

  2. I generally agreed with the gist of this article, but the author unfortunately quoted from the discredited book Arming America by Michael A. Bellesiles. His assertions that "not one in a hundred men had a gun, a musket was barely capable of hitting another man beyond twenty feet, It took up to four minutes to reload a musket.
    The reason the Revolutionary War dragged on as long as it did was the extreme shortage of weapons. Only white male Protestant property owners were allowed by law to have firearms, and most of them opted against it. A decent gun cost as much as a skilled laborer made in six months." are all totally bogus. Bellesiles tried to use his fake research to further the anti-gun movement. I think you really don't need to get into the politics of gun control and/or phony statistics to make a good case for a less militaristic foreign policy. The National Rifle Association did not initiate the invasion of Iraq. People's idolatry of our bloated military/industrial complex allows a lot of horrible things to happen, but trying to change that by equating it and gun culture with psycho-sexual deviance is about as effective as trying to eliminate sports by denigrating sports fans as some sort of modern day followers of the carnage that took place in Rome's coliseum. The vast majority of Americans or firearms enthusiasts are not psychologically warped. They are unaware of how counter productive and morally bankrupt our foreign policy is and therefore allow it to proceed.

  3. It does appear that he fudged data. A shame, because much of what he claims appears, via other cited sources in his book, to be true. I was unaware of this, and I appreciate the heads-up.

    I stand my my psychological account of American gun culture, however, having been immersed in it myself for many years. I didn't say it was "psycho-sexual deviance," but that it actually merges fairly seamlessly with what is male-normative in this culture - a far worse indictment that saying it is "deviant."

    Here is a link to the investigation of his research.

    It does not discount everything he wrote, though it does cast doubt on some of his gun ownership figures; and he obviously did play fast and loose. His account of the accuracy of muskets is actually correct, for example, as are his accounts of the cost of firearms. His account was no discredited wholesale.

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  5. Ultimately, the "fraud" claim hinged on a single footnote in which Bellesiles gave the wrong archival location for certain documents he cited to demonstrate that gun ownership in early America was much less common than those of the NRA persuasion-which, by the way, includes me-would have it. The documents actually existed, and they said pretty much what Bellesiles said they said. Nonetheless, in the face of an unrelenting barrage of negative publicity-the NRA was able to orchestrate nearly 250 articles on the "Bellesiles Hoax" in less than two years-a panel of "impartial" scholars commissioned by Emory to "investigate the integrity of Professor Bellesiles’ scholarship" concluded that in this instance his handling of data was "less than professional." On that basis, although the university tried to put a happy face on the situation by allowing him to "resign," Bellesiles was effectively fired.


  6. I believe that chaos is around the corner, in a way that would have been unimaginable before the advent of "cinema". Until a year or two after the last battery runs out on the last video device. I hope I survive.

    I haven't watched any movies in over 16 years, with exception of "Foul Play" ("Kojak Bang Bang") on VHS, because (now) I believe that people generally don't act like characters in a movie---unless they're programmed to. So I stay away from the programming as much as possible, which is hard, being a musician.

    Your description of War culture in America is right on the money, Stan. The statement a few posts ago about militarism being America's civic religion, and soldiers being its sacred icons is part of my vocabulary now.

    A dumb question (perhaps):

    But what of the people who USE this force to maintain their power (and profit from the game), but keep themselves totally separate from it? What are they? How are they manifestations of the ultimate evil?

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