Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Universal Sniper

I hadn’t intended to see “American Sniper” because all the discussions I’d heard about it fell into one of two categories -- it was either a shameless militaristic propaganda piece, or a stirring patriotic depiction of an authentic American hero.  Since neither description particularly appealed to me, I was giving it a pass -- but then I was persuaded, and I came away with, let’s say, a much more “nuanced” impression.  I don’t think anyone could credibly describe it as a “pro-war” movie, nor could it be unambiguously described as an anti-war movie; there would be both supporting evidence and counter-evidence for both positions.  It is certainly a pro-America movie (even without the closing credits), but is it an anti-Iraqi or anti-Arab or anti-Islam movie?  The characters are certainly unabashed in calling the opposing forces “savages” and the Iraqis “hajjis”, but is that enough to prove that we are just hopelessly chauvinistic and provincial?  And is it enough to prove that our soldiers have to be brainwashed into “thinging” or hating the “enemy” before they are considered fit to go into battle?  Or is this just part of our (allegedly) racist, xenophobic culture that people inevitably bring with them when they join the service?  Wars always involve name-calling -- both of the known enemy and of the hapless civilians who are caught in the middle.  (I suppose they have some pretty choice names for us as well -- a bit more colorful than “Yankee”.)  It’s in the nature of the game --  you can never see the other side as having equal merit to your own, or enemy combatants as just as human as you are.  It has never worked that way throughout recorded human history.  The other side always has to be viewed as bad, if not downright evil… and our side has to be viewed as good, because… well, just because it’s our side.

I think the intended point of the film was to explore some of the motivations behind the people who sign up, join outfits like the SEALS, and become snipers.  Are those motivations honorable or not?  Is this strictly a personal and subjective matter, or does it depend, as some would argue, on whether the war that is being fought is honorable -- i.e., it is moral, just, and legal (that is, Constitutional)?  Which is to say, are we allowed to judge, and if so, can we judge individuals, or strategy, or only overall policy?  At any rate, it is clear that there is something addictive or habit-forming about war, and about combat -- there’s always the feeling (demonstrated by many veterans) that this was, for better or worse, the time of their life, and that nothing that happens from then on is going to measure up.  (And this seems to happen regardless of whether a soldier comes home wounded, or the severity of the wounds.  There are few, if any, anti-war patients in VA hospitals.)  So the temptation is to keep going back for more, as Kyle did -- telling himself that the job was not yet finished, but I suggest other motives as well.  There is something deeply appealing and satisfying, on a primitive level, about danger, combat, violence, and near-death -- not to mention inflicting death on the enemy.  Human beings are violent, and any nation worth its salt, if you will, is going to be war-like, at least a good deal of the time.  This is just the way things are; I’m not applauding.  I’m sure the peacemakers of this world would like to have it otherwise, but they are fighting an uphill battle against human nature, DNA, and -- yes -- evolution (which they pretty much all believe in, after all).  What’s surprising about war in our time is not how common it is, but how rare it is; any given moment most places in the world are at peace -- and it doesn’t have to be that way, and hasn’t always been.  We, of course, in this society, have the privilege of being able to wage war without experiencing its effects -- at least not directly (with notable exceptions like 9/11).  This is why, even though, by rights, we could be the most pacifist society on earth, we are among the most warlike. 

But let’s say that there is such a thing as just war, which the Catholic Church believes, but most people don’t, feeling that all wars are equally just or unjust.  And let’s even say that the concept of “rules of war” is not absurd; this was certainly the premise behind the Nuremberg Trials.  The notion that there are things one can do in wartime, and things one can’t -- even though the goal is to kill as many of the enemy as possible and destroy their means of making war -- this is a fairly new idea, and yet most countries since World War I have been willing to agree to it most of the time.  So what are they responding to here?  It is just politics or diplomacy, or do I detect a hint of Natural Law?  And yet we find that the idea tends to be more popular in Europe and the English-speaking countries; so are we more highly morally developed than everyone else?  I’m not going to go into that now, but you’re welcome to consider the issue at your leisure. 

I have to point out that Kyle had his ambivalences.  He didn’t want to have to kill anyone without having a damn good reason -- and a person who was an obvious danger to our troops qualified.  And yet he hesitated when it came to women and children, even if they were combatants (possibly forced into it, possibly not -- who knows?).  What did he believe in totally, uncompromisingly, and without any shadow of a doubt?  America -- i.e. the U.S. -- and our way of life.  (His way of life, at least -- I don’t think too many service members are fighting in the Middle East for gay rights parades in the U.S.)  And he believed in the military -- and in their mission, which was (and continues to be) to pursue all known (or suspected, or potential) enemies to the ends of the earth.  The questions that were never asked were the ones asked quite frequently after 9/11, namely:  Who are these people, anyway?  And how did they come to be our enemies?  And why do they hate us?  Whoever asked that last question typically had a ready, and completely wrong, answer.  Our handicap in dealing with that issue was, and is, that we are still clueless as to the power of religion, and religious belief, and faith -- even (or especially) when the actions based on that faith are considered (by us) wrong.  This is because our own society was founded as a secular society -- one of the few in history to explicitly ban religion from the public forum and from the “marketplace of ideas” -- and so, for us, religion has been rendered relatively toothless when it comes to motivating real action, with the possible exception of the Evangelicals.  We treat religion as “a private matter” and shun anyone who tries to bring it into play in real-life, especially political, situations, considering it an “intrusion”.  But try that “wall of separation between church and state” argument out in the Middle East some time -- you’ll be lucky to just get laughed to scorn rather than arrested and shot.  We’re dealing with true believers, as I pointed out in a previous post -- they may be wrong, we may not like it, but that’s the way it is.  And, I might add, they are not only true believers, but, for them, death is the most important thing in life -- a mind set that we simply cannot fathom.   

