Oscar-tipped movie glorifies war, critics say

The face of war: Which of these celebrated films best portrays the reality of conflict?

Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper has smashed box office records and been nominated for six Academy Awards. But does its portrayal of war amount to militaristic propaganda?

In an early scene of the new film American Sniper, the hero’s father tells his son that the world is divided into three types of people: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. In this film about the Iraq War, as in many other war films, the heroes are the sheepdogs — the brave protectors of the vulnerable and weak. The wolves are unequivocally the baddies.

The film is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a US Navy SEAL in the Iraq War who was the most lethal sniper in American military history. He was awarded several medals for bravery and nicknamed the ‘Devil of Rahmadi‘ by Iraqi insurgents.

Clint Eastwood’s film concentrates mainly on the traumatising nature of Kyle’s job and his struggles to adapt to normal life when he returns to the US on leave. And, of course, there are death-defying set-pieces, as well as some gruesome killings.

While many have lauded the film, some have condemned it for presenting a view of war that is too simplistic, and too glorious. There is no questioning of whether the Iraq War was just, and the Iraqis in the film are uniformly presented as sinister, threatening villains.

Many war films are intensely patriotic in nature. The protagonists in films like Saving Private Ryan and The Great Escape are not just heroes, but beacons for national pride. Most cultures profoundly respect and lavishly commemorate those who die in battle.

This blend of war and patriotism goes beyond film: hymns like ‘I vow to thee, my country’ and Alfred Tennyson’s famous poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade‘ show how tightly British national identity is bound up with conflict.

However, some feel that war films can be too narrow and one-sided. A reviewer of American Sniper for The Guardian chastised the film for ‘never widening its focus’ beyond the battlefields. A more original approach, he said, would be to portray some of the action from the side of the Iraqis or explore the effect of the Iraq War on those who stayed at home.

Dulce et decorum est?

While war is undoubtedly horrific, some say, it also elicits many selfless and courageous acts. Failure to honour this heroism would be an insult to those who fight. It is not for ordinary soldiers to question the reasons for a conflict; their task is to risk their lives in service of their country. What could be more admirable than that?

Others believe it is dangerous to mix war and patriotism. There are hardly any wars through history whose motives are unquestionably good. Instead of glorifying wars, which devastates lives, nations should be prouder of what they do in times of peace. From great scientific achievements to liberty and progress, almost anything is more worthy of national pride than war.

You Decide

  1. Does Hollywood glorify conflict?
  2. Do you think of soldiers as heroes?

Activities

  1. ‘War films are patriotic propaganda.’ Hold a class debate on this question and put it to a vote.
  2. Write a short story set in a time of war that looks at the conflict from an unusual perspective — perhaps from a civilian viewpoint or from the side usually perceived as baddies.

Some People Say...

“War does not determine who is right — only who is left”

Bertrand Russell

What do you think?

Q & A

Who cares how films portray war? It’s just entertainment, after all.
It’s debatable whether there’s any such thing as ‘just entertainment’, but even if there is then war films aren’t it: fiction has a huge impact on our attitudes to conflict. Soldiers who joined up to fight in the First World War were influenced hugely by Boys’ Own stories of wartime heroics, for instance, while plays and poems based on their horrific experiences explain the post-war surge of pacifism.
Has the Iraq War finished?
British and American troops left Iraq in 2011, but there are calls in both countries for troops to be sent back there to combat the so-called Islamic State (IS). Air strikes against IS were authorised in September, and our involvement in Iraq may last for years to come.

Word Watch

Iraq War
The Iraq War continues to divide opinion in the countries that sent troops there, and the delay of the publishing of the Chilcot Report in the UK has added to the sense of resentment about the war.
Devil of Rahmadi
Kyle accumulated 160 confirmed kills out of 255 probable kills (confirmed kills require a witness), and Iraqi insurgents placed a series of bounties on his head, reportedly rising to around $100,000.
Traumatising
The trauma of fighting war first came to public prominence in Britain as soldiers returned from the trenches in World War One. The condition was nicknamed ‘shell shock’ at the time, but would now be classed as a type of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The Charge of the Light Brigade
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British cavalry in the Crimean War at the Battle of Balaclava. The charge was an error due to miscommunication, but was immortalised by Lord Alfred Tennyson’s patriotic poem about the assault on the Russian guns.

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