Much has already been said about American Sniper, Clint Eastwood's biopic about the late Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL with the dubious distinction of being the deadliest sniper in American history. Mainstream reviews have ranged from praise for Eastwood's depiction of a haunted hero to mild critiques of the sappy and unconvincing screenplay. More radical reviewers have labeled the film propaganda, pointing out the Islamophobic demonization of Kyle's Iraqi targets and the by now rote juxtaposition of 9/11 with the (illegal, imperial, genocidal) invasion of Iraq. There are even listicles purporting to detail the seven greatest lies told by the film, a 21st century convenience that skeptics of last generation's propaganda may have been lucky to avoid. Arab and Muslim American viewers have described sitting in horror as audiences cheer the on-screen butchery before scrambling onto social media to proclaim their willingness to kill yet more Muslims. The culture war between fans and critics of the film has only been exacerbated by the recent Charlie Hebdo killings.
Thus, I won't bore you with regurgitated critiques of the film. Yes, the film is nationalist propaganda. Surely the film poster, a grizzled American soldier staring into the distance while the stars and stripes flutters seductively in the foreground, says as much with more brevity. Yes, there are constant discrepancies between the script and Chris Kyle's bloodthirsty memoir; nowhere in the film does Bradley Cooper's Kyle wish he could shoot Iraqis for the sole crime of carrying a Koran. Yes, the film's historiography is a criminal distortion sure to have pro-war Democrats and pro-war Republicans alike joining hands and singing "God Bless America" while bombs continue to fall on the Middle East.
Instead, I want to begin with a relatively minor skirmish in the ongoing culture war surrounding American Sniper. In mid-January actor Seth Rogen tweeted that the film had reminded him of Nation's Pride, the fictional Nazi propaganda film central to the plot of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. Nation's Pride tells the “true” story of a young Wehrmacht sniper who kills over two hundred American soldiers and becomes a hero of the Third Reich. The similarities are obvious, so naturally the backlash against Rogen's comment was immediate and overwhelming. Rogen quickly walked back his comment and apologized to anyone who had been offended. Of course, the irony of the situation lies in Rogen's own role as a co-director of and lead actor in The Interview, the “comedy” film about the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, a work so steeped in Orientalism and yellow scare mythology that it would make FDR's propaganda department blush.
Still, if we set aside Rogen's own imperial slapsticking, we can see that he raises an important question: just how fascist is American Sniper? The film is unquestionably racist, militaristic, and nationalist. Is this enough to call it fascist? The American Empire circa 1850 was racist, militaristic, and nationalist, but I doubt any historian, no matter how left, would be willing to call it a fascist state. Yet there are many on social media willing to label the film as fascist without any real analysis of what makes it so. In 2015, with literal neo-Nazis on the march from Kiev to Munich, such blithe non-analysis does not serve the left.
So the question remains, if American Sniper is fascist, what makes it so? Here I turn to Umberto Eco's essay “Ur-Fascism”, in which Eco describes his own experience of growing up in Mussolini’s fascist Italy before turning to an effort to capture the essences which link disparate fascist movements. Eco makes the key insight that there is no singular fascism, that “the fascist game can be played in many forms.” Nazi Germany was not the same as Franco's Spain which was not the same as Mussolin's Italy. Nevertheless, there are certain cultural qualities which Eco labels “Ur-Fascism or Eternal Fascism”, qualities that when concentrated indicate a fascism of one degree or another. Eco describes fourteen such qualities, though “it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.” Rather than listing each of Eco's fourteen essences and testing them against American Sniper, a far too formulaic exercise, instead let us examine the core themes of the film and see which ur-fascist essences rise to the surface.
Chris Kyle, as presented in the film, is an American everyman. At the very least, an everyman as he would be understood by conservative, rural, white America. His stern Texan father teaches him to hunt, to never abandon his rifle, and to finish any fight that a bully begins. The last lesson, poetically couched in a morality tale about sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs, is threateningly delivered over the dinner table while Kyle's cowed mother looks on with fear. Kyle's father is the quintessential frontier patriarch, master of all he surveys, raising warrior sons. This all synchs nicely with Eco's first premise, that “the first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition.” The lessons we see Kyle receiving could have been taught in the 1770s as easily as the 1970s. We are given to understand that this is America: masculine, aggressive, unswerving in the defense of the weak. Near the end of the film, this is all restated. After having survived the war and done his American duty by wedding and producing the next generation, Kyle teaches his own son to hunt. What was all the bloodshed for? It was for this, the opportunity to raise a new generation in the old way.
Yet this adherence to tradition begins to fail Kyle as he becomes his own man. He tries to make a living as a “cowboy” and finds himself a roaming ranch hand victimized by an unfaithful girlfriend. Here are two of Eco's essences closely intertwined, “the rejection of modernism” and the reliance of fascism on “individual or social frustration.” He rejects modern life in favor of the romanticism of life on the plains of Texas and finds instead a series of frustrating defeats. The question becomes where Kyle will turn to find some meaning in a world that is rapidly leaving behind those who cling to outmoded tradition. Luckily, fate intervenes.
