A provocative film like Clint Eastwood's American Sniper rounds up the usual suspects by itself. Michael Moore felt it necessary to tell us that his family, which had lost his uncle to a sniper in wartime, had taught him that snipers were cowards. In a possibly cowardly move of his own, he quickly revised and extended his remarks, claiming that he meant snipers in general without casting aspersions on Chris Kyle or the Eastwood film. That did him no good. His remarks and Seth Rogen's snarky comparison of the movie to the Nazi propaganda film about a super sniper (badly directed [on purpose?] by Eli Roth) screened in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, sufficed to enrage Republicans and reactionaries who had already grown defensive about the Eastwood film and its subject. Sarah Palin, who knew Kyle personally and had used him for security on at least one occasion, got her name in the news today by denouncing the film's critics, none of whom, she argued, were worthy of polishing Kyle's combat boots. This latest exchange of opinions only cements the impression among reactionaries that Hollywood, excepting Eastwood and producer-star Bradley Cooper, hates the military -- or at least the American military -- or at least when it takes commands from a Republican president ...
People get really angry when we debate who is or isn't a coward. A decade ago Bill Maher infuriated people when he argued that the September 2011 suicide terrorists were not cowards. Now Moore gets in trouble for claiming that sniping is a cowardly form of warfare. By the standards of a pulp-fiction barbarian, I suppose it is, as is anything less than hand-to-hand combat. The error here is the implicit assumption that there's an ideal form of honorable warfare according to which we can judge unorthodox and presumably dishonorable tactics, when there really is no honor in war. Laws of war you can have, but honor in war is a myth. It has never been a war crime, to my knowledge, to shoot the enemy from a distance, nor am I aware of strong arguments for making that a crime. General Patton might remind us at this point that the point of war is to win -- to kill the enemy without getting killed yourself. In any event, Chris Kyle was a soldier acting on orders -- except when he himself found it vaguely cowardly to stay relatively secure on a rooftop while fellow soldiers were encountering the enemy face to face. To his credit, at least according to the movie, he often left his sniper's nest to join the men directly in harm's way. As a rule, however, his job was to protect larger formations who might come under attack by individual guerrillas, including the other side's own snipers. It's hard to say that doing your job under orders is cowardly, especially if you don't buy into any idea of actually honorable warfare.
A real coward would be more like the mass murderer Charles Whitman, who set up a nest in a school tower and mowed down civilians in his own country, even if he expected to die at the end. Cowardice may be such a hot-button topic now because, instead of judging people for not doing what they ought to out of fear, we tend to measure cowardice by the damage done by "cowards" who are cheating by using weapons (or passenger planes) unfairly to magnify their destructive power when they are presumptive weaklings and losers if left to their own physical resources. In the past the weak man was a contemptible coward when he ran away from a fight; now he is a coward when he tries to compensate for his weakness with acts of mass destruction. If that's really most people's idea of cowardice today, you can see how Chris Kyle doesn't fit into that category.
But I wonder what viewers of American Sniper think of the movie's fictionalized enemy counterpart to Kyle: the Syrian sniper Mustafa who crosses into Iraq to kill Americans. Many will no doubt see Mustafa as some sort of coward simply because he's the enemy and has no right to kill Americans. But Eastwood, a subtler filmmaker than many critics and fans alike give him credit for, leaves us with reasons to see Mustafa as exactly the same as Kyle, down to leaving behind a wife and small child to risk his life -- and sniping in Iraq was never without risk -- to defend his friends with his special skills. According to Kyle's own division of humanity into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, Mustafa is as much a sheepdog -- or most likely sees himself that way -- as Kyle himself, even if Kyle presumably sees Mustafa as a wolf. If people watch American Sniper without thinking through the implications of what Eastwood shows us, then many of the film's most ardent fans are probably guilty of a form of intellectual cowardice themselves.