The Lies of American Sniper

Posted by historianess on February 10, 2015 · 15 mins read

A guest post by @historianess.


I have a very vivid memory of when I first heard the Adhan's call, on an early July day in 2012. I was in a car in Lahore with two friends; their father was driving. It was twilight, a moment in which the buildings around Liberty Market were cast in shades of rose and violet, and the air shimmered with sunset colors. At that moment, mosques around the area starting broadcasting the evening Adhan. The sounds of the Takbir (Allahu Akbar, or, God is Great) echoed with the fading light. For a moment, traffic stopped, and the attention of all seemed to be focused on the evening prayer. This didn't feel foreign to me; it felt, on the contrary, rather familiar. I remembered the passage in Johan Huizinga's The Autumn of the Middle Ages about the sound of bells in the late medieval European city. "But one sound always rose above the clamor of busy life and, no matter how much of a tintinnabulation, was never confused with other noises, and, for a moment, lifted everything into an ordered sphere: that of the bells. The bells acted in daily life like concerned good spirits who, with their familiar voices, proclaimed sadness or joy, calm or unrest, assembly or exhortation." ((Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages trans. Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2.))

The Adhan, I immediately understood, was like the sound of bells in a European city. The effect of hearing the call to prayer was not one of alienation for me. Instead it reminded me of a commonality between Islam and Christianity--the use of sound to govern the liturgical day and to foster community.

In the film American Sniper, the Adhan serves the opposite purpose. The film opens with the Adhan and a panoramic shot of a city with many minarets. It is meant to be Fallujah, and it is meant to evoke a feeling of strangeness and foreignness in the moviegoer. The viewer experiences a frisson of fear--the muezzin calling Allahu Akbar is a threat, a representative of a civilization that our hero Chris Kyle (most confirmed kills of any American sniper! Ever!) will repeatedly call "evil" and "savage." The Adhan is a symbol of barbarism. This is the film's first lie.

Kyle, is, we are told, a sheepdog: not a sheep, which cannot protect itself, and not a wolf, which acts as a savage predator. Kyle the sniper-sheepdog is here to protect, to hold evil at bay. He does this by "losing his cherry" and killing first a small boy and then his mother. They had a grenade, and, we are told, they might have killed ten marines.


We are also told, in the context of a briefing, that all the civilians have been evacuated from Fallujah. "Anyone who is left is there to kill you." That includes, we know, women and children.

This is the film's second lie. As the American offensive began in Fallujah, there were hundreds of thousands of civilians in the city. Kyle and his team kick down a door, holding a terrified family at gunpoint. "What are you doing here! You're supposed to be gone!" Kyle interrogates the terrified family, forcing the father to provide information on "The Butcher," a particularly bloody insurgent. Later The Butcher kills a small boy with a power drill. "Savages," remarks Kyle, who does nothing to protect the remaining members of the family whose door he kicked in and whom he terrorized and exposed to the predations of The Butcher.

The Fallujah of American Sniper is an empty place, devoid of civilization. It has no past, no future, only a savage present. But of course Fallujah has a past. It was the site, for hundreds of years, of a famous center of Jewish learning and home to a vibrant Jewish community. Though its importance and influence waned in the Ottoman era, Fallujah had a regional reputation as a city of mosques, over two hundred in all. Fallujah became an important locus of Sunni support for Saddam Hussein's regime, which is partly why the United States repeatedly bombed in in 1991. The US wished to destroy bridges; instead bombs hit busy markets and slaughtered hundreds of civilians. In April 2003 US forces killed 17 protesters who were demanding that schools be reopened. (Yet American Sniper claims there were no civilians present.) In the ensuing months, the US used white phosphorus, an incendiary compound, as an offensive weapon in Fallujah. Hundreds of civilians died and thousands of homes were destroyed, creating hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons. Civilians and insurgents showed the skin-melting burns consistent with the use of white phosophorus. The US also might have used weapons containing depleted uranium.

Today in Fallujah, the rate of miscarriage and birth defects is higher than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 23 of every 1000 births now exhibit serious birth defects.

Perhaps one man's sheepdog is another man's wolf? Or perhaps it is that for Fallujah's citizens, the invaders and the insurgents were both wolves. There were no sheepdogs for these people, who got only the melted flesh of phosophorus burns.

In American Sniper, Fallujah is not a city but rather a camp full of barbarism. The conflict is black and white: it is good vs. evil, civilization vs. savagery, Christianity vs. Islam. Fallujah only exists in that uncomplicatedly violent present.

The call to prayer echoes throughout the film. It recurs at those moments when the viewer needs to be reminded of Fallujah's difference, its savagery, its inherent Otherness. I heard the evening Adhan again recently, in June 2014. I was in Lahore, on a rooftop in the Old City at sunset. The Adhan came from the great Mughal Badshahi Mosque as well as from smaller mosques around the city. In the distance there were also the sounds of a Shi'a procession. I wonder now what the citizens of Fallujah think when they hear the Adhan--is it a "good spirit" presiding over the city, or is it a constant reminder of lost health and safety?

The Once and Future Terrorist

Kyle's alter ego is an Olympic gold medalist marksman named Mustafa. We learn little about Mustafa; we know he was an Olympic marksman, for example, but Kyle remarks that he looked up Iraqi Olympians and could not find Mustafa. Another soldier tells him, Mustafa is not Iraqi. He is Syrian.

