What is one to think of a huge box office success commanded by the movie: American Sniper? At one level, it is not surprising, given that the dominant religion of the modern world, namely the deification of Westphalian state, a religion far more powerful for good or worse than any traditional religion, indoctrinates its votaries into believing that all those that kill in its name and for its glory and power are to be anointed as heroes, celebrated in its folklore and myths. According to theology of this state religion, any killings, sanctioned by it and committed while donning its paraphernalia are by definition consecrated. In fact the more the better; hence the saying, “you kill one you are a murderer you kill thousands you are a hero”.
Not only that, since modern wars are regarded as total wars – both industrialization and mass media have seen to that – in the true spirit of the age, all sections of society are to be mobilized, once the call to arms is made. Hollywood and mainstream mass media have always lived up to this ideal, apart from some occasional aberrations during Vietnam war when body bags of American sons and daughters- many from the privileged sections of society in the good old days of draft- made them expose some of its horrors, without filtering, under enormous street and elite pressure.
They have grown wiser since then.
Mainstream media not only walked in lockstep with war mongers in a run up to the Iraq war- buying and peddling unquestionably all fabrications and lies by the administration- but it also made sure that American public would never know what havoc its invasion had wrought upon a hapless nation. Not to be left behind, the image and dream making machine of Hollywood has done its own part in sanitizing what is essentially a barbaric war of imperial depredation and occupation. Yes, there have been some voices of criticism, but the overwhelming critique- at least the one that is allowed to register on public radar- has been one that never exposed the systemic reasons for the war, but confined only to the mechanics of implementation or vagaries of personal whims. Hence it is G W Bush (Miachel Moore’s documentary and Hollywood movie on the Bush) or “our naiveté” in underestimating the perils and pitfalls of nation building in a society intrinsically unsuitable for democracy and congenitally opposed to modernity (read Francis Fakuyama)! Halo of moral rectitude surrounding our actions – though we may act imprudent sometimes- is a tacit assumption never questioned and examined. Neither the deep imperatives of empire, resulting in almost unabated wars of occupation and militarization of the globe, and its institutional underpinnings examined. Our noble natures and high values are juxtaposed against the almost incomprehensible, savage like, primitive urges and motives of those who are hell bent upon fighting the very blessings we are bringing them . Good guys vs bad guys, western cowboys against savage Indians; civilization vs barbarism. All that which has always been grist to the mill of Hollywood blockbuster!
Seen thus, this collaboration between the mightiest war machine and the most effective image making machine the world has ever seen is but a natural convergence of two centers of power. This unholy alliance between Beverley Hills, State department and Pentagon is neither new nor surprising.
But at another level, it is episodes like these, when the mass mind is narrowly focused on one episode, that provides rare diagnostic insights and an opportunity to question what one has been taking for granted. I remember when I came to USA in 1995, one such incident, the verdict in O J Simpson case, and the different reactions, almost to a man and a woman, of blacks and whites towards it revealed to me as clearly as a daylight that these two communities had been living in different worlds all these centuries though sharing the same country! Similarly, in the case of, in my opinion, disturbing mass response to American sniper, I find myself questioning and doubting the very notions that we take for granted: the notions of progress, civilization, democracy, human decency.
Are we really any better morally than the societies of remote antiquity, existing in the so called age of mankind’s infancy, who used to sacrifice their young ones in fertility cults, and regard all strangers as “hostile” others?
If in one of the most sophisticated and educated societies of the world- at the apex of material wealth, power and having mastered enormous ways of storing and communicating information- people give way so easily to tribal passions, what hope is there for mankind in general! Given the unprecedented levels of information made possible by our “information age”, and the global interconnectivity built upon it, it is hard to believe how people could become so inured to the consequences of their actions, the consequences that involve the wholescale destruction and near obliteration of other societies.
There is something deeply disturbing about the image of seemingly peaceful and peace loving men, women and children, sitting in the comfort of temperature controlled theatres, munching corn and drinking from oversized cups, while vicariously visiting the killing fields unleashed by the government operating in their name and with their votes and taxes?