Kyle is compelled to join the military after watching news coverage of the 1998 African embassy bombings. If he cannot be a frontier cowboy in the American tradition he can still be a noble warrior defending that tradition against the barbarians at the gates. At this point in the film, events accelerate. The audience is treated to the stock boot camp montage as Kyle and his fellow recruits are broken down physically and emotionally and built up into expert killers. Kyle begins a romance with his future wife, a romance in which the subjects of marriage and children are ever present. Kyle's sniper training begins, juxtaposed with scenes of his continuing romance. Inevitably, Kyle and his now-fiancee are stunned by CNN coverage of the 9/11 attacks. Just as suddenly, we find ourselves at their wedding and, in a stunning piece of ham-fisted writing, Kyle's squad learns it is to be deployed to Iraq while the newlyweds are dancing. The wedding is intended to summarize all that has come before it. Here we find Kyle, now a mature man and a trained killer, beginning his own life as a patriarch. Before him are his wife and his comrades in arms, as well as the entirety of American (heterosexual) tradition. It is his responsibility to defend all of this.
Yet it is the scene immediately following Kyle's wedding that sets the fascist tone for the remainder of the film. Kyle has arrived in Iraq, a country already devastated by war and teeming with the enemy. Note the clever elision of events. The 9/11 attacks are followed by the wedding and then we find ourselves in Iraq. We are meant to assume, a priori, the righteousness of the invasion of Iraq. After all, we just saw them attack the United States, didn't we? This brings us back to Eco, who tells us that fascism often features “the cult of action for action's sake.” Why was Iraq invaded? Because we had to do something, damn it! We were under attack! As if anticipating criticism of this monstrous distortion of events, later in the film Kyle lambasts another soldier for doubting their cause. “The bad guys are here,” he says. “Would you rather fight them in San Diego?” This too channels Eco's schema, for in fascism “thinking is a form of emasculation.” In American Sniper we find no debate about the ethics of preemptive action, no back-and-forth over the question of weapons of mass destruction or Saddam Hussein's supposed ties to international terrorism. There are bad guys in Iraq and that is sufficient reason to murder hundreds of thousands of innocents.
But just who are these "bad guys"? Kyle's commanders refer to them repeatedly as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) but to Kyle they are simply “savages.” It is Kyle's point of view that ultimately defines how those opposing US forces are depicted in the film. Brown skinned savages running amok in Iraq, brutally murdering US soldiers while torturing the scant few civilians who grace the screen. This distinction, between the noble forces of the United States and the brown skinned savages of Iraq, is quintessential fascism. According to Eco, fascist forces “must feel besieged,” there must be a plot targeting them that comes from inside and outside simultaneously. It is easy enough to recognize this mode of feeling in our own world: Muslims live among us in the West, forever scheming alongside their foreign allies to destroy the virtues and peoples of (white) civilization. In the film this sense of being under siege haunts Kyle and his compatriots. From the asymmetrical siege of 9/11 we follow them to Fallujah and Sadr City, where the irony is that the soldiers who feel themselves under siege are the ones literally storming hostile cities. The enemy is all around them, men lurking on rooftops and in cellars, women and children concealing grenades below the exotic flowing clothing of the Orient. Even when his squad is invited to share a meal with an Iraqi family, Kyle's suspicions lead him to discover that the man is a resistance fighter stashing guns and bombs below his family's feet.
Of course, the claustrophobic paranoia of the American soldiers distorts the fact that it is they who possess overwhelming force. They are the ones carried to foreign shores in battleships and cargo planes. They are the ones with unlimited ammunition and tanks and air support. We see them gun down countless resistance fighters clinging uselessly to antique Russian rifles and single grenades. This cognitive dissonance among the stronger force is also an essence of Ur-Fascism. It is by “a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus” that the foe is “at the same time too strong and too weak.” One moment Kyle is King Leonidas at Thermopylae, falling below the hordes of dark barbarians, and the next he is being hailed as the legendary killer of hundreds of men. Perhaps it is this distortion which explains the hazy nature of time in the film, which jumps so carelessly from place to place and month to month with no real connecting tissue to explain what has happened and when. There is no real plot, only a cascade of images of strength and weakness that culminate in Kyle's triumph over an enemy sniper.
It is that triumph, made possible by a miraculous mile-long sniper shot, which unites the disparate fascist elements of the film into a whole. Kyle, who began as a frustrated everyman from middle America has proved himself a superman. Raised in the ways of the American hero and forged by the military machine, the pure servant of father and fatherland, Kyle effortlessly destroys his rival in a single shot. This too is explained by Eco, who states that “in Ur-Fascist ideology heroism is the norm.” As husband, father, hunter, cowboy, and soldier, how could Kyle's normalcy be in doubt? Thus, the audience can leave the film comforted. America is under siege, no doubt, but her outnumbered soldiers are pure and powerful; the brown savage cannot withstand them.
So, we can say without much doubt that American Sniper is a fascist parable. One might be tempted to ask, so what? It is not as if racist fantasies about American military adventures abroad are rare. Even if the content is not new, however, we should be wary of the global context into which American Sniper has been shoved. The Charlie Hebdo killings have precipitated an intensified anti-Muslim climate in France and throughout Europe. The specter of ISIS is haunting the halls of legislatures from Washington to Canberra. Fascists of all stripes, not least of which actual neo-Nazis, are gaining popularity in many European states. Eco ends his essay with a poem by Franco Fortini. In part it reads, “On the cobbles in the market-places / The fingernails of those lined up and shot / On the dry grass in the open spaces / The broken teeth of those lined up and shot.” We can see a storm gathering here in America and in Europe. American Sniper is not the first drop to fall, nor will it be the last.