One month, six Oscar nods, and a record-breaking $200 million later, it’s safe to say that American Sniper has struck a patriotic chord. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film is based on an autobiography by Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose 160 confirmed kills make him the de facto deadliest sniper in American military history. All four of Kyle’s tours were served in Iraq, and the majority of his victims were members of al-Qaeda, the Islamic militant group founded by Osama bin Laden.
Around this time last year, another movie based on a veteran’s memoir, Lone Survivor, became the highest grossing war film since Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998. Starring Mark Wahlberg, Lone Survivor told the brutal story of Marcus Luttrell and his fellow Navy SEALs as they endured waves of attacks from machine gun-wielding Taliban soldiers in the mountains of Afghanistan.
One could infer that the financial success of these two films is evidence of a public celebrating American military heroism. And who can blame them? These films strip away almost all of the moral and political ambiguities of international conflict, in its place giving us a singular tale of physical and mental heroics dripping in red, white, and blue. It’s hard as an American to not be affected at some level. Although an unintended consequence of such powerful patriotic storytelling could be its political ramifications.
A 2012 study by Kenneth Mulligan and Philip Habel of Southern Illinois University noticed a “startling” change in people’s political and conspiratorial beliefs after viewing the wartime dark comedy film Wag the Dog, a change that the authors say could have “perverse implications for democratic governance.” Participants who were randomly assigned to view the film were significantly more likely to believe that the president of the United States would actually stage a fake war (the premise of the film) than those who had not seen it. More importantly, researchers found that participants who thought the movie was realistic were more affected, politically and personally, than those who saw it as less realistic. And keep in mind, this was in response to a completely fictional, mostly satirical film; one could infer the concerns that arise when the movie is replaced with one based on real events, and with a more serious tone.
These films strip away almost all of the moral and political ambiguities of international conflict, in its place giving us a singular tale of physical and mental heroics dripping in red, white, and blue.
The power that fiction holds in influencing viewer’s real-world decisions is one that should not be taken lightly when concerning issues of war—especially at a point in U.S. history when Americans feel increasingly vulnerable to international threats.
When asked what their public policy priorities are for 2015, the Pew Research Center found that the most important issue for Americans was defending the U.S. against terrorism. Specifically, 76 percent of respondents listed it among their top priorities.
A different Pew report also saw a change in the past year regarding public opinion on the United States’ role in “solving global problems.” Americans who thought that we’re doing too little on that front rose from 17 percent to 31, and reciprocally the percentage saying we’re doing too much fell from 51 to 39 percent.
This is probably the result of the rising number of Americans who feel that the world is becoming a more menacing place. That same Pew survey found that the majority of U.S. adults (65 percent) think that the world is more dangerous now than it was several years ago.
The success, then, of American Sniper and Lone Survivor might not be all that surprising. Both films arrived in theaters at a point of heightened American fear, and they allowed Americans to feel, if only for two hours, that military heroes are doing something to quell that fear. But in the process of giving these real stories the Hollywood treatment, our Middle Eastern enemies have been relegated to one-dimensional placeholders. (In American Sniper, Kyle’s nemeses—a silent dead-eyed sniper named Mustafa and a psychotic, screw driver-wielding butcher called, appropriately, the Butcher—border on caricatures.) Given the powerful nature of fiction, our depthless treatment of the Taliban and al-Qaeda can and have had real-world consequences.
Writer/researcher Alex Strick van Linschoten, of King’s College in London, has spent the better part of the last decade studying the history and evolution of the Taliban, and its relationship to al-Qaeda. He’s found that most Westerners confuse the two groups. And while that might seem somewhat unimportant, they are utterly distinct groups, with different names, histories, leaders, and, perhaps most importantly, agendas.
In American Sniper, Kyle’s nemeses—a silent dead-eyed sniper named Mustafa and a psychotic, screw driver-wielding butcher called, appropriately, the Butcher—border on caricatures.
The Taliban cares primarily, perhaps exclusively, about Afghanistan. Forming when Afghanistan fell into civil war after Soviet Union troops left in 1989, the Taliban was initially comprised of minimally educated rural villagers. Isolated from global political events, the early Taliban fought mostly against criminal gangs in Afghanistan. (Of note: The Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are two distinct groups.)
In many ways, al-Qaeda is the antithesis of the Taliban. The founding members were wealthy, mostly Arabic, educated—a number of them in engineering—and came from different ideological, social, and cultural backgrounds. Their agenda was, and still is, global. Strick van Linschoten says that there was considerable friction between the two groups before and after September 11, and there was even room for the U.S. to engage the Taliban on the issues of renouncing al-Qaeda.
“The claim that [after 9/11] the link between the Taliban and al-Qaeda is stronger than ever, or unbreakable, is potentially a major intelligence failure that hinders the United States and the international community from achieving their core objectives,” Strick van Linschoten wrote alongside Felix Kuehn in their 2011 paper, "Separating the Taliban From al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan." “Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban remain two distinct groups, with different membership, agendas, ideologies, and objectives.”
The initial confusion between the Taliban and al-Qaeda stemmed from American ignorance. “But who can blame them?” Strick van Linschoten asks me over a fuzzy phone line. “It’s far away, not just in terms of miles, but in terms of culture. There was tendency post-9/11 to make everything black or white.... You’re either with us or against us,” he says, quoting former President Bush.
Neither of these organizations is static, but Strick van Linschoten notes that the transformation of the Taliban over the last two decades is nothing short of massive. He describes the group in the late 1980s as “Taliban with a small t,” but says they are now unfortunately heading in a direction that looks and sounds like al-Qaeda. This has a lot to do with the replacement of old high-ranking officials with younger, more radical members. But, he says, in a twist of cyclical fate, Western military aggression likely pushed the Taliban in a direction that the organization originally had no intention of heading.
The whole thing played out as a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Taliban spent years getting lumped into the same category as al-Qaeda—in American media, in Western perception, and in military attacks—and soon faced the same deadly treatment as al-Qaeda.
Similar to how we fit the Taliban into the box we wanted it to be confined to, Western culture is in the process of contextualizing its continued involvement in the Middle East through movies like American Sniper. With Eastwood’s notorious stoicism loaded into every frame of the film, it’s an American tale of Us vs. Them at the highest caliber. The issue arises when one realizes how potent fiction is in shaping our understanding of the real world, our understanding of the Middle East.
But Strick van Linschoten remains hopeful that the same power of fiction could also be used to add nuance and perspective to the “them” in this scenario.
“I think the only way to get the sense of what Afghanistan is really like is through fiction of some kind. That could be in film or novel, but never in non-fiction,” Strick van Linschoten says. It might sound counterintuitive, but a movie, filmed responsibly, might give Americans a bit of empathetic perspective on the complicated history of the Taliban. The burdens of non-fiction could never viscerally—or effectively—convey a story in the same way.
“Perhaps films like American Sniper capture the American experience, what it means to be an American soldier,” Strick van Linschoten says. “But what it means to be an Afghan, what it meant to be a Talib, that doesn’t exist and hasn’t been made yet. We’ve barely started to scratch the surface.”
Lead photo: Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. (Warner Bros.)