To Screen But Not To See

Andrew Sullivan —  Jan 22 2015 @ 8:25pm

Iraq veteran Brian Turner, author of the memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, has an insightful take on American Sniper and how the film reflects our flawed understanding of the conflict:

This isn’t the defining film of the Iraq War. After nearly a quarter century of war and occupation in Iraq, we still haven’t seen that film. I’m beginning to think we’re incapable as a nation of producing a film of that magnitude, one that would explore the civilian experience of war, one that might begin to approach so vast and profound a repository of knowledge. I’m more and more certain that, if such a film film ever arrives, it’ll be made by Iraqi filmmakers a decade or more from now, and it’ll be little known or viewed, if at all, on our shores. The children of Iraq have far more to teach me about the war I fought in than any film I’ve yet seen — and I hope some of those children have the courage and opportunity to share their lessons onscreen. If this film I can only vaguely imagine is ever made, it certainly won’t gross $100 million on its opening weekend.

The biggest problem I have with American Sniper is also a problem I have with myself.

It’s a problem I sometimes find in my own work, and it’s an American problem: We don’t see, or even try to see, actual Iraqi people. We lack the empathy necessary to see them as fully human. In American Sniper, Iraqi men, women, and children are known and defined only in relation to combat and the potential threat they pose. Their bodies are the site and source of violence. In both the film and our collective imagination, their humanity is reduced in ways that, ultimately, define our own narrow humanity. In American Sniper, Iraqis are called “savages,” and the “streets are crawling” with them. Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall give Iraqis no memorable lines. Their interior lives are a blank canvas, with no access points to let us in. I get why that is: If Iraqis are seen in any other light, if their humanity is recognized, then the construct of our imagination, the ride-off-into-the-sunset-on-a-white-horse story we tell ourselves to push forward, falls apart.

If we saw Iraqis as humans, we’d have to learn how to live in a world far, far more complicated and painful than the difficult, painful one we currently live in.