This is the film's third lie--the creation of a once and future terrorist that conveniently backdates the emergence of Daesh, compressing the history of Iraq from the time of the second US invasion in 2003 to 2015. The insurgents were always there, waiting, lurking, ready to unleash evil and savagery at the first opportunity. The US invasion did not create these forces, instead they lay in wait, awaiting the opportunity to unleash barbarism in the world. In Kyle's book, the shadowy figure of the sniper was always understood to be an Iraqi, and Kyle did not claim to have killed him. In the movie, Mustafa and Kyle become rivals. The moment the audience understands this duel, American Sniper becomes a sports movie gone wrong. Kyle and Mustafa share an athletic rivalry, a competition that cannot end until one of them is dead. The duel is an athletic competition. It has a video-game like quality to it; Mustafa and Kyle try to kill each other impersonally, over vast distances. It feels like Worlds of Warcraft.

We see very little of Mustafa. There are close ups of his face: we register that he is Arab, that he dresses like an insurgent, that his face is impassive as he kills (unlike Kyle's face, which tries to register sadness when he kills--I did not find this at all convincing ). Mustafa's face is a cipher. We see him take a phone call, tie his rags to his head (for the people demonized as hajjis in this film must of course cover their heads in a stereotypical way), grab his rifle. He glances as a photograph on the wall--Mustafa with a gold medal around his neck. He does not speak to a woman holding a baby (presumably a wife and child). He is going to kill. There is no angst there, none of the suffering that is evident whenever Kyle visits his wife and children. Mustafa we understand is the personification of the evil and savagery Kyle likes to talk about so much in this film.

Kyle obsesses over Mustafa. In the final duel, Kyle and his team are on a rooftop in Sadr City; their mission is to kill Mustafa. Mustafa kills two Americans. Kyle and his men are not in the right position! Kyle spots Mustafa through his scope, 2100 yards away. That's more than two miles. Should Kyle take the shot? If he does, he will endanger his team's position; back up is still twenty minutes away. He does, predictably, and we see the bullet travel in slow motion across those 2100 yards to where Mustafa lurks, then his head explodes in a fountain of blood.

We see Mustafa's body, his rifle beside him, slowly being covered with sand from an epic sandstorm. Kyle, with his ever present satellite phone, calls his long-suffering wife and tells her he is ready to come home. (Kyle has the annoying habit of talking to his wife while out patrolling--Taya once offers him phone sex as he peers at potential victims through his scope. Who talks on the phone while on a humvee under fire? Our hero, of course.)

Kyle leaves his rifle behind in the sand, a moment of heavy-handed symbolism. Mission accomplished. Our hero can rebuild his life. We don't know what happens to the mysterious woman and child who apparently shared Mustafa's life. Mustafa makes a perfect terrorist--a Syrian who represents the present threat of Daesh: skilled, determined, but apparently soul-less. And Kyle is the perfect hero. However flawed and damaged, he is ultimately victorious.

Blood Diamond

Kyle's friend Biggles is getting engaged. He has bought, he tells Kyle proudly, a hajji diamond. Kyle says, are you not afraid that it is a blood diamond? Biggles scoffs. It was far cheaper to buy it in Iraq, he says, though he'll tell his intended bride that he bought the ring at Zales, the American chain jewelry store.

But it is a blood diamond, is it not? We don't know how or where Biggles got his ring. But I can imagine a back story. Displaced Iraqis, struggling to survive between the rock of the American invasion and the hard place of the insurgency, relegated to the overcrowded homes of relatives, or perhaps a hot and dusty tent in an IDP camp, sold their small valuables to American soldiers to get cash for food and other necessities. The diamond is a joke among Kyle and his friends, but it is perhaps the least funny aspect of the film. Behind Biggles's blood diamond is a country torn apart, a story of millions displaced, hundreds of thousands killed.

Another soldier laughs a Biggles's blood diamond; he says that if he brings home another rug, his wife "will fucking kill me." The household treasures of ordinary Iraqis became the souvenirs for American soldiers bringing things home to their wives. In a war that was so extractive to begin with (the prime example being, of course, securing the oil fields of Iraq against Saddam Hussein and against insurgents), these little exactions are the ultimate humiliation.

Biggles's blood diamond is the film's fourth, and perhaps its largest, lie. It exposes the stunning lack of context in the film, the lack of understanding of what the US invasion meant for Iraqis. Ordinary Iraqis do not exist in this film; Iraq might as well have been a terra nullius for this specious game of good vs evil. But in the end, it represents how many, if not most, Americans saw the invasion of Iraq and the continuing War on Terror. Americans are good, Muslims are evil. American Sniper celebrates the clash of civilizations, and ultimately it reifies American ideas about The Good War that protects the homeland.


Ammar | February 10, 2015

o bhens what an article

omaidusmalik | February 10, 2015

No words to describe the pain of thousands displaced, thousands who have lost their loved ones. Thank you for writing this article.

The Historianess (@historianess) | February 10, 2015

Bahut shukriya yaar.

TQ Chāt | # 23 | تنقید | February 12, 2015

[…] – The lies of American Sniper – A river runs through it – Passport tales – Delhi: A forgotten history of same-sex love – A philosophy for militants […]

Abbujan | May 19, 2015

Thank you very much for writing this article and explaining the truth as it is and not taking sides, the way it should have been done, neutrally, bringing out the pain that the "casualties" as they say suffer in the onslaught of such wars.