The other begged question -- out of many -- is, why do we always wind up fighting the people who live there on their home turf?  What compelling need do we have that we keep having to go overseas at great risk and expense, and attack other countries while most of sit warm and cozy at home?  Do we even have any idea as to the true costs of war?  Of course, it was argued that 9/11 was an attack by Islam -- well, “radical” Islam -- and that our response ought, quite naturally, to be to go to war with Afghanistan and Iraq, even though most of the alleged attackers were Saudis.  If you accept that, then I daresay you could be talked into waging war on anyone at any time for any reason.  (Anybody for invading Canada?)  The least that can be said about 9/11 is that it brought the war home -- and yet did it sober anyone up as to the costs of war?  Not that I’ve ever noticed. 

But the real issue -- which I alluded to before, and which is not dealt with in the movie at all -- is that of responsibility.  And here we have the full range of opinion (and law).  On one extreme is what I will call the authoritarian view, namely that a soldier’s job is to follow orders no matter what, and to suspend personal judgment (not only at the time, but in retrospect as well).  And this is how most militaries have operated down through history -- with a premise that seems not only necessary but possibly essential for success and victory.  That last thing a commander in the field needs is a debating society second-guessing his every order, right?  The last thing he needs is to have to deal with “sensitive” people.  So failure to follow orders is an occasion for severe punishment -- or even summary execution, if in the heat of battle.  No one cares what your hopes and dreams were when you joined up; it’s time to “strap ’em on” and go kick raghead butt.   

And yet we don’t seem to completely accept this premise.  Once in a while soldiers wind up before a court martial for having done the wrong thing to the wrong person at the wrong time -- and they are invariably baffled as to what the problem is, and claim they are being singled out, treated unfairly, made a scapegoat, etc.  And it almost invariably comes down to this:  They were given legitimate orders but did something else -- something “above and beyond” -- that was not legitimate.  But who judges whether orders are legitimate?  Very seldom are orders questioned, and when they are it is usually confined to the lowest rank capable of issuing orders -- i.e. the ones who have been given responsibility beyond their capacity.  Senior or general officer orders are never questioned; for them authoritarianism is alive and well. 

But some will ask, well, who got this given soldier or given unit into this impossible predicament in the first place?  How far up the line do you have to go before you find someone who’s responsible (or until responsibility evaporates -- depending on your point of view)?  The problem with this approach is that it’s not based on the big picture.  Ultimately, the responsibility for any given soldier being in any given place at any given time rests with the commander-in-chief, i.e. the president (and, less directly, with Congress, who approved the funding).  Then it becomes a matter of how far _down_ the line you go -- is the secretary of defense also responsible?  How about the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff?  How about the four-stars, three-stars, two-stars, one-stars, bird colonels, etc. etc.?  Whenever one of these things blows up, the buck gets passed up and down the line like a leaf in a hurricane -- and eventually disappears once everyone (meaning the media) loses interest.  Then it turns out that no one is responsible, and no lessons are learned, and the same thing happens again and again.   

A subset of this argument is this.  Setting aside specific instances (war crimes, atrocities, etc.), if a U.S. president starts, or continues, an illegal (un-Constitutional), immoral, or unjust war, how far down the line does the responsibility for that go?  And especially, does it go all the way down to the individual soldier?  Should he be expected to make a legal, moral, or philosophical decision as to the justification for his being in that place at that time with his personal weapon, and for his use of said weapon against the enemy, or alleged enemy?  This is the other end of the spectrum -- what I call the “universal soldier” position, after the protest song of the same title:

According to this point of view, every soldier is expected to be a moralist, legal expert, and philosopher -- and to keep universal principles in mind even in the heat of combat.  But is this realistic?  And isn’t it a betrayal of trust when the authorities put a bunch of, basically, young kids into that position -- kids who trust the leadership, are loyal to their unit and their comrades, and have regard for their native land and heritage?  Aren’t they being terribly misused?  (And this is for the ones who stay alive and well, not to mention the countless dead and wounded.)  Sure, you can talk to them all you want about “why we fight”, but what if it really is just deception and propaganda?  What if the real agenda is entirely different -- something they could barely perceive?  One can argue that every war we have ever fought was fought more for economic reasons than for “survival”, i.e. responding to an “existential threat”.  Or if not for economic reasons, then for pure political reasons… or psychological ones.  Or, once again, for no reason at all except just plain human nature. 

So yes, Kyle went over there, and went back three more times, based on premises that he believed in and that seemed sound.  And within that context -- accepting all of those premises -- he acted properly and did his duty.  But what happens if we start having doubts about those premises?  What happens if guys like Kyle wind up on trial for war crimes because they happen to be on the losing side (military or political)?  Will the plea “I was just following orders” suffice?  We don’t seem to think that’s good enough to cover a multitude of sins -- and yet we can’t agree, from one day to the next, as to what is a sin and what is not.  One thing is for certain -- the soldiers wind up paying the price, one way or the other, and the men (and women) who put them in harm’s way don’t.  This alone should be sufficient cause for a serious look at why, and how, we wage war. 

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