Last evening I went to see the new movie American Sniper because I wanted to see how they portrayed American soldiers killing people in Iraq, especially Chris Kyle, the man whose life the movie revolved around.
As Nazi official Herman Goering pointed out, it is easy for any regime to get people to back a war. All that it has to do, Goering said, is to tell people that they’ve been attacked and then denounce opponents for lacking patriotism and exposing the country to danger.
What’s fascinating about the Iraq War is that everyone clearly understood that Iraq had never attacked the United States and not even threatened to do so.
Clearly, however, U.S. officials were trying desperately to make the point that Goering was emphasizing — that it wasn’t the U.S. that was aggressing against Iraq but instead was simply defending itself from Iraqi aggression. That was demonstrated by Vice President Cheney’s almost manic attempts to tie Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, attempts that failed.
Why is this point important? Because at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, German officials, including Goering, were held criminally responsible for waging what was called a “war of aggression.” In other words, Germany was accused of having initiated war against other countries, which then had the right under international law to defend themselves.
Unable to point to any attack on the United States by Iraq, the Bush administration resorted to a WMD rationale for invading the country. It said that there was a possibility that Iraq could attack the United States at some point in the future with WMDs and, therefore, that the U.S. government had the lawful authority to preemptively defend itself from a potential future WMD attack.
Obviously that reasoning falls far short of an actual attack on the United States. In fact the bogus nature of the rationale was exposed soon after the invasion of Iraq got underway. When U.S. troops failed to find those WMDs, the U.S. government didn’t apologize for its mistake but instead remained in Iraq, where it proceeded to kill, maim, incarcerate, and torture lots more people for more than 10 years, not to mention destroy countless homes, buildings, and infrastructure.
What became the rationale for killing people in Iraq after the WMDs weren’t found? Each soldier came up with his own personal rationale that made him feel comfortable about killing Iraqis. The rationales ranged from spreading democracy, to establishing Iraqi freedom, to defending the United States, to waging the war on terrorism, to protecting our rights and freedoms as Americans, to ousting Saddam Hussein from power, to supporting and defending the Constitution, to giving the Iraqi people a better way of life. Each soldier took his pick.
The fact was that Iraq War was nothing more than another regime-change operation, one no different in principle from other regime-change operations that the U.S. national-security state has conducted since its inception after World War II. U.S. national-security state officials decided that their old partner and ally Saddam Hussein, to whom they had delivered those WMDs in the 1980s, had to go and be replaced by a U.S.-approved dictator. That was what the 11 years of sanctions were all about, the ones that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.
But the sanctions had failed to oust Saddam from power. That’s where the 9/11 attacks came in handy. Given the deep fear that Americans were experiencing after 9/11, U.S. officials knew that hardly anyone would question sending troops into Iraq to do what the sanctions had failed to do — effect regime change. Least of all the people who would be questioning the invasion would be the troops, including Chris Kyle.
Not surprisingly, none of this appears in the movie, and my hunch is that none of it appears in Kyle’s book. Instead, what is portrayed is the standard mindset about Iraq — that it’s “our team,” which is composed of the good guys, versus “their team,” which is composed of the bad guys.
Early in the movie, Kyle sees a television report about the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the USS Cole. Viewing the attacks as aggression against the United States, he decides to join the military. What isn’t pointed out, however, is that those attacks, just like the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, were in retaliation for what the U.S. Empire was doing in the Middle East, including those sanctions that were killing all those Iraqi children, the unconditional foreign aid to the Israeli government, the stationing of U.S. troops on Islamic holy lands, the no-fly zones over Iraq that were killing more people, including children, and the longtime U.S. support of and partnerships with brutal and oppressive dictatorial regimes.
Once the 9/11 attacks occurred, Kyle was ready and eager to go fight the terrorists anywhere and everywhere, no questions asked. While Goering’s dictum was referring to the citizenry of a country, it applied doubly to people serving in the U.S. military. The overwhelming majority of soldiers — I’d say 99 percent — were ready to do their duty by following whatever orders the president issued to them. And they all, including Kyle, viewed themselves as patriots who were serving their country.
Prior to the Iraq invasion, I recall reading about one particular Catholic soldier who was anguished over the possibility of having to kill someone in Iraq. He approached a military chaplain with his concerns. The chaplain told him that he need not be concerned — that a soldier has the right to trust the president and that God would understand the need for the soldier to obey orders to kill.
I believe that chaplain did a grave disservice to that soldier. God’s law against wrongful killing is clear, and there is no exception for trusting one’s leaders and blindly obeying orders. I figured that if that soldier ended up having to wrongfully kill people, he would be screwed up in the head the rest of his life. Even worse would be if he himself got killed with a grave sin on his soul.
No U.S. soldier questioned orders to invade Iraq, notwithstanding the fact that there was no congressional declaration of war, which the Constitution requires. (Lt. Ehren Watada would later refuse, on the basis of conscience, a redeployment to Iraq and was criminally prosecuted by U.S. military officials.) Soldiers take an oath to support and defend the Constitution but they don’t really mean it. As a practical matter, soldiers pledge their fealty to the president of the United States and agree to kill anyone on his command.
So, U.S. soldiers were sent into a war in which they were the aggressors and the Iraqi forces and Iraqi people were operating in defense.
It’s clear from the movie that Kyle never gets that point. Any Iraqi trying to kill an American soldier, thus, was automatically considered a bad guy — a terrorist. U.S. soldiers were automatically considered to be the good guys notwithstanding the fact that they were clearly violating the principles against wars of aggression set forth at Nuremberg.
The Iraqi people were expected to simply succumb to the Empire and offer no resistance. If they resisted the invasion of their country, they would be killed.
I was particularly interested in seeing the effect that all this had on Kyle. It didn’t surprise me a bit that after each of his four tours, he returned each time a bit more screwed up in the head. What started out as a nice, friendly, humorous man slowly but surely turned into a paranoid, surly, angry man. Needless to say, his marriage to a wonderful woman who loved him dearly was disintegrating, as it has for so many other Iraq veterans who have returned all screwed up in the head.
Of course, all this is attributed to PTSD. I don’t think so. I think the true cause is guilt — massive, deep-seeded, unresolved guilt over wrongfully killing people (and destroying their country) who were doing nothing more than exercising the right of self-defense under international law.
The assumption has always been that if you simply convince soldiers that they are fighting in a just cause, even if it’s not true, they won’t feel guilty about what they are doing. I don’t think the human conscience can be so easily fooled. I think that slowly it starts eating away at a person, sort of like acid.
And the problem is that soldiers who killed people in Iraq have a difficult time healing because they can’t confront the central problem — that they killed people wrongfully in an illegal, unconstitutional, immoral war of aggression. They can’t confess that grave sin. They relegate themselves to dealing with PTSD rather than with unresolved guilt over the wrongful killing of people. To do otherwise would require an admission that “our team” was in the wrong, something that the U.S. national-security state certainly would not countenance.
One of the most moving scenes in the movies is when Kyle encounters his younger brother, who is leaving Iraq after a tour of service. Clearly anguished over his experience, the younger brother says, “To hell with this place,” or words to that effect, which clearly has a profound impact on Kyle, who still feels he’s killing people to keep America safe from the terrorists.
The ultimate perversity of it all is at the end, when it appears Kyle is finally getting his life back together. Helping a fellow Iraq veteran at the firing range, the veteran, who himself was all screwed up in the head, turns on Kyle and kills him, leaving a young widow and two small children. What a tragic ending for the man who set the sniper record while serving four tours in Iraq, a country that never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so.