American Sniper (2014) Directed by Clint Eastwood; a Warner Bros. release
By Chris Driscoll | Stranger in a Strange Land
WARNER BROS/MALPASO PRODUCTIONS
Chris Kyle, the sniper upon whose life the new Clint Eastwood movie, “American Sniper” is based, worked for a while as Sarah Palin’s body guard. Enough said? Well, yes, probably for most of you, that one fact tells you all you need to know about this dubious American hero being glorified in Eastwood’s latest cinematic endeavor. But there’s more, much much more, to tell.
First though, allow me to introduce the other hero of this contrast and comparison in sniper films, the other famous sniper upon whose life a movie was based: Vasily Grigoryevich Zaitsev.
Vasily was a sharpshooter in the Battle of Stalingrad, the most horrendous conflagration during the entire Second World War. He was played by Jude Law in the 2001 movie “Enemy at the Gates.”
These sniper movies make for a stark contrast between two wars, one a desperate defensive struggle against Nazi occupation and genocide, the other, an aggressive war of imperial plunder based on hypocrisy, taking the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, and turning to rubble a whole ancient civilization. I guess we should not be surprised that the morals or lack of morals in the two men neatly reflect the morality or lack of morality in the two wars, the Soviets’ Great Patriotic War (World War II) and the U.S. War on the People of Iraq.
LEARN MORE ABOUT VASILY ZAITSEV, THE GREATEST SNIPER OF WORLD WAR 2 AND HERO OF THE SOVIET UNION.
[learn_more caption=”The amazing story of Valery Zaitsev-Click on this bar.”]
This Hero of the Soviet Union killed more than 300 Nazi soldiers in the Battle of Stalingrad during World War II and taught scores of other snipers.
Vasily Zaitsev was born into a family of peasants in the village of Yelenovsk in the Chelyabinsk Region in the Urals. His grandfather taught him to hunt at a very early age. As bullets were scarce, Vasily learnt to pull the trigger just once per animal. This is how he grew up to become a sharpshooter.
In 1937 Vasily was recruited into the Red Army.
Despite his small frame, he was sent to serve in the Soviet Navy in the Pacific, near Vladivostok. But when Nazi forces invaded the Soviet Union, Zaitsev, like many of his comrades, volunteered to be transferred to the frontline. At the time he had already reached the rank of Sergeant Major.
On the eve of 22 September 1942 Zaitsev crossed the Volga River and joined the 1047th Rifle Regiment of the 284th Rifle Division of the 62nd Army. He made a name for himself during the first encounters with the enemy in the flame-lit city. One day, Zaitsev’s commanding officer called him up and pointed at an enemy officer in a window 800 meters away. Vasily took aim from his standard-issue Mossin-Nagant rifle, and with one shot, the officer was down. In less than a few moments, two other Nazi soldiers appeared in the window, checking their fallen officer. Vasily fired two more shots, and they were killed. For this, together with the Medal for Valor, Vasily was also awarded a sniper rifle.
Vasily Zaitsev’s name quickly became known across the Soviet Union. Between 10 November and 17 December he was credited with 225 verified kills, 11 of them snipers. The Soviets soon organized a school of snipers based in a metal hardware factory, marking the beginning of the sniper movement in the Red Army. “For us there was no land beyond the Volga,” Zaitsev once said in a famous quote, revealing his fervent loyalty to the Motherland.
Jude Law as Zaitsev in Enemy at the Gates. (Paramount/Mandalay)
Zaitsev would hide in all sorts of locations – on high ground, under rubble, in water pipes. After a few kills he would change his position. Together with his partner Nikolay Kulikov, Zaitsev would hide and sting. One of Zaitsev’s common tactics was to cover one large area from three positions with two men at each point – a sniper and scout. This tactic, known as the “sixes,” is still in use today and was implemented during the war in Chechnya.
