Six ways Paul Reickhoff’s “American Sniper” column deeply bothers this American veteran
By Emily Yates
When I first laid eyes on the guest column Paul Rieckhoff wrote about “American Sniper,” I thought I’d read the byline wrong. This has to have been written by the Department of Defense, I thought, before scrolling back up. When I saw that the founder and chief executive officer of America’s largest corporately-sponsored veterans’ organization did indeed pen this post, it concerned me on a deep level. How could a veteran of his stature speak this favorably about a movie that many of my fellow veterans found completely disgusting, even propaganda-like in nature? The only unifying factor I found was that Rieckhoff and the DoD both seem to share a propensity for cleverly exploiting veterans. Here are six ways in which Rieckhoff, like the DoD, supports the oversimplification of the Iraq War and its effects on veterans and Iraqis.
1. He claims that when talking about the Iraq War, “simple is better”
“Simple is better when something is so overwhelming, so complicated, so distant,” Rieckhoff says of “American Sniper” blithely, with all the persuasive powers of the Ministry of Truth. In his opening paragraphs (if you can call them paragraphs), he announces that “the single best work of film about the Iraq War ever made” is “not a complex film.” He states unabashedly that, in his opinion, the Iraq War’s “best” cinematic telling thus far can be encapsulated for the American public through the “storytelling, action, emotion, production and performance, attention to detail and especially the frighteningly accurate soundscape” of a simple, “very black-and-white view” of the entire conflict. He goes on to say that this was not his view of the war, which apparently means that in his view, the “single best work of film about the Iraq War ever made” reflects essentially the same perspective that the government has been desperately pounding into American brains like so many weapons of mass destruction. Never mind the fact that Rieckhoff’s casually blowing off every single other work of film about the Iraq War – he’s actually calling for more of the black-and-white view that got the movie’s protagonist to buy into his mission in the first place. He names the “power” of the movie as its “focused simplicity.” He applauds director Clint Eastwood’s efforts to make his film just like one of the classic Hollywood Westerns – which is exactly nothing like the actual Iraq War.
Every veteran knows that each of our war experiences are different. It’s vastly irresponsible for Rieckhoff, who makes a six-figure salary off the backs of the veterans in his organization, to fail to highlight the need for complexity and gray area when discussing a conflict that has been debated and protested by veterans and civilians alike for 13 years now. Now, more than ever, the complexity of the Iraq War and its context must be examined. Refusing to call for more context in a blockbuster film about an ongoing conflict only makes sense if Rieckhoff’s main interest is to keep recruiters’ hands full of young, prospective snipers, and keep his organization full of veterans whose needs were never intended to be met by the government that sent them off to war. Don’t think about the complexity of the war, he croons, just look at all the shiny pictures.
2. He wants Americans to be entertained by the Iraq War
“Most of America is tired of hearing about Iraq. But now, they’re at least open to being entertained by it.” The first sentence is an aggressively ignorant statement, considering that Rieckhoff can’t even claim to speak for “most” veterans, let alone “most” Americans. That’s bad enough for me to throw up in my mouth a little, but in the second sentence, when he implies that Americans ought to be “open to being entertained” by an ONGOING, U.S.-led conflict, he almost made me throw my computer at a wall. The exact opposite of what American veterans need is for our experience to be entertainment fodder for a deliberately-misinformed public. Our war experiences need to be examined critically for their permanent effect on our individual and societal psyche – not gaped at on a big screen for the financial benefit of Hollywood big shots. Claiming that going to see a big-budget action movie is an acceptable alternative to “hearing about Iraq” from news outlets and from actually listening to veterans’ accounts of widely varying combat experience is misguided at best, and deceptive at worst. The best way to keep Americans from being interested in the actual Iraq War is to tell them that a hyperviolent, oversimplified action flick about a sociopathic killer is the one movie that “may bring civilians closer to [veterans] than anything else.” For Rieckhoff to claim such a thing is to do a great disservice to every veteran who’s ever had a differing experience of the war, and yet still must return home to a nation full of people who can’t wait to ask us that most-hated question, “So … did you kill anyone?”