American Sniper: Celebrating a Hero

by: Alvin Burstein

As the American general, Curtis LeMay, reminded us, “War is about killing people. When you have killed enough, the other side gives up.” In the context of war, killing is a virtue. Thus it is that wars produce, not just fatalities, but heroes. And from a psychological point of view, having heroes is important, helping to define our self-concept and to shape our behavior.

Jung tells us of the hero archetype, the warrior slayer of dragons; the self psychologist Heinz Kohut describes the important role of the idealized parent imago, omnipotent and omniscient, in structuring the self. The first World War produced a hero, Sgt. Alvin York; the second World War produced Audie Murphy; in the Iraq war, a third hero, the American sniper, Chris Kyle, emerged.

The biopic American Sniper is a celebration adding Kyle to the pantheon of American military heroes. Early in the film flash backs about young Kyle and his father occur. In the first the boy is praised for killing his first deer; in the second, the father tells his children that there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves that prey on them and sheep dogs that protect them. He enjoins them to be sheep dogs, laying the foundation for Kyle’s devotion to a career of slaying the wolves of al Qaeda during his four tours of duty in Iraq—over 160 confirmed kills.

The film is engaging on many levels. The acting is convincing, Kyle’s skills are literally awesome, the action provides a sobering look at the hell of war, there is an attempt to contextualize Kyle’s killings, “I don’t think about the people I’ve killed, but about my boys’ lives I’ve saved.”

Although American Sniper is a moving celebration of Kyle as a hero, it glosses over any sense of conflict in him, not over killing those threatening his boys, but his failure to respond to his wife Taya’s entreaties to come home. She repeatedly entreats him to come home to help her and be a father to their children; he chooses more sniping. He is unconflicted in choosing dragon slaying over being a husband and father. This theme, Kyle’s views of the soldiers he is guarding as his children, and his role as their protector is emphasized by his post-discharge efforts to help crippled veterans to recover—by taking them to a shooting range. This depiction hints at a powerful issue, little developed in the film.

There is a focus on injured veterans as amputees, a gesture of their feeling impotent, castrated by their injuries, and the role of gunplay in reducing the shame of lost potency. One of them says, in the course of his firing on the range, “I feel like I got my balls back.”

The link between gun play and male potency comes up at another point in the film. Kyle is out of the service and playing with his two young children. The play consists of his brandishing a revolver, happily unloaded. His wife, Taya is in the kitchen, and Kyle, holding the gun, turns toward her. She asks, “What can I do for you?” “Drop your drawers, ma’am,” he replies, and they laugh as he leaves to take another veteran to a session on the shooting range. In a tragic irony, Kyle will be shot to death in that session. That irony is unexplored in the film. To me it hints at a connection between the manner of his death and the implicit cultural links between masculinity, sexual potency and gun usage that constrain our society’s response to gun violence.

I found myself wondering how that omission might relate to director Clint Eastwood’s acting career: Rawhide’s Rowdy Yates, Dirty Harry and a spate of spaghetti westerns.

Chris Kyle may endure as a symbolic hero figure. The biopic celebrates him. Although it gave me a lot to think about, its dramatic superficialities leave it short of greatness.

Screen Shot 2015-04-25 at 3.09.48 PM

Guest Columnist Alvin Burstein, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, is a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee and a former faculty member of the New Orleans-Birmingham Psychoanalytic Center with numerous scholarly works to his credit.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *