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What Killed the 'American Sniper'?

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

The second-most jarring scene in "American Sniper" takes place not in the urban maze of wartime Iraq but in the domestic tranquility of Chris Kyle's home in Texas. Disoriented after his fourth tour in the cauldron of Iraq, the heralded Navy SEAL is shown stalking his wife from room to room with a pistol. For a moment, we worry that he has flipped out and is going to shoot her. Turns out this was his playful way of initiating sex.

Foreplay, with a handgun.

The genius of "American Sniper" is its portrayal of a culture obsessed with guns. One expects heavy weaponry in war, but here there are guns all over the placid homefront, too. Guns are not just owned but waved. Guns as personal statements.

It was with complete innocence that I saw "American Sniper" at its release. This was before a politicized war of expletives broke out, pitting the jingoism of self-styled patriots against the ignorance of anti-war celebrities.

Few of the keyboard combatants on either side of this conflict have ever gotten anywhere near real combat. That the war in Iraq was fought by a tiny percentage of military-age Americans is actually one of the movie's themes. That's why Kyle and others had to serve four grinding tours in Iraq.

The Iraq War was sold to the American people on the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- and on the truth that no one who didn't want to fight it would have to. Take your family to Disney World, President George W. Bush urged right after the Sept. 11 attacks. We're in a war on terrorism, but no one need be inconvenienced.

Set aside inconsistencies in Kyle's telling of his story in his autobiography. This is about a movie portrayal. Director Clint Eastwood digs to the core in showing guns as not just tools for hunting or for protection but also objects of worship and key to a man's identity.

There's the scene where Kyle tries to help a traumatized and gravely maimed veteran regain his emotional bearing. The place of healing is a shooting range, where Kyle coaches him on using a high-powered rifle. The "patient" starts hitting the target and tells Kyle that it's the first time he's felt like a man since returning from battle -- as though someone who lost parts of three limbs in war would have something to prove.

And the reality is that a 12-year-old girl could have shot the weapon. Eastwood made a more complex movie than the typists throwing insults at one another could imagine.

My views on gun control have evolved. I used to think that the proliferation of weapons fueled the monstrous number of domestic shootings. Intellectual honesty forces me to note that murder rates in New York City and other places have plunged even as guns remain as available as ever. I still believe in a ban on killing machines -- let the experts define them -- and keeping all guns away from crazy people.

The bigger challenge is cultural. Buying a weapon of war does not turn one into a warrior. But the gun culture promotes that fantasy, leading twisted minds to open fire on crowds of strangers. You end up with a skinny young man in military costume and orange hair who kills a dozen people at a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado.

Kyle was gunned down while administering shooting-range therapy to a troubled former Marine. Eddie Routh had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals. His friends and family had been trying to get the firearms out of his house. But Kyle believed in the curative powers of a gun. How tragic the outcome.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

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