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THE OZONE CHRONICLES; HISTORY REPEATING AS TRAGEDY

Joe Farnam, the dogged, data-driven discoverer of the ozone hole, died in 2013, three years before publication of findings showing that the ozone layer, which protects life on earth from UV radiation, has finally started to recover. This nascent recovery comes 42 years after atmospheric chemists fir...

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Maybe American Sniper Really is Anti-war


Sunday February 01, 2015

I like a good action movie and I like Clint Eastwood movies and so I went to see American Sniper. I also had a personal interest: decades earlier in Vietnam, I'd interviewed America's top sniper -- a dead-eyed killer nicknamed Papa Leech -- when I was investigating fragging as a journalist. Mr. "Leech" wasn't the kind of guy who would be played by Bradley Cooper -- he told me that he was thinking of becoming a hitman for the Mafia after he left the military (a dream that was heartlessly snatched away as he was killed by his own men before he left Vietnam). Back then, the American military wouldn't publicly confirm that we had sniper units because they were in a grey area under the Geneva Convention. How times have changed!

My first reaction to the movie was similar to Matt Taibbi's recently published evisceration in Rolling Stone -- that the movie was an appallingly simple-minded embodiment of an obtuse, morally bankrupt mindset that has led the U.S. to perpetually look for the next Vietnam without absorbing the lessons of the last one. Then, as things go bad, we once again scratch our heads as to why our vast firepower and technological superiority couldn't win the day. In the movie,

Chris Kyle's motivation for putting his life on the line as a sniper in Iraq was to avenge 9/11, and to bring the fight there so that he wouldn't be fighting in San Diego. He's never presented as a brain surgeon, but I would have thought that at some point during his four tours of duty, he might have come across at least one of the credible reports documenting that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11; or, as he saw the countless civilians radicalized by the immense collateral damage of the war, wondered whether our actions in Iraq were creating recruits for Al Queda, and making it more likely that terrorism would some day come to San Diego. Apparently not.

That was my first reaction. Then, as I thought more about the movie, I wondered whether Mr. Eastwood was attempting something sly and subtle. By now, most people who will watch the film know that Bin Laden's crew were largely Saudi; they know that Saddam Hussein did not have the wherewithal to attack San Diego; and they are aware of the metastasis of ISIL, which could be described as the evil spawn of the wars in Iraq and Syria, and which does seem hell-bent on bringing the battle to the West. Eastwood certainly knows this; maybe he felt that viewers now know enough that they can draw their own conclusions if the story is simply told.

You can't watch the film, for instance, without noting that despite being overwhelmingly overmatched, the Iraqi irregulars are willing to die for their cause, whatever that is (you won't find out by watching this film). Yes, the Iraqi adversary in one city, "The Butcher," is presented as being almost cartoonishly cruel, but there is also a scene in which a kid contemplates picking up and launching a grenade launcher after its handler is killed by Kyle. The scene is meant to illustrate that Kyle has moral compunctions about shooting a kid, but it's hard to watch that scene and not wonder about the level of hatred against American troops that would prompt a kid to even consider picking up the weapon. There are many other scenes in the movie that make you wonder about the awesome idiocy of that war.

The film also allows us to make our own judgments about sniping. One scene shows Mustafa, Kyle's mirror image, leaving his beautiful wife to rush off to fight after getting a call that Americans are in the area. In the narrative of the film, Mustafa is a bad guy, but many viewers will wonder what makes him bad if Kyle is good? Several tearful scenes on the home front as Kyle signs up for yet another tour make it quite clear that the American sniper vastly prefers killing people in faraway places to being home with the wife and kids.

American Sniper also subtly suggests that even Kyle knew that there was something unsavory about shooting people from a concealed and relatively safe position. In one scene, he puts down his sniper rifle and picks up an automatic weapon to join a group of marines going house to house. When his spotter balks at leaving the safety of their hideout, he all but accuses him of cowardice if he does not join Kyle in this real fighting.

