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What American Sniper Gets Right (Weekly Jan.25 2015)

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American Sniper is easily the most authentic looking and sounding movie that Hollywood has made about American troops at war since Black Hawk Down.

You can tell within minutes of its beginning that the filmmakers cared to get the details right, that their military consultants weren’t the usual Vietnam veterans that the studios often turn to, and that Clint Eastwood and his team actually listened to what their advisers had say.

Troops “stack” correctly outside buildings before they charge in to clear them.

Army, Navy and Marine uniforms are in the correct camouflage pattern for each of the lead character’s deployments (the U.S. Army alone has changed pattern four times since 9/11).

Thanks to careful research by screenwriter Jason Hall, the language is up to date and sounds real: There are no anachronistic references to “FNGs,” “Spec 4s” or “foxholes,” no-one says “embrace the suck” and almost every phrase spoken by the troops on the ground rightly uses the f-word as an adjective or adverb.

Both background details and the course of the plot feel equally authentic. Soldiers chew tobacco. SF guys spend lots of time pumping iron. Elite troops who have been issued with satellite phones for work purposes only, habitually use them to call their families. No one runs off and finds himself alone in an Iraqi city or has no apparent chain of command as in The Hurt Locker.

And the Baghdad of the movie looks considerably more like the real city than the versions depicted in that movie or Generation Kill.

Moreover, the makers of American Sniper took care to capture some of the (fascinating) technical aspects of real-life sniping (unlike the team behind Jarhead, a lazy, smug film that foolishly and shamelessly borrowed tropes from Vietnam war films like Full Metal Jacket).

 The movie gives you at least some sense of the extent to which a sniper’s talent and skills are about considerably more than mere coordination of hand and eye. They are mental and psychological: hence the yoga-style breathing techniques that snipers use to counteract adrenaline spikes and to slow their heartbeats. (Anyone interested in the art and science of sniping should read John Plaster’s classic book on the subject.)

American Sniper is also pretty accurate in its all-too-brief depiction of certain types of Post Traumatic Stress. In particular it gets right that aspect of PTS that is fed by regret and guilt at not being able to save comrades who were grievously wounded or killed. (Oddly enough it does not try to catch another aspect—one captured brilliantly by The Hurt Locker—namely, the overwhelming sense of anticlimax many soldiers feel on returning to a civilian existence unlikely to provide the intensity, camaraderie, and meaning that they felt while on deployment.)

None of this is to say that American Sniper is perfect as a depiction of real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, as a depiction of the campaigns in which he took part, or as a depiction of the work of Special Forces. For one thing it weirdly shortchanges Kyle’s impressive commitment to helping other veterans with PTSD—Eastwood refers to it with just one brief scene featuring mutilated soldiers on a firing range.

For another, the movie unrealistically gives little sense of the Iraqi military role in the later years of the war and the extent to which U.S. units worked side by side with Iraqi forces. In a strong piece for the Guardian, one American veteran complained that the film makes the usual Hollywood error of depicting special forces troops as quasi-supermen. That seems an unfair charge, though the film does perhaps exaggerate the superiority of SEALs over ordinary Marine infantry, in particular in a sequence that shows Kyle teaching Marines the basics of clearing buildings.

Oddly enough Jason Hall’s version of Kyle makes the sniper rather more of an unthinking or intolerant patriot than he really was. In real life Kyle was a thoughtful man who apparently did not blame his fellow-sniper Mark Lee’s death on the latter’s disillusionment with the war as expressed in a letter read out at his funeral.

Even more significant, the film invents an incident in which Kyle has to shoot a child carrying a grenade. While Kyle did, according to his memoir, once have to shoot a woman with a grenade, he actually wrote in the book “I wasn’t going to kill a kid, innocent or not. I’d have to wait until the savage who put him up to it showed himself on the street.”

However, all that said, by the standards of Hollywood movies, American Sniper is all but unique in the way it combines effective storytelling with rigorous authenticity. 


It may well be the former—the fact that the movie is so well-made and has been so popular—that has caused American Sniper to be the subject of much more ideologically-based criticism than either last year’s cruder Lone Survivor or Hurt Locker.

A considerable number of American commentators and Hollywood voices, not all of them as consistently foolish (or irrelevant) as the dishonest documentarian Michael Moore, have lambasted Sniper as jingoistic or propagandistic.

This may say more about the political culture in which those critics operate than the film. After all, in the U.K., liberal and left-leaning critics have tended to like the film and to see it as carrying a powerful anti-war message.

Much of the disapproving reaction to the film by the likes of New York magazine’s David Edelstein seems to have more to do with what the film does not show than what it does.

Most importantly, Eastwood’s movie does not depict American troops raping or murdering civilians, torturing prisoners, killing each other, or committing any obvious war crimes. This is of course a departure from movieland norm (as represented by Redacted, Stop-Loss, In the Valley of Elah, etc.) in which such things are presented as the norm. Nor are U.S. military personnel portrayed as valiant victims exploited and betrayed by a ruthless conspiracy of Washington chickenhawks, as in Green Zone.

