Jim Geraghty makes two good, not-mutually-exclusive suppositions about what’s motivating the likes of Michael Moore and Seth Rogan to deride the phenomenally successful and apparently very well-made Chris Kyle bio pic, American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, dir., 2014). I’d like to add two comments—having nothing to do with the film’s qualities, since I haven’t seen it, but one specifically having to do with snipers and the other the culture.
First, while stipulating that Michael Moore is a loathsome, ranine, hypocritical, anti-American clown, I am willing to believe that his claim to have been taught that snipers are “cowards” is in fact true. Much though we celebrate them these days (for which Stephen Hunter should take a lot of credit), it is historically the case that even and sometimes especially within the military, snipers are regarded with suspicion and distaste. Up until recently, most militaries did not maintain permanent sniper training programs, but every time there was a shooting war, they’d find marksmen who could do independent reconnaissance and take out high-value targets, often behind enemy lines, to be so invaluable that they would have to re-establish sniper schools, often from scratch. Their independence made them unattractive to a lot of control-freak officers.
Moreover, within the ranks, snipers were often shunned and treated as bad hoodoo. One reason was the association of sniping with their own potential sudden death out of a blue sky. The other was a little more psychologically complex. Combat is so stressful and so awful, it is necessary to find reasons to justify doing the horrific work of killing other human beings (the most common of which is the preservation of the lives of comrades). It is far easier to justify killing in hot blood in the moment of battle as “having to do it,” “kill or be killed.” The fact that snipers place an individual in their crosshairs, often having observed them for days, and very deliberately pull the trigger is therefore quite disturbing. Unflattering nicknames like “Murder, Incorporated” were hung on sniper teams by their own side. (And of course, enemies’ perceptions are even worse. Particularly successful snipers often have individual bounties placed on their heads, and snipers who are captured can expect to be tortured to death in the most brutal fashion the enemy can imagine to avenge their own previous powerlessness.) Consequently, it’s entirely possible that if Moore did grow up around some former grunts (and he could easily just be lying, of course, given how often and easily he does so), he absorbed a bias against what can seem to be an uncanny, threatening profession.
Secondly, as to David French’s “cultural moment” theory mentioned in the Geraghty article, he’s right in that the justness of the American cause and the brutality of our enemies is extraordinarily inconvenient and anxiety-inducing for those Americans who preferred us to lose and who reflexively conceive of us the bad guys. But there’s another phenomenon which those of us old enough to remember the Carter and Reagan years remember. Most Americans don’t want America to suck. We don’t want to lose. We don’t want to be the villain. And our popular culture, sucking on the vulgar Marxism of the academy and the leftism (as distinct from liberalism) of the modern Democratic Party, instinctively makes American power suspect and American institutions corrupt, venal, or wicked. When most everyday Americans, including (or maybe particularly) the apolitical, come across a movie which says, “Hey, we don’t suck. We’re not the bad guy. In fact, this one guy was a boss. And died helping others,” of course we run to it like thirsty people in a desert to an oasis. In the ’70s, everyone up to the president was telling Americans that America sucked. And, beaten down, most people ground their teeth and endured the malaise. But as soon as someone stood up and said, “Hey, we don’t suck. And all this obvious suck around here? It doesn’t have to be that way!” millions rallied to the cause, and our politics, the economy, and the culture all became immensely more optimistic and dynamic.
It’s a fact the likes of Michael Moore will resist until the end of time: people who are not consumed with hatred and discontent have particular and specific loves for their family, their country, their faiths. And given the chance to justifiably celebrate what’s good in them, we will. One hopes that we’ll find someone else in the political sphere able to articulate this and rally Americans again. Because we don’t suck. Because we’re not the bad guys. And because it doesn’t have to be this way.