17 February 2015

American Sniping Redux

The Academy Awards are announced this weekend, with Clint Eastwood's controversial biopic  American Sniper a front-runner in several categories as the most popular film of all the nominees. Meanwhile, the troubled veteran who killed Chris Kyle and one other man at a purportedly therapeutic firing range has just gone on trial for murder. It's time for another round of American Sniping, and with that thought in mind the Albany Times Union directs readers to an anti-Sniper article published late last month on the websites of Reason magazine and the Future of Freedom Foundation. These are libertarian sites, the FFF being specifically anti-interventionist on the Ron Paul model. Sheldon Richman, the author, is a FFF vice-president. He takes toward the film what might be described, with apologies to Eastwood, as an unforgiving attitude, but his main beef is with Chris Kyle himself. In Richman's view Kyle is no hero because Americans were the aggressors in Iraq and Iraqis had every right to resist them. That's the sort of attitude that gets Ron Paul's followers accused of hating America, but Richman spins the argument to accuse conservatives of betraying their principles:

Kyle was a hero because he eagerly and expertly killed whomever the government told him to kill? Conservatives, supposed advocates of limited government, sure have an odd notion of heroism.

Richman's rhetoric is stridently naive, but it exposes a possibly important difference between conservatives and libertarians. While Richman was riffing on a Fox News commentator who praised Kyle for killing whomever the government told him to, conservatives in general are more likely to think of the nation, rather than the government, being at war. That's why they're so quick to brand both leftists and libertarians as traitors when those groups question a government's decision to wage war. On  one level, Richman simply dismisses the notion of the nation being at war because the nation, as he notes, was neither attacked nor threatened by Saddam Hussein. As a "war of choice," the invasion of Iraq was an act of the government rather than the nation. Libertarians seem to approach the subject of war from a critical remove that conservatives (or Republicans) can't or won't attain. The typical Republican seems to have decided early that "the Arabs" or "Islam" attacked the nation in September 2011, and still has difficulty imagining that a known enemy like Saddam, who was an Arab after all, could have had nothing to do with it. They may share the Zionist perspective that sees the Arab/Muslim world as a wilderness that needs to be civilized. So thinking, they would not recognize an Iraqi sniper as "the resistance," as Richman does, but as a "savage" native, as Kyle did. Savagery has no right of resistance from that perspective. A libertarian may just as readily assume that Arabs are savages, but he respects their right to be left alone by outsiders -- by armies if not by salesmen. Libertarians and Republicans may seem equally paranoid about infringements on their liberties by their own governments, but Republican paranoia seems more expansive. It doesn't end at the nation's borders. They seem not to feel safe so long as "tyranny" exists anywhere on Earth, while libertarians outgrew whatever such fears they had when the Cold War ended. The difference may boil down to libertarians, perhaps ironically, being more self-limiting in their ambition than Republican conservatives, and less ironically, not identifying their own ambitions with the national interest, or the nation itself, as much as Republicans do. Their individualism makes libertarians an obstruction to social progress in domestic politics,yet makes them at least a potential force for common sense in foreign policy.

Some Republicans might argue that libertarian individualism undermines national solidarity in other ways. It might be argued that however debatable the invasion of Iraq may have been, an American soldier is still a hero if he prevents his buddies from being killed. I suspect that Eastwood, who opposed the invasion, and earlier made heroes of the Japanese resisting our invasion of Iwo Jima, thinks this way, and producer-star Bradley Cooper may think that way as well. Richman rejects such arguments explicitly. Invaders, in his view, can never plead self-defense when they kill the resistance. His attitude probably puts him at an extreme even among libertarians, since he says in effect that American soldiers in Iraq deserved to die, but that's not exactly inconsistent with libertarians' respect for property above all, while Republicans seem to share the older feeling that the enemy or the savage has no property rights that civilized people are bound to respect. One way or another, libertarians are welcome voices in the American Sniper debate and the larger debate over the "War on Terror," since they prove that these debates, at least, can't be reduced to the usual left-right, Democrat-Republican polarities. If Sniper keeps such debates going, it may do more service in the long run than Chris Kyle himself did.

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