It is true that the film makes no overt effort to show Iraqis in a positive light and doesn’t even feature any members of the Iraqi armed forces with whom hundreds of thousands of American troops routinely worked after 2004. Eastwood is clearly less interested in painting a representative picture of the real war than in crafting something akin to a Western, albeit a modern, revisionist Western in the tradition of his own Unforgiven.

On the other hand it is surely an exaggeration to argue that the Iraqis in the film are merely threats, targets and dangerous savages—even if the lead character does use that term.

The scenes in which Marines break into houses and terrify families make for very uncomfortable watching. They are clearly intended to evoke sympathy for the Iraqis, even those who are working with the insurgency. You’d have to be a fool not to see that Eastwood is, subtly or by implication, evoking the inherent brutality and cruelty of any occupation and counter-insurgency, no matter how well-intended or lawfully carried out.

Moreover the fictional Iraqi super-sniper against whom Kyle carries out a kind of duel is not depicted as especially evil or villainous: He’s just an enemy soldier doing his job extremely well. 

On the other hand, the al Qaeda commander and his henchmen—who are based on real people—are depicted as men of astonishing cruelty and ruthlessness. They use the blackest methods of intimidation to compel civilians to support them; at one point you see a child murdered by electric drill in front of his father.

Unfortunately there is nothing exaggerated or untrue about this scene. AQ and its insurgent allies frequently did that kind of thing and worse.

If some critics are uncomfortable with or ignorant of that reality, or would just prefer a simple narrative in which Americans are murderous fascists and the insurgents are victims/good guys/Middle Eastern Minutemen, then it is surely they not Eastwood who have a taste for propaganda.

But it would be surely be more constructive for them to calm down and see American Sniper for what it is: an exciting, moving film based on one man’s rather unusual military career, one that also highlights the postwar difficulties faced by even the most fortunate, best-trained and most effective warriors.

Jonathan Foreman was an embedded war correspondent with U.S. forces in Iraq in 2003 and 2005.

A GI Bill for the UK (Demos Quarterly January 2014)

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The British welfare system is normally considered superior to the US’s, but in one respect – the treatment of those who have served in the armed forces – America leaves us way behind. Jonathan Foreman argues that the shoddy treatment of veterans is a political opportunity for Labour.

When US veterans come back from the war in Afghanistan and join the civilian population they face a less uncertain future than their British counterparts. This is thanks to what Americans have long referred to as the ‘GI Bill’ and the ‘VA’ – short for the Veterans Administration – which refer to a system of veterans benefits established after World War II.

US veterans make abundant use of this system’s offer of free higher education and vocational training. Those who are physically or mentally injured get treatment and rehabilitation in veterans’ hospitals and clinics. Though scandal-prone and far from perfect, these facilities specialise in the wounds inflicted by war and allow veterans to recover in the company of and with the help of other veterans of the country’s various conflicts. The hospitals, along with job training centres and the whole system of veterans’ benefits, are all administered by a Department of Veterans Affairs.

There is no equivalent in the UK, where the few benefits offered to veterans are piecemeal and where private charity has had to make up for the failures of the state to look after those who have served the nation in a military capacity. A comprehensive British Veterans Act would transform this to the benefit of both Britain’s veterans and the wider society.

Like its American inspiration, its primary purpose would be educational: the provision of subsidised education or vocational training for all veterans and free higher education for disabled veterans and for the widow(er)s and orphans of those killed in action.

But it should also include preference in public housing, preference in public sector hiring, home loan guarantees – low levels of pay while in service mean there is little chance of getting on the housing ladder without state help – and nationally discounted transportation.

Ideally, a UK GI Bill would also see the formation of a cabinet-level Department of Veterans Affairs and the re-establishment of dedicated medical centres and clinics for veterans. As well as arguments rooted in compassion and in the obligation any society owes to those who take extreme risks with their lives and bodies on its behalf, there are pragmatic reasons for the establishment here of both a US-style Department of Veterans Affairs, a national system of veterans’ benefits and the re-establishment of dedicated military hospitals.

Perhaps the most obvious of the latter is the unlikelihood that Great Britain will be able to find sufficient recruits for even a radically shrunken defence establishment if the poor treatment of British veterans continues. Given ongoing geopolitical developments, it is highly likely that British forces may have to be deployed in combat and/or humanitarian operations during the next twenty years, even if governments would prefer that this is not the case.

It will be difficult if not impossible to recruit adequate numbers of qualified individuals to serve in the armed forces if, on top of poor pay and conditions and inadequate equipment, potential recruits know that they face uncertain futures in civilian life after their service even if able-bodied, and miserable futures for themselves and their families if they are disabled. The GI Bill also applies to dependents of veterans who died on active duty or who are permanently and totally disabled as a result of their active service – an aspect of the Bill that is very reassuring to serving troops.

