The Fall of Liberty and Human Dignity in American Sniper

Given the buzz from conservatives touting the film American Sniper‘s homage to Christopher Kyle as a war hero, libertarians may be tempted to sit this movie out. I think they should resist that temptation. This is not a typical “war movie.” In fact, I would argue it’s not a war movie at all: it’s a character study of the corrupting influence of systemic violence on idealism, especially when that violence is socially and politically justified, and even when those ideals are noble by most conventional measures. Herein lies the lesson (and threat) to liberty, and I believe this theme is told masterfully through the story of Chris Kyle under the direction of Clint Eastwood.

Conservatives like the story because it seems to prop up the myth of war hero Chris Kyle: a Navy SEAL, four tours in Iraq, 160 confirmed kills of insurgents, perhaps as many as 255 kills overall, one Silver Star, multiple Bronze Stars, a relentless commitment to protecting the ideals of his country. Indeed, by almost every reasonable measure, Kyle is a war hero. No one should doubt his success as a professional soldier or his courage under fire.

But American Sniper is about more than a war. In fact, in many ways, the war is incidental. This movie is a character study of a man who signed up based on his idealism and becomes corrupted by the realities of war. His allegiance to the nation and its ideals is not corrupted. Rather, it’s his sense of humanity that becomes compromised by the gritty realities of fighting urban guerilla warfare, where men, women, and children are enlisted in the cause to defeat him, and where the line between allegiance to a higher noble ideal (freedom) and narcissistic interest is blurred. This isn’t told in typical fashion through Kyle’s relationships with the Iraqi people on the ground. Rather, it’s told through the personal horror of his disintegrating family life in the U.S. as a consequence of his job in Iraq, where Kyle is lauded as “The Legend” by his military peers and despised as the Devil of Ramadi by his enemies.

This corruption of character is an inevitable consequence of seeing the world through the scope of a rifle, where every object is a potential target. It has to be. Otherwise, your colleagues–the people you depend on to keep you alive–die.  This perspective isn’t new. What American Sniper does so well, under the deft direction of Clint Eastwood and through the brilliant, reserved acting of Bradley Cooper, is show how systemic violence–the kind necessary to prosecute a war–changes the way we act and process our everyday reality. Chris Kyle’s pursuit of his military objectives nearly destroys his family. He can’t leave the war behind when he returns to the idyllic home with his committed wife and two young children. His focus on revenge for his slain comrades jeopardizes his own life and those of his squad.  Chris Kyle’s story, as told in the film, really traces his descent into a world that is dehumanized and mechanical. This is a world where individuals don’t exist–only potential threats. He falls almost to the point redemption is impossible.

Thus, American Sniper has an important lesson for liberty. If someone as idealistically committed to fundamental values such as freedom and liberty can descend into a reality where what only matters is the magnitude of the potential threat, can the dignity of human life and the connectedness that makes free societies prosper survive?

I think American Sniper makes a powerful case for why they can’t, even when the threat is proximate. Liberty depends on understanding and respecting the dignity of the individual and a social system that fundamentally respects the autonomy (and voluntary social interactions) of the individual.  American Sniper shows how that respect for life can break down, even at home, even when violence is justified by the attempt to preserve it.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
Beacon Posts by Sam Staley | Full Biography and Publications
  • Catalyst