January 27, 2015

What are we fighting for?

Blind endorsement of the military is not patriotic: in fact, it’s far from it.

While rather dully titled, I think American Sniper is a very good film. Bradley Cooper turns in another strong performance as the eponymous sniper Chris Kyle, and it serves as a reminder that if there’s one thing Clint Eastwood does really well besides squinting menacingly, it’s directing powerful war movies. Sniper ultimately comes across as neither a militant’s creed nor a plea for pacifism. It is nothing more or less than a stark expression of the brutal impact of wars on a microcosmic and personal level, for both the people who fight them and for those they leave behind, and it is damned effective, even if it glosses over the circumstances that led to this particular war.

Of course, the film has been making headlines recently for other reasons, namely for the accusation that under Eastwood’s direction, Cooper portrays a Chris Kyle that is much more sympathetic than his real life incarnation. The Kyle of the film has misgivings and doubts regarding his actions in Iraq as time goes on, ultimately culminating in a palpable sense of regret before his tragic death at the hands of another veteran suffering from PTSD. By his own autobiographical account, the Kyle of reality wasn’t nearly so tormented. He continually refers to Iraqis as “savages” whose sole aim is to kill Americans and any Iraqis who sympathized with them, and when asked if he had any regrets responded only that he wished he’d killed more. To say the very least, had Eastwood’s version of the character dovetailed closer to reality, it would have been a very different film. I don’t know if Eastwood was obligated to have done so, but it’s a fair question to ask. All the same, the resultant furor over some of the more high-profile criticisms has reawakened an uncomfortable yet integral truth about our culture: If you ever want to see how little the freedom of expression means to some Americans, even those who would profess otherwise, just criticize an American soldier.

That’s the lesson filmmaker Michael Moore and actor Seth Rogen are emphatically learning after comments they made last week in the wake of the film’s release. The notoriously anti-war Moore tweeted that he was taught that “snipers were cowards” who would “shoot u [sic] in the back,” while Rogen tweeted that the film was reminiscent of the propaganda film-within-a-film from the third act of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Bastards.

Reading the responses to these tweets, you would probably think both men had started publicly recruiting for ISIS. Actors, pundits, critics, and veterans alike pounced on Moore and Rogen, alternately demanding apologies, telling them to leave the country, challenging them to fistfights, citing their own failure to enlist, or criticizing their weight. But the one thing that was repeated on the Internet, on the airwaves, and in the printed press repeatedly was the age-old dictum that resurfaces with any military critique: Chris Kyle, and men and women like him, fought, killed, and died for our freedoms, and in exercising those freedoms to criticize them, we disrespect their sacrifice and dishonor ourselves as Americans.

There’s no way to put this gently, so I won’t try. That isn’t true, at all. It’s a pernicious myth that needs to stop being perpetuated by soldiers and civilians alike, because it does a lot more damage to our country than either seem to understand.

You don’t need to have taken a class with John Mearsheimer (though I heartily recommend it) to understand that the United States is afforded a lot of security by the strength of its military. There’s no question that there are people all over the world who would do us harm given the opportunity, and it’s equally certain that the speed, ferocity, and totality with which the American military machine can ruin their day is a powerful consideration in staying their hand.  But Russia has a powerful military. China has a powerful military. Citizens in both states can rest easily at night knowing that an external threat is extremely unlikely to endanger their well-being and that an internal threat will be swiftly punished, if not preemptively snuffed out. Yet, by any metric, I don’t know that people would argue that Russian and Chinese citizens are as free as Americans, especially in their freedom of speech. When a Russian or Chinese soldier is killed, what freedoms did they die to protect? Is it just home-field bias, or is there something inherently better about American soldiers that makes their sacrifices inherently more meaningful?

If our military defends our freedoms, particularly our freedom of speech, then it stands to reason that these freedoms are under attack by someone. To which, I would simply ask: Who? Al-Qaeda? ISIS? Boko Haram? Decepticons, Daleks, or maybe the Reapers? Who, of the many external enemies that the United States has, is specifically out to destroy or undercut our freedoms? It’s what we were told over and over again in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, in lieu of any other possible political considerations. But repeating it ad nauseam doesn’t make it true, just as the repeated (and since disproven) rationale for the war in Iraq cannot retroactively validate itself. The United States hasn’t faced an opponent that posed a sustained threat to its supremacy over its territory and to its citizens’ freedom since World War II; if you put stock in professor Mearsheimer’s thinking, you may have to go back even farther to the 19th century to find such an opponent. You can very well chalk that up to the hegemony of our military, yes, but secure states have existed throughout all of human history. Security is not, and will never be, inherently equal to freedom.