I'm probably giving Hollywood too much credit, but it's possible that the makers were attempting something similar to the send up of militarism in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, which on one level is a very well made SciFi adventure about the defense of the planet from a race of giant alien insects, while on another, it deftly skewers the mindless jingoism, empty slogans and mass hysteria that incite the clean-cut, best and brightest of any society to rush off to war. For this interpretation of American Sniper to be believed, we have to assume that Hollywood embraces subtlety and that viewers have done some critical thinking about events of the past 15 years. Perhaps a stretch on both counts, but wouldn't it be nice if it were so?

 

 

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Short Take

[Mild spoiler alert: the book is a fictionalized exploration of a girl who falls under the spell of a Manson-like cult. We all know how that story unfolded. In this Short Take I’ll be offering my reactions to the protagonist, Evie Boyd.]

 

The Girls offers as bleak a view of the amorality of American youth as I have ever encountered. In a review of my first book, I was called “Intolerably apocalyptic,” but I can’t hold a candle to Ms. Cline. The book is a novelistic attempt to try and understand how some of the privileged young women of the late 1960s could commit unspeakable acts while under the sway of a Manson-like psychopath. 

 Thus we meet Evie Boyd, a fourteen year-old growing up amid relative affluence in Petaluma California. She’s directionless, with no apparent passions, self-conscious about her looks, emotionally needy, alienated from her parents (who get divorced), but possessed of a tough inner core and a rebellious streak. She’s enthralled when she encounters Suzanne, a wild, charismatic 19 year-old who seems to be a composite of Patricia Krenwinkel and Leslie Van Houton, and Evie is honored when Suzanne pays her some attention. Events bring her to the cult’s squalid ranch, and for some weeks, Evie maintains a dual life, throwing herself into the life of the cult, while returning home enough not to galvanize her mother, who is pre-occupied with a rebound relationship with Frank, an entrepreneur who comes across as a hustler with a heart of gold.

Evie is so smitten by Suzanne that she doesn’t notice as the cult spirals down from talk of love and freedom to episodes of paranoia, back-biting and revenge. Along the way, Evie has her first sexual adventures, and enters sufficiently into the spirit of the cult that she brings them to the house of the family next door (which they descrate), even though she has known the family all her life and has no score to settle. Later, Evie talks her way into joining Suzanne as she and others set off to inflict mayhem on a Dennis Wilson-like figure, but Suzanne kicks her out of the car before they begin a horrific rampage.

Did Suzanne do this to protect Evie from what she knew was about to happen, or because she felt that Evie wasn’t a murderer and would become a liability? That’s left unanswered, but the bloodbath that Evie missed is so depraved – including the slashing apart of a toddler – that no human with a soul could find that earlier gesture redemptive … except for our Evie, who still feels the tug of Suzanne’s power, even after she learns every gory detail of Suzanne’s actions.

It’s several months between the time of the murders and when the cult is finally caught. During this time, Evie keeps her mouth shut about what happens and meekly allows herself to be shipped off to boarding school to resume her comfortable existence, though as a wreck, not a spirited teenager.

That’s when I decided Evie was a worthless human being. Sure, she was terrified that the cult would come after her, and there’s some honor on not squealing, but Evie had to know that the cult would likely kill again, and that made her an enabler of whatever they did subsequently.

The book interweaves the present and the past and so we learn how these events haunted Evie’s life. But there’s no redemptive moment, no act where she summons the courage to do the right thing, or rises above her own self-absorption. Even in the present, when the psychopath-in-the-making son of a friend and his underage, impressionable girlfriend crash at her digs, she can only summon a half-hearted (and failed) attempt to save the girl from following the path that so grievously sidetracked her own life.

All the men in the book are either pathetic or pigs of various shapes and forms – except for a premed student named Tom, who sees the cult for what it is, but who Evie rejects as a dork. Towards the end of the book, Evie ticks off a long list of subsequent experiences with awful men that could summon in her the hatred to commit horrendous crimes, seeming to imply that with the right mix of events, she too might have become a Suzanne, and, by implication, so could enormous numbers of other young women.

My