In his memoirs, Vasily recalls a certain sly Nazi sniper he tracked for a week – they called him the “Supersniper.” He was allegedly Heinz Thorvald, aka Erwin König, a high-ranking Werhmacht officer and head of the Berlin sniper school. There is little known about König’s identify. He reportedly came to Stalingrad to kill Zaitsev, who had already caused much havoc and drained Nazi morale. Zaitsev writes that the sniper was highly skilled and was very hard to find. But when two of Vasily’s comrades were injured by a sniper, Zaitsev and Kulikov began searching the area, and Vasily noticed a glimpse of light under a piece of metal. When Kulikov lifted a helmet on a stick from a window, Erwin König fired and revealed himself as he peeked to see whether his target was dead. It was then that Zaitsev shot him in the head.
Ed Harris as Maj. Konig in Enemy at The Gates (2001). Movie still (Paramount/Mandalay)
The sniper duel is loosely depicted in the feature film “Enemy at the Gates,” directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud and starring Jude Law as Zaitsev and Ed Harris as Major König. Vasily continued teaching Soviet soldiers while sniping Nazi troops until January 1943 when he was severely wounded and blinded by a mortar. He was taken to Moscow, where he was operated on by Professor Filatov, the famous Russian ophthalmologist. While he was in hospital, his rifle was given to the best snipers in his school. His students, the “zaichata,” were credited with more than 6,000 kills during World War II.
Vasily Zaitsev (left) training a companion. (Za Rodinu, via flickr.)
With his sense of sight restored, Zaitsev returned to the frontline, where he continued teaching snipers, commandeered a mortar platoon and became a Regiment Commander. He fought in Ukraine, at the Dnepr and in Odessa, sniping the enemy at the Dniestr River. But during the victorious day of 9 May 1945, he was in hospital again. He ended the war with the rank of Captain. After the war, Zaitsev lived in Kiev, where he studied at a textile university and then worked as an engineer before becoming the director of a textile plant.
Mamayev Kurgan is a dominant height overlooking the city of Volgograd (formerly Stalingrad) in Southern Russia. The name in Russian means “tumulus of Mamai.” The original Mamayev Kurgan was a Tartar burial mound 102 metres high. The current formation is dominated by a memorial complex commemorating the Battle of Stalingrad (August 1942 to February 1943). The battle was a decisive Soviet victory over Axis forces on the Eastern front of World War II and arguably the bloodiest battle in human history. After the war, the Soviet authorities commissioned the enormous Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex. Vasily Chuikov, who led Soviet forces at Stalingrad, lies buried at Mamayev Kurgan, the first Marshal of the Soviet Union to be buried outside Moscow. Soviet sniper Vasily Zaitsev was also reburied there in 2006.
Vasily Zaitsev died in 1991 and was buried in Kiev, although his final request was to be buried in the land he fought so hard to defend – Stalingrad. His wish came true on the 63rd anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, when Vasily Zaitsev was reburied with full military honors at Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd, a monument in honor of the millions of victims of the battle. His rifle is on display in the Museum for the Defense of Stalingrad.
Vasily Zaitsev’s highest awards include: Hero of the Soviet Union, Order of Lenin, Order of the Red Banner (twice), Order of the Patriotic War (First Class), Medal for the Defense of Stalingrad and the Medal for the Victory Over Germany.
After the war, Zaitsev, unlike Kyle, did not go into politics–or reality TV shows–but rather, he settled in Kiev where he took correspondence courses to become an engineer, and worked his way up to become the director in a textile factory. During the war, after being wounded, he wrote two books on sniper tactics which militaries around the world, including the U.S. military, still use today in sniper training.
Kyle, who tragically lost his life in Dec. 2013 when a post-traumatically stressed Iraq War vet went berserk on him at a shooting range in West Texas, was a notorious and well-exposed public liar. So, little about Eastwood’s movie—based on Kyle’s book, “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History“—can be relied upon.
A couple of specific post-war events in Kyle’s life reveal his penchant for tall tales. At a fundraiser for Navy SEALs the former Minnesota Governor, Jesse Ventura, like Kyle, a veteran of the elite Navy special forces group now called the SEALs, had a fainting spell due to some medications he was on. But in Kyle’s book, Ventura’s faint turned into a confrontation that never happened, and ended with Kyle decking the older man.
But at the end of the day such shams could be inconsequential when weighed against other aspects of his personality. For if true, the acts that Kyle lays claim to would cast him at least in the role of a monumental jerk, or, at worst, a mass murdering criminal. Still, one wonders what kind of person actually would risk being identified with these deceptions? Ventura, to his credit, when the lie was brought to his attention sued Kyle and won a Minnesota court award of $1.8 million. Kyle claimed that Ventura had said he thought the SEALs should lose a few in Iraq because the war was wrong. To anyone who’s followed Ventura over the years, it’s hard to believe he would ever say anything like that; for one thing, he’s too damn intelligent to say something so dumb. It’s more likely that Ventura’s political opposition to the U.S. War on Iraq was behind Kyle’s lie aimed at discrediting Ventura to fellow SEALs. Kyle’s widow is appealing the $1.8 million award.
After the court ruling, on the Sarah Palin Channel, Palin came to Kyle’s defense and slammed Ventura: “So you turn around and sue, expecting $2 million from a military widow and her fatherless children? Yeah, like that is going to help your reputation, jackass.”
“Chris Kyle was a true American patriot–the soldier who stood up for his country and saved so many lives by doing the job his Commander-in-chief gave him, taking out the bad guys. For his extraordinary work, Chris was known as “The American Sniper.” He was senselessly murdered on our own soil while helping a military brother. His widow and young children will forever feel a lot more “hurt” than you will, Jesse, after a sad verdict in your ridiculous lawsuit against Chris. . .”
In another adventure of dubious validity, a profile in the June 2013 issue of “The New Yorker” has Kyle claim he went to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina and he and a friend stationed themselves on top of the Superdome where they proceeded to “take out” about 30 armed looters. A U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) spokesman told The New Yorker, “To the best of anyone’s knowledge at SOCOM, there were no West Coast SEALs deployed to Katrina.” He said Kyle’s story, “defies the imagination.” And, of course, there were no reports at the time of 30-some extra dead bodies laying around New Orleans with sniper bullets in their bodies.
As a New Republic headline proclaimed in the magazine’s obituary of the fallen sniper, “If Chris Kyle Had Been a Muslim, We’d Call him an Extremist.” After all, the New Republic opined, he had a “crusader’s cross” tattooed on his arm. In his book, Kyle wrote, “On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. . . I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in red, for blood. I hated the damned savages I’d been fighting. I always will. They’ve taken so much from me.”
Kyle also liked to regale his friends with a story about being attacked at a gas station at gunpoint by two assailants, whom he claimed to have shot dead. But again, there were no witnesses, police say they found no bodies, and in general, the story sounds about as accurate as the New Orleans tale.
Reality show star
In 2012 Kyle co-starred in the reality TV show, Stars Earn Stripes, produced by Mark Burnett, in which celebrities supposedly competed in war games on behalf of charities. It was a twisted, repellent concept—half blatant chauvinism cum propaganda for imperial wars, and half insult to the peoples and nations used as mere backdrops for the stars’ ludicrous shenanigans— from the mind of one of Hollywood’s most reactionary power players (Burnett also produces Survivor, and 10 other shows, including The Apprentice, Shark Tank, etc. A Christian “fundie” and proud of it, in 2013 Burnett produced The Bible series that brought in around 100 million viewers, and ended up being the most-watched cable miniseries of the year. In 2014 Burnett went on to produce the feature film Son of God).
Gen. Wesley Clarke, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, was roped in to host Stars Earn Stripes. Along with Kyle were the former “First Gentleman of Alaska,” Todd Palin; singer and actor Nick Lachey; retired professional boxer, Laila Ali, daughter of Mohammed Ali, who should have known better considering her father’s record of opposition to imperial wars; and TV Superman from “Lois and Clark,” Dean Cain. The show was mercifully cancelled after loud protests from many people and organizations, including many veterans.