Americans are not subjects of some dictatorship where decisions about war and peace are taken without consulting them. After all, we second time voted the same man into the highest office, even after his declared pretext for going to war has been exposed as a sham! In the light of our collective culpability in the still ongoing tragedy in Iraq, is it too much to expect that we would at least be disgusted when presented with the images of brutality enacted by our fellow countrymen in pursuit of this now proven illegal war? Instead, it seems like we are wallowing in the pool of moral depravity by filming and then gloating over the image of the body of our mutilated victim!
How removed we are from those- psychologically and morally- who reveled in the gory spectacle of gladiatorial combats in the Coliseum? Yes, another age, another empire, but Alas! the same human nature, red in tooth and claw!
And all this talk about the movie being anti-war has as much truth to it as the claim that Mel Gibson’s violence filled and obsessed movie(s) are for the promotion of an ideology of Ahinsa (non-violence)! Ask those millions thronging the theaters if that is the message they have gotten out of the movie!
What about showing the valor and courage of ordinary soldiers, irrespective of war’s moral justification. Well, I would then ask what they would think about a movie showing the valor and commitment to purpose of a “jihadist” divorced from the nature of his mission! It is an elementary morality that one never ignores the wider context of an event that leads to the deaths of innocent human beings while merely focused on milking it for poetic, aesthetic and propaganda reasons. And in case of the event acting as a backdrop to that protagonist’s exploits in the movie, the number is not hundreds but hundreds of thousands!
And that wider context – as completely whitewashed by the movie as by the American mainstream media- is that the war against Iraq was not a mistake, it was rather a crime of monumental proportions, the greatest of the 21st century, by a far margin. Almost daily we are reminded by sectarian killings, suicide bombings, civil wars, and general chaos that we are stilling living with and facing the effects of that crime.
Moreover, the crime was done in broad daylight against defenseless nation- precisely because it could not defend itself and had the bad fortune of “sitting on a sea of oil” and being close to Israel- with the full connivance and in knowledge of the very media that is now weaving tales of heroism out of that sordid enterprise. The same media that is never tired of pontificating to the rest of the world about fairness and free speech!
But that crime was not committed in a vacuum, a one off thing of imperial hubris and overreach, but is part of a recurrent pattern, stretching across time and space in the Islamic Middle Eastern heartland. One is at a loss where to look for in determining the original sin that has brought so much suffering to these lands.
Was it the Western imperialism of the 19th century gradually encroaching upon and displacing Ottoman power? Was it the big power politics playing havoc with tribal/ethnic boundaries in redrawing the map of Middle East and creating mandates, a euphemism for colonies, in the aftermath of World War 1? Was it the creation of the state of Israel and its continual support by the western powers at the cost of burying wholesale the national identity of Palestinians, in the Muslim heartlands as a constant reminder of latter’s impotence and former’s guilt of centuries old anti-Semitism? Was it the nipping in the bud of the nascent democracy of Iran with all the subsequent decades of horror that inevitably followed from it? Was it the support to the hilt of the absolutist, petro dollar laden regimes of the gulf? Was it the military, diplomatic, financial and political backing of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia which represents the most virulent and medieval brand of Islam? Was it the cynical policy of using Iraq to contain Iran in one of the most futile and bloody wars of modern history in which both sides were supplied the weapons, including the chemical ones in case of Iraq, by the West? Was it the first Gulf war in which Iraq, whose army then needed to be cut to size having accomplished its job of killings Iranians by hundreds of thousands, was first encouraged to take Kuwait and then attacked using the same as a pretext? Was it the destruction of Iraqi infrastructure, its sewage and water systems and cold blooded murder of tens of thousands of its soldiers as they were retreating on that infamous highway of death? Was it the genocidal sanctions regime instituted to destroy Iraq, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, overseen by a racist Australian and justified by US secretary of state Madeline Albright as a price worth paying for to contain Saddam? And so on and so, a whole catalogue of sins one eclipsing the other!
It is for historians to deconstruct that long tale of woe, and the conclusion and answers may be complex and nuanced, but there is nothing nuanced or complex about those Americans feeling the rush of patriotism in watching the movie, and its acolytes in the mainstream media. It is simply the fact that they have yet to feel the first pang of shame or remorse at one of most sordid chapters in American history that will forever “live in infamy”!
Hammad Said is an IT consultant and lives in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.