Our rights neither come from nor are defended by our military. For all the military supposedly does to defend our freedoms, I missed the part in the history books where they intervened to protect civil rights protestors until specifically ordered to do so, or to stand against the Red Scare and the HUAC hearings, or when they marched on Congress to block the passage of the PATRIOT Act. And lest I be pegged as another spineless liberal, no, I am not a thrall of the despotic God-Emperor Obama who believes that our freedoms are derived from Big Government either. Our rights come from ourselves. The people of the United States, from whose ranks our soldiers are trained and our officials are elected, are both the greatest guardians and the worst threats to the freedoms we associate with being American citizens. They only get taken away when we allow them to be taken away to be lost under the sound and fury of our full-throated defense of the idea of freedom of speech. The reality that we make arbitrary distinctions on what exercises of freedom we choose to defend all the time. We like the concept of the marketplace of ideas, where reason and rationality and debate reign supreme and even those ideas we find distasteful are allowed their day in the sun, so long as they don’t pose an active threat to someone’s well-being. But every time we approach the reality of what that might look like, our true colors show.

How else can you explain potential presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s condemnation of Beyoncé’s lyrics as too sexually explicit while he embraces Ted Nugent’s “Cat Scratch Fever?” How else can you explain the way in which some public assemblies that result in property damage and arrests are decried as riots in Ferguson and New York, while others are waved away as revelries in Ohio and New Hampshire? How else can you explain Seth Rogen going from being lauded as a champion of free speech last December when Sony canceled the release of his comedy The Interview (it of assassinating-a-foreign-dictator fame), to being vilified as a traitorous coward for poking fun at another film? What makes the New York Police Department’s protests of their mayor more legitimate than the protests of the police themselves by New York citizens?

Let’s not even get started on the hypocrisies here on campus now that the University’s new statement on freedom of speech is out; I didn’t see such full-throated embrace of the First Amendment and school pride during the student trauma center demonstrations or #blacklivesmatter protests, and it’s laughable to me that the most vocal cries for freedom of speech on campus are done via an anonymous internet forum for fear of being criticized for their opinions (imagine being criticized for an opinion, the horror). You know, because there’s so much intellectual value in insinuating that trans students have a mental illness, Muslim students’ faith is a plague on the earth, or that black students have only been accepted to the University thanks to affirmative action. What’s being celebrated here isn’t the freedom of speech or inquiry; it’s the freedom from being challenged on the grounds of that speech, and a desire for that speech to be as equally validated as its opposite number simply because of the legality of its existence. It says much about us as a bastion for intellectual thought that some people’s fears of the shadowy PC police are taken far more seriously than others’ fears of actual police officers.

But let me be clear: While there may be nothing intrinsically heroic about the actions soldiers perform in uniform, there is something intrinsically heroic about the simple act of putting that uniform on. Vietnam wasn’t that long ago, and yet it seems Americans have forgotten how lucky we are to have the luxury of a ferocious fighting force comprised solely of volunteers, especially considering that the government has the power to compel military service from the populace if it so chooses. Every soldier who enlists voluntarily makes it less likely, however slightly, that another civilian will ever be conscripted against their will. That is where the heroism of our military lies, in their simple existence. These are the grounds on which one can critique Moore’s comments. Say what you will about any individual soldier, their broader mission, or their actions in that mission’s services, but accusing a volunteer soldier in an active war zone of cowardice is a criticism that is almost always going to miss the mark. The suggestion that snipers are an inherently unheroic or cowardly lot by dint of their battlefield position is incredibly unfair. But what happens once they are deployed is something that needs to be judged on its own merit, both within the parameter of their orders and without.

The blanket endorsement of any soldier’s actions as always being honorable, always being right, and always being done to defend the lives of those back in the states isn’t merely “problematic”; it is actively dangerous. To say that we cannot criticize our military, which is essentially an enforcer of our government’s will, is to suggest that we cannot criticize that government, or that to question our government is at best unpatriotic and at worst treasonous. That is not a hypothetical; a cursory glimpse at the last fourteen years of American history is replete with evidence that this has happened and will continue to happen. To grant carte blanche all military actions in the name of defending the American people is to excuse the atrocities that some have suffered at the hands of our soldiers, and to turn a blind eye to their inevitable consequences. And to say that every soldier’s death, while tragic, is a death in the defense of our freedom is a greater insult to their memory than any Hollywood icon could ever make, because it allows the people responsible for ordering them to fight to dodge any criticism or culpability for why they really died.

By all accounts, Chris Kyle was an excellent soldier, if an unpleasant person. I only wish that he could’ve been deployed into a situation that was worthy of his talents as a soldier, and where the reality of what he fought for lined up with his beliefs. And as good of a film that American Sniper is, it elected not to make that statement. As was its prerogative— perhaps it would’ve impacted the film’s reception, or more importantly its box-office bottom line. But questioning and criticizing both the men with the guns and the men who order those guns to be fired will never be treasonous, no matter how some might claim otherwise.

For citizens of a country that was founded by rebelling against the injustices of its suzerain state, there may well be nothing more patriotic.

Mickey Desruisseaux is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.