As noted earlier, character questions had begun to pile up—even in mainstream outlets—by the time Kyle died. In a Guardian (UK) op-ed, Lindy West described Kyle as a “hate-filled killer” and asked, “Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?” She pointed out that Kyle, in his autobiography called killing “fun”, said he “loved” it, and was convinced that he was taking out the “bad guys”. “I hate the damn savages,” Kyle said in his book. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.”
Kyle claimed 255 kills, with 160 confirmed by the Department of Defense, making him the most effective sniper in U.S. history.
All of the above would present difficult issues to a more socially responsible director when seeking to portray as tortured and contradictory an individual as Chris Kyle, but Eastwood does not fit that mould; his specialty, at least in the area of military flicks, is to produce pseudo-serious melodramas that leave out as much of the truth as necessary to end up with a hagiographic image of the chosen heroes. The upshot is highly effective emotional manipulation, and the public (and critics) eat it. I have no idea if Eastwood does this deliberately or not. Either way the effect is the same.
This is the propaganda imperial America wants people consuming, as America’s new generation of “wars of choice” requires unflagging supporters. To maintain the necessary propaganda momentum the ruling elite, via the Pentagon, its ubiquitous corporate media, and other less visible tentacles, is not averse at funding and endorsing Hollywood projects that crudely or subtly manufacture passionate support for foreign interventions and racist hatred of whichever “enemy du jour” falls in Washington’s crosshairs.
Despite its technical virtuosity, Eastwood’s Sniper is not exactly an original film. As mentioned earlier, it clearly invites comparison with Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates. Both movies, “American Sniper” and “Enemy at the Gates,” focus on a mano a mano contest between two snipers: one, the “enemy” and antagonist of the story; the other, our hero. American Sniper matches Kyle against the notorious Mustafa, a fictional insurgent who was an Olympic shooter before the war. Zaitsev, in Enemy at the Gates, is pitted against Major Erwin Konig, played by Ed Harris. Konig may also be fictional as we only have Zaitsev’s word that he retrieved the enemy sharpshooter’s dogtags after killing him and that the deceased was identified as Konig, head of the Berlin Sniper School. Researchers have subsequently been unable to find any trace of Konig in German records.
Most Americans know little-to-nothing about the Soviet part in World War II, that the better part of the war was fought on Soviet territory, for example, or that the Soviets lost 26 million people in the war (the equivalent of the entire population of California and Texas at the time). The United States, by comparison, lost a bit more than 400,000.
Until the recently released Russian film Stalingrad, (1)Jean Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates (2001), was probably the only major English-language film about the Battle of Stalingrad, the bloodiest engagement with the largest number of deaths and drawing the largest number of combatants of the entire war—and some historians claim, of any war in human history. Combat during that battle was often door-to-door urban fighting amid literally mountains of rubble, bringing the two sides into constant confrontation. More than 1.7 million died.
Critics accolades misguided
In their almost unanimous acclaim for Eastwood’s film, American critics —aping the producers’ assurances that the film is not really political and not really about Iraq (!) —have only shown the poverty of their intellect or simply their abject careerist conformity. As Peter Maass put it so well on his comments on the film for The Intercept,
Kyle’s memoir has been turned into a film starring Bradley Cooper and it’s an Oscar contender even before its national release on January 16. The Los Angeles Times hails its action scenes as “impeccably crafted,” while The New Yorker salutes Clint Eastwood for making other directors “look like beginners.” Unfortunately, Hollywood’s producing class, taking a break from exchanging catty emails about A-list stars, has created another war film that ignores history, and reviewers who spend too much time in screening rooms are falling over themselves in praise of it.