Thanks to cuts by the Major Government, there are no longer any dedicated military hospitals in the UK – merely a single military ward at the Selly Oaks hospital in Birmingham. However it has become clear since 2003 that military casualties require kinds of specialist emergency and long time care that only military hospitals can provide.

This is partly because of the nature of modern combat injuries. The ratio of dead to wounded for British troops in the Afghanistan theatre is approximately 1:30, as opposed to 1:4 during World War II. Thanks to radical improvements in battlefield medicine and body armour, many soldiers survive blasts that would have killed their predecessors. However, these survivors are often left with combinations of severe life-changing injuries, including amputations and traumatic brain injury or TBI. (The latter, little known in the UK, but much discussed in the United States, often has crippling physiological and psychological effects and is rarely encountered among the civilian population.) Doctors in the US call these combined injuries ‘polytrama’ and they present a unique set of challenges to both patients and medical practitioners.

Some seven out of thirty British casualties in Afghanistan have severe, crippling ‘tier 4’ polytrauma injuries. If there are 2,000-3,000 men who are extremely disabled thanks to their war wounds in Iraq and Afghanistan (and the Government does not seem to keep count), the cost of their 24-hour care over the next 15 years will be something between £2.5 and £4 billion. However, to the discredit of two British governments, neither the NHS nor the MOD have budgeted for this. The burden will therefore fall on already devastated, mostly working-class families that are ill-equipped to bear it. (The maximum MOD payout of £570,000 is hopelessly insufficient to pay for wheelchairs, widened doorways and long-term nursing care.)

The call for the re-establishment of military or dedicated veterans hospitals also reflects a growing understanding that military casualties are more likely to be treated with respect and understanding at such hospitals, and because overall recovery rates for military casualties are higher in these environments. Non-military medical institutions seem to be particularly ineffective at treating veterans suffering from the various psychological afflictions that come under the loose rubric of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Among other powerful arguments for a UK GI Bill is the potential benefit to British society as a whole of a reservoir of human capital that is currently under-used or wasted. This human potential could be cultivated, enriched and then contribute to the common good as it did in the United States after WWII when veterans were offered better opportunities for education, training and financial credit.

Veterans have unique skills and abilities that could be better made use of by both the private and public sectors. This is not just a matter of technical skills, though thousands of even the most junior soldiers, sailors and airmen operate cutting-edge technology on a daily basis. Military people are selected and trained for qualities that are often lacking among their generational equivalents. Many come from the most deprived and unpromising backgrounds but have been spotted for leadership abilities that are too often missed by civilian employers. Few in civilian life appreciate that combat veterans are young men and women who have exercised remarkable responsibility including life and death decision-making.

A third argument for a UK GI Bill is the strain on social welfare and criminal justice systems that is likely to deepen as thousands of veterans are discharged onto the streets as a result of government cuts, with the British Army being cut from 110,000 to 82,000. Despite their skills these man and women can suffer from certain disadvantages when confronting the demands of an individualistic market-based society.

This is mostly because military life is more communal and cooperative than most civilians realise (though one should not underestimate traditional cultural prejudice against veterans, who tend to be portrayed in popular culture as dangerous or damaged or both). Regiments and battalions function like families and clans. Small units, especially if they have experienced combat, offer even more intimate and powerful human relationships.

Discharged soldiers accustomed to depending on their fellow service people, on a paternalistic officer structure and on their regiment, often feel radically alone and adrift in civilian society. This is one of the factors than can result in homelessness, addiction and other social ills, especially when combined with the sudden loss of respect and status that often comes with discharge from the military.

Although there is more research to be done on this, there is evidence that some of the social and psychological problems that plague British veterans of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts (and also those of the Falklands war) are not solely due to combat trauma as such. Instead, the inability of the wider society to accord them both the respect and the economic opportunities that they might expect given their experience, training and collective sacrifice for the greater good could play a significant role. A UK GI Bill would be a demonstration of such respect by the wider society and therefore would by its mere existence contribute to the mental health of British veterans.

There are also tactical and strategic political reasons why the Labour Party and progressives in general might wish to advocate for a UK GI Bill. Increased support for veterans is a potential ‘wedge issue’. After all, properly looking after those who have risked or sacrificed their bodies for the nation is one aspect of the welfare state that consistently commands strong popular support; it is also one which Conservative governments can plausibly be accused of undermining or betraying. Calls for the state to improve the welfare of and opportunities for veterans would inevitably and rightly echo the original ‘land fit for heroes’ and ‘homes for heroes’ rhetoric used by the Lloyd George Coalition government in the aftermath of World War I in support of welfare reform.

There are various reasons why the UK has arguably failed its veterans over the past decades. And it is certainly one of the peculiarities of contemporary politics that the political class has revealed itself to be blind to both the plight and the potential of people in the armed services, even as the UK was taking part in major military interventions. A comprehensive new deal for Britain’s veterans would reverse that failure and do the right thing by a particularly deserving and vulnerable group. It would also manifest both a sense of national community and a respect for service, which could have a powerful effect on the UK’s political culture in general.