This past weekend, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper banked $90.2 million in ticket sales. In case you weren’t already aware, Eastwood’s action-packed biopic stars Bradley Cooper as the late Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who claimed to have killed over 250 insurgents during the course of four deployments in Iraq. Although some of Kyle’s exploits are dubious – for example, while he boasted of shooting “dozens of bad guys” in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, there is no proof of this – his own attitudes are matter of public record, expressed in his writings: “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” he wrote, “I hate the damn savages.” Nonetheless, Kyle’s co-authored memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History became a runaway NYT bestseller, and Eastwood’s film adaptation has been nominated for no less than six Oscars.
The success of American Sniper unfolds against the broader landscape of a widespread cultural fascination with snipers. You can donate to sniper-specific charities and even “Adopt a Sniper” by sending them a care package. Sniper-themed apparel, bumper stickers, and other merchandise is all over the internet – including “I ♥ My Sniper” T-shirts. A large subculture of people online track record-breaking distance shots and confirmed kill counts of military snipers; sometimes, such feats even make mainstream headlines and are re-dramatized on “educational” TV shows. If you’re a video game fan, you can rack up extra points pulling off long-distance Call of Duty and Counterstrike kills, or play sniper-specific video games that luxuriate in slow-motion video clips of bullets tearing through anatomically correct bodies, pulverizing organs and shattering bones as they go.
Now, I find this mania over snipers deeply troubling. The sniper represents the allure of power through the long-range projection of deadly force – a fantasy with a distinctively American ideological appeal. They’re the paradigmatic lone warriors of the War on Terror, patriotic avenging angels who inflict righteous destruction on evildoers from far-off, hidden positions. Like drone operators, snipers wield cutting-edge, high-precision equipment to produce tremendous destruction from afar. But unlike drone pilots, whose work is sanitized, largely base-bound, and removed from the zone of action, the sniper offers the image of a wily hunter of men, embedded on the battlefield, to be sure, but cleverly hidden, and still far enough way to pick away his enemies from relative safety, although with just enough of a frisson of personal exposure to get an audience’s adrenaline pumping. The sniper is grizzled, impassioned, and athletic, but also cool, composed, and professional; although alone, he is capable of inflicting devastatingly disproportionate mayhem. All this combines to appeal to various quintessentially American ideals of personal independence and masculinity – and to imperial fantasies of our own national power.
Of course, the contradictions here are obvious any day of the week. We revile our supposed “barbarian” enemies in the Middle East for decapitating people with swords, and then go to the movies and cheer every graphic headshot a badass Texas-born SEAL in a ghillie suit delivers from a mile away by pulling the trigger on his $7,000 rifle. But on today of all days, the ugliness couldn’t be clearer. Writing in Buzzfeed, Adam Vary observes that, “By the end of the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the film is projected to make roughly $105 million at the domestic box office.”
Dwell on that sentence for a moment: “By the end of the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend…”
A movie about an American sniper – the killer of at least 160 people, and a man who expressed odious, bigoted views – breaks box office records on the same day that our nation honors the legacy of an American Civil Rights icon who was murdered from a block away by a white supremacist assassin with a scoped Remington .30-06.
That’s America for you. America: a nation where it costs $60 million to make a movie transforming a man who bragged about gunning down hundreds of Iraqis abroad and dozens of desperate Louisianans back home into the celluloid hero of a global war that will ultimately cost US taxpayers anywhere from $4 to $6 trillion. America: the same nation where a Civil Rights luminary who preached nonviolence and denounced the “triple evils” of poverty, racism, and militarism can be cut down by a rifle bullet that cost 26 cents.