They should know better. In 2012, “Zero Dark Thirty,” about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was lavishly praised by most reviewers, and it wasn’t until criticism emerged from political reporters like Jane Mayer and others (I wrote about it too) that the tide turned against the pro-torture fantasy at its core. The backlash, coming after the film made “best of the year” lists, was probably responsible for it (fortunately) being all but shut out of the Academy Awards. Hopefully the praise-and-reconsider scenario will recur with “American Sniper.” (How Clint Eastwood Ignores History in ‘American Sniper‘)
Maass is absolutely spot on. The moral context of a story with grave implications for our society is not something to kick aside as so much extraneous baggage. Zaitsev was shooting at the invaders, Germans—many Nazis—who were in his homeland plundering, murdering, raping and in general doing whatever they could to utterly destroy Stalingrad and kill all its people, not to mention deal a hard morale blow to the Soviet people and smash the Soviet Union itself. Not to mention that Germany had started the war after mounting some pretty cynical false flag events in Poland and elsewhere.
Kyle, on the other hand, was the invader in a war of choice that easily qualifies as an international War Crime as per Nuremberg Tribunal laws, while so-called “enemy combatants” like Mustafa were defending their country from imperialist domination and occupation. How many Americans, you may ask, would not resist a brutal invader under exactly similar circumstances? Apparently this elementary question never entered Eastwood’s skull.
And there are other points of congruency. Both films have subplots that feature strong women in supporting roles. In American Sniper, Kyle’s wife, Taya, played by Sienna Miller, portrays the hardships of the wife of a SEAL holding down the home front, and, after Kyle’s return, the difficulty of dealing with a man who’s spent months in a combat zone killing people and being tormented by the inevitable demons. In Enemy Tania, played by Rachel Weisz, is a Stalingrad resident in the local militia who becomes Zaitsev’s love interest during the Battle of Stalingrad.
But what about Clint Eastwood? What motivated him to choose Kyle as the subject for his most recent movie? We might fairly ask why Eastwood, a man who claims to be a libertarian and has publicly opposed every major U.S. war since Vietnam, consistently makes movies that feed the war machine (or at one time glorified a type of vigilante police with his infamous Dirty Harry character?). Could procuring the funding his projects require have something to do with it? Could it be that this “artist” is willing to sell his soul and his principles, and that movies that sell Washington’s wars are a ready route to funding, acclaim, and profits? It’s a fairly defensible assumption.
We know that movies like Ben Affleck’s ARGO, falsifying the events surrounding the US embassy takeover in Teheran, and the much acclaimed (but more controversial) Zero Dark Thirty, done by a not so innocent liberal, Kathy Bigelow (who also gave us another film of similar texture, supposedly only looking at the lives of soldiers in difficult combat situations, The Hurt Locker), which also ignored the role played by the US military in the Middle East, and who happens to be the former Mrs. James Cameron, had ample government support.
. With Sniper Eastwood apparently yields again to a troubling penchant to sentimentalize bullies or war in general. In Heartbreak Ridge (1986) Eastwood constructed a script that whitewashed the enormous—in fact shameful—disparity between the forces of puny Grenada and the greatest superpower on earth. In his flick, it was the Marines who covered themselves in glory, although even some Marines found the deed a bit short of genuine heroism, considering their own record of combat in practically all latitudes against far more formidable opponents.
With Flags of Our Fathers (2006), focusing on Iwo Jima, Eastwood again chose war as the main canvas, and although he tried to “balance” the books by also including the Japanese side of the story, noble he, there’s enough luster and praise for the military to satisfy any man (or woman) in uniform these days.
War can be profitable. Heartbreak, for example, went boffo at the box office, chalking up almost a 1000% return on investment.
I guess the solution to Eastwood’s riddle is that we should simply note what he does instead of what he says. It is clear that Eastwood is ignorant or indifferent to the distinction between subjective and objective when it comes to evaluating an artist’s social impact. Whatever he may think subjectively, it’s undeniable that, objectively, where it counts, Eastwood has been more often than not a supporter of conservative approaches to social and foreign policy, and that his cumulative oeuvre has consistently defended a rightwing or establishmentarian position.
Eastwood with Lou Gossett, Jr. and President Ronald Reagan in July 1987. (Credit: Wikipedia/CC)
Despite being heavily associated with firearms in his Westerns and cop movies, Eastwood has publicly endorsed gun control since at least 1973. In the April 24, 1973, edition of the Washington Post, the star stated that “I’m for gun legislation myself. I don’t hunt.” Two years later, in 1975, Eastwood told People magazine that he favors “gun control to some degree”. About a year later, Eastwood remarked that “All guns should be registered. I don’t think legitimate gun owners would mind that kind of legislation. Right now the furor against a gun law is by gun owners who are overreacting. They’re worried that all guns are going to be recalled. It’s impossible to take guns out of circulation, and that’s why firearms should be registered and mail-order delivery of guns halted.” In 1993, he noted that he “… was always a backer” of the Brady Bill, with its federally mandated waiting period. In 1995, Eastwood questioned the purpose of assault weapons. Larry King, the famous television host and newspaper columnist, wrote in the May 22, 1995, edition of USA Today that “My interview with Eastwood will air on ‘Larry King Weekend’ … I asked him his thoughts on the NRA and gun control and he said that while people think of him as pro-gun, he has always been in favor of controls. ‘Why would anyone need or want an assault weapon?’ he said.”
But regardless of Eastwood’s motives, there is no doubt that the US establishment welcomes movies like “American Sniper” because they promote support for its wars of plunder, wars that would be difficult to get people behind if not for mountains of propaganda.
The war in Iraq, of course, was founded on lies—nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, and the suggestion that Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks—something the media could have easily disproven, had American journalists discharged their duty instead of simply acted as “stenographers to power” safeguarding their careers. In fact it has been massive and nonstop unchallenged lies since 9/11 that have also permitted the inauguration of a new era of “permanent terror psychosis”, with terrible consequences for real democracy and freedom in America and the world.
This is not the place to offer a detailed analysis of the betrayals of the American press, which has now fully integrated itself into the system’s propaganda machine, but it should be said that Hollywood —an engine of mass communications that now comprises both cinema and television—is certainly not an innocent bystander.
Just to enumerate some of the more recent outrages, it is precisely this highly polluted and confused public consciousness that has allowed Washington to assault and destroy Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a strategy that has now given rise to our own Frankenstein in ISIL, al Qaeda, etc., but which —fortunately for the military-industrial-security complex—provide further fuel for our endless “anti-terror wars”. The same massive ignorance and disinformation has enabled the West to pull a fascist coup in Ukraine; ignore the genocidal Israeli attack on Gaza and Kiev’s war on Novorussia, while also defusing the “Arab Spring” from Cairo to Bahrain, etc, etc. Ironically, such appalling criminality pales in comparison to the even more catastrophic policies being rolled out by NATO under US hegemony, including the effort to isolate and destabilize China for the crime of being a competing power, and the vicious and hypocritical demonization of Russia and her leader, Putin—all of it pushing the world that much closer to a final nuclear conflagration.
Needless to say, I do not recommend American Sniper. In fact, the movie would be a great target for a boycott and pickets by the anti-war movement. Enemy at the Gates on the other hand is a rare chance for Enlish-speakers to get a realistic look at World War II from the Soviet perspective,(1) a perspective that sheds a lot of light on the way Russians think, even today. That’s something Americans desperately need to get a lot more of, especially as Obama and his European allies continue to beat the war drums for WW III.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Chris Driscoll is a retired science and technology journalist who has worked for the Arizona Republic, Sedona Red Rock News, Phillips Publishing International, Government Computer News and the American Trucking Associations. He was the media director for Ralph Nader’s 2008 campaign for president. He is also a lifelong socialist, labor and anti-war activist.
NOTES (1) A new Russian film, Stalingrad (2013), also presents a realistic vision of this conflict, and, naturally, the Russian perspective. Worth checking out.
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