As a student and teacher of nonviolent action, I was disheartened last week to wake up and read of the box office success of what I thought was yet another shoot-em-up action film, the American Sniper, while the same day noting that a film about my field, Selma, though successful, was not even in the same ballpark with the money. It made me wonder why, so I went to see them.
These movies tell the story of two American heroes, the most lethal sniper in American military history, Christopher Kyle, and the most remembered name in the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. We are presented with two very different kinds of heroes, by many accounts both played accurately by their actors.
What makes these men heroes? They both loved their country, and both saw their country in trouble. King saw people of color being shut out from the American dream, and brutalized when they stepped up to claim it. Kyle saw a threat from the Middle East as he heard news of terrorist attacks and watched as the World Trade Centers fell. Both men were willing to risk their lives in dramatic ways, fighting battle after battle over many years to make things right.
Beyond these things, these men were very different in the way they saw what was wrong in the world and how they should make it better.
The movie depiction of Kyle’s formative years relevant to his heroism, besides establishing him as a hunter with good aim, is a lesson from his father about the three kinds of people in the world: the sheep, the wolves, and the sheep dogs whose job it is to protect the sheep. He clearly sees himself as the sheep dog through the movie, and everyone else becomes a sheep or a wolf, mostly devoid of humanity or personality. His world is black and white, and his mission is clear – kill anyone who appears to be threatening his buddies, regardless of age, gender, or the impossible situation in which they find themselves.
In Selma, we don’t get King’s background, but his mission is clear – overturn the obstacles to blacks’ voting in Alabama. The difference in his view of the world is that it is not so black and white. He knows that each human being is capable of good and evil ( a point ironically made in Sniper by one of Kyle’s soldiers who had become disgusted with the war). King’s mission is to change wrong behavior, not the people doing it.
In Kyle’s world, there is a clear line between “us” and “them”, repeatedly referring to “them” as “savages”. “Our” killing is justified and good, “theirs” is bad. Evil can be banished by killing those doing it. In King’s world, “we” and “they” are all children of God, no matter how abhorrent the behavior. Killing is out of the question; his genius is in finding more humane ways of changing evil behavior.
So which hero has the more accurate view of life? That is something that each of us must decide. I look at the aftermath for evidence. Immediately I am saddened that both men were killed in their prime by presumably unstable men with guns. Beyond that, the contrast is stark.
King won the battle for Selma, among other victories that made life for blacks in America more tolerable, and led to 50 years of painfully slow and not even close to complete, but mostly peaceful progress toward equality. I cannot help but think that had he been of Kyle’s mindset, we might have had another civil war, or perhaps even a second American genocide. Instead he called for unity and equality among Americans, and for love to be the nation’s guiding principle. Most importantly, he demonstrated the power of extremely active nonviolence to confront and defeat some of the most entrenched hatred in our history.
On the other hand, the mess in Iraq is worse than ever. Many of the places Kyle and his buddies fought so hard for in the film, are now in the hands of ISIS, despite a trillion dollars spent, hundreds of thousand Iraqis and 4500 American soldiers dead, and our VA system left to care for tens of thousands of maimed and many more psychologically traumatized veterans. Never mind that no one in Iraq had anything to do with the attacks on New York on 9/11.
Unlike Kyle’s apparent black and white picture of good and evil, American Sniper is anything but black and white. It shows the horror of war, the difficulty of deciding who dies in their own country at the hands of foreigners, the physical wounds and PTSD of the combatants, the suffering of their families, and the contradictions between saving and destroying that are inherent to war.
Having seen these two excellent films, I am hopeful that Sniper’s popularity shows not a love of simplistic killing, but Americans’ willingness to wrestle with the tough issues of our time. My wish is that nonviolent action would attract the same attention, so that more folks could better understand the powerful alternatives to the misery of endless war.
John Reuwer, MD is Adjunct Professor, Conflict Resolution, Saint Michael’s College .
This article originally appeared on World Beyond War.