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american-sniper-5I went with my wife to the early afternoon show of American Sniper in Rome, Georgia. yesterday. We were very lucky to get seats (and, for once, we were early). At the film’s end, everyone departed with the kind of hushed (I mean absolutely silent) reverence that is higher praise than applause. I had heard this was happening, but it is still something you have to experience for yourself.

Did the audience exaggerate the greatness of the film to fill some therapeutic need, as some critics say? No. It deserves to be ranked among the great pieces of American poetry. Was it an accurate portrayal of the life of the man Chris Kyle? Well, I do not really know. But it was not meant to be a biopic.

The film gives us the heroic—but, of course, far less than perfect—life of the protector. His father tells him that there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheepdog’s purpose is to protect sheep from wolves. That means, of course, using your natural aggressiveness, strength, and acquired skill to protect your own from those who threaten them.

The criticism of the heroic protector, from the time of Homer, Plato, and so forth until now, is that he privileges those he knows and loves over those he does not. The response is, surely, that he might exaggerate the evil or savagery of the enemy, but he is not wrong to think that his own are worthy of his love and devotion. Those who complacently make that criticism, typically, use it to exempt themselves from the duty and nobility. So when some bozo critic at the Rolling Stone (surely, at this point, the country’s most pathetic publication) said that the film was almost too stupid to criticize, he was savaged in his thread by those who knew he was not in a position to know what he was talking about.

Did serving in the Navy SEALS make Kyle better or worse as a human being? Well, before that he was a wandering cowboy living for the weekend and with little respect for himself. His almost fantastically demanding service not only showed him what he was capable of as a warrior, but also oriented him toward being a loyal and loving husband and father. One of the most striking features of the movie is the protector’s unwavering love and loyalty. The same goes for his wonderful wife. Our fighting men’s doing multiple—too many—tours in Iraq was the cause of the destruction of many an American family—but not in this case. Still, the film shows us the toll war takes on relational life, even in the best case. Kyle’s reentry into the ordinary life of peaceful protection of his own was really tough—and, of course, it was in many cases impossible. His wife spent lots and lots of time alone with the kids; she was often alone in spirit even when he was home on leave.

His dedication is to “God, country, and family.” But that extends readily to protecting his “brother” warriors in the Marines, and his protection of them is increasingly detached from the war’s murky and shifting larger strategic objectives. There is a lot of talk about whether the film is pro-war or anti-war, just as it is criticized for not focusing on how our political and military leaders failed our warriors by mucking the war up or choosing the war at all. The film is not about the war, but about a warrior. It is pretty much always the case that our political and military leaders have not been worthy of our best protectors. It also remains the case that Kyle is not wrong to believe that his is the greatest country on earth, and that all war morphs in the direction of warriors being mainly concerned about protecting each other and getting back home (concerns that obviously conflict).

Well, here is the most important thing. Bradley Cooper’s performance was just dead-on. He bulked up for the role. Not only that, he spent meticulous months perfecting every mannerism of an ordinary “manly man” from Texas (meaning the South). His “look” and accent are perfect. Most Southerners cannot help but say “I know that guy.” Especially impressive are his manners; his ”yes sir” was especially reinforced, but not learned through his military training. Equally impressive is that he is a casually or “naturally” witty guy who is obviously not only strong and skillful but quick on his feet in every way. He is the “citizen soldier” of country music, but that, of course, does not mean he is some Spartan or relationally marginalized warrior from one of Eastwood’s earlier films. He has some of the heritage or manners and morals of the Southern aristocrat about him. This is, in fact, a very Southern movie and resonates especially in that region that gives us a quite disproportionate percentage of our warriors. It is easy to say that since the days of the Confederacy ordinary Southerners have been suckers, but that kind of thinking is the height of ingratitude.

I will even say that the poet Mr. Eastwood knows he is making a big contribution to the very important project of presenting us the democratized Southern Stoic gentleman relevant for our times. Kyle knows who he is and so knows what he should do as a responsible, relational man in every situation. Well, he actually falls short of that, but only because the psychological cost of being a legendary sniper sometimes overwhelms his reason and paralyzes his love. He hardly ever loses his head or neglects his responsibility in battle.

I have to stop, but one more point on the Stoic front: Kyle is not much of a Christian. He carries a Bible with him but apparently never opens it. He does not pray, as far as I can remember. That does not mean that his skillfully protective personal love should not inspire our reverence.

The takeaway: We will, in fact, always need protectors (sheepdogs), and more than ever our SEALS, Marines, and other special forces serve us in a most countercultural and secretive way. They are sure not out for the glory these days. So we should all be grateful that Eastwood has aroused our gratitude or given us an antidote to our creeping and often creepy libertarianism.

Now, some critics have been offended by the implication that most people are “sheep.” That image, which has a long history, was not used by Kyle himself, but by his not-so-loving father. Certainly Kyle did not view his tough and self-reliant wife as some domestic animal. It is true that some of our professional soldiers who comment on the film are taking that image too literally. But that is almost understandable, given we have abandoned the “republican” view that all citizens are responsible for the defense of their country.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. © 2015 by National Review, Inc. Reprinted by permission.

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8 replies to this post
  1. “Kyle is not much of a Christian. ”

    Really? By what standards? This seems a bit of a cheap shot, aimed at someone I’m guessing the author has never met and whose personal life he knew little about. He certainly seemed to LIVE the Christian life, whether risking his life to protect the innocent or (by all accounts) remaining faithful to wife and family under very difficult circumstances.

  2. It’s very disheartening to find how many people are still in thrall to this kind of twisted hero worship. The absolute last thing we need are more men like Chris Kyle, a deeply troubled individual who openly admitted how much he enjoyed killing (and that’s leaving aside all his lies). We do not need any more so-called “sheepdogs,” protecting us from imaginary threats and enemies of our own making. It’s time to grow up and act like citizens, not little girls in need of Big, Brave Men to keep us safe.

    I really hope there are some other genuine conservatives who will join in denouncing the cult of the American killing machine.

  3. Don’t most nations think of their soldiers as being protectors, like sheepdogs are? And don’t most nations treasure the loyalty and love of its citizens? And, as Howard Zinn pointed out, once you’ve defined yourself as good and your enemy as evil, you stop asking questions about what you are doing to them. And isn’t this what happened with the Wehrmacht and wasn’t the loyalty of the German citizens partially gained and maintained by the Nazi propaganda that said that the troops were fighting for freedom and to end plutocracy? And so rather than work to put an end to what Hitler was doing, both the citizens and the troops were perhaps a bit too loyal to do what was right.

    Certainly a nation doesn’t need to be as bad as Nazi Germany to be questioned by its troops and citizens. If it did, then it would be implied that Nazi Germany would be the minimum standard of evil. How could we ever think that way? So, wouldn’t it be even more protective of both what is right and one’s own nation to continually question the morality of its actions?

    And as for the character’s manliness, wasn’t Martin Luther King Jr. and many others from the Civil Rights Movement just as tough as Bradley Cooper’s character? And weren’t at least a few Civil Rights activists brutally attacked by rough, tough men from the South?

    And shouldn’t we be concerned with both stories? The most obvious story was the one told in the movie. The most important story was the one told in the book. As for both stories, I wholeheartedly agree with Stephen’s comment.

  4. Stephen, you see there is this thing called islam, it has been around for roughly 1300 years, give or take a century or so. They appear to have a penchant for violence above and beyond the usual degree in humankind, considering both time and intensity. Rumor has it that some erstwhile believers even flew planes into tall buildings, burning some thousands of greedy capitalists to death, probably deserved don’t you think? But of course as you wisely pointed out they were probably figments of our own imagination.
    Still this rude behavior continues, one might even dare to suggest it’s a part of what has been called the religion of peace, that must be a mistake, no?
    There now appears a trend in the Mid-East for some of these holy people to burn or decapitate others, quite rude! I trust it will pass and we sophisticates can return to our sybaritic pursuits, untouched by the vulgarity of reality. Such as reality may be.

    • John, you see there is this thing called American Foreign Policy that has bombed country after country after country in the Middle East, supported thug dictators in the name of “stability” and then their “opponents” who are today’s Taliban, Al Qaeda and ISIS…

      … And there is also this thing called Israel that has a sickening record of violence against the Palestinians–and a Mr. Netanyahu who is no less a savage than any Hamas flunkee, only Mr. B wears better ties….

      …And there is this thing called the Drone, fleets of which, as we speak, are flying over Pakistan, Yemen, and Syria, for instance, bombing women and children at weddings and markets. When you bomb people, limbs fly off–like with a decapitation. Only these Events are not featured on You Tube! So it does not exist, if it is not in the media–correct?

      …And then there is this thing called contemporary Western “Culture”, which is a morass of pornography, filth and stupidity. We abort and promote gay marriage, the Muslims curse us to high hell. The Islamists have religious nihilism, we have secular decadence.

      (And as for the propensity of Islamic violence, if you can point me to examples of horror perpetrated by Islamists on the scale of a Hitler or a Stalin–two Western glories–I shall be glad to see it. )

      I say all this as a Catholic who deplores the terrorism of radicals. Be we, the West, are front and center responsible for what is going on. This modern “Muslim” violence is relatively new, they never hated us as they do today. You might consider turning off Brian Williams andf “Morning Joe” and ask yourself why.

  5. Mr. Lawler, you wrote, “They are sure not out for the glory these days.” I cannot agree in Kyle’s case. Most of my uncles served in the military in WWII, with some of them seeing the worst of it, for example Normandy on D-Day. They didn’t speak of it afterward but maybe two or three times in one or two sentence utterances, and you could not get them to go beyond that without getting a look that said “don’t go there kid.” Chris Kyle wrote a book and promoted it on Fox News. For me, there is just something wrong in that, wrong even beyond Kyle himself.

  6. “Chris Kyle wrote a book and promoted it on Fox News. For me, there is just something wrong in that, wrong even beyond Kyle himself.”

    I disagree. Tons of military people have written books. I have read several by Navy SEAL’s, starting with Richard Marcinko, founder of SEAL Team Six. The public clearly has an interest in their lives, why is that any worse than a book written by a politician or a celebrity?

  7. Because, as demonstrated by my uncles, it used to be you took a humble opinion of yourself for having been in a war. It is Man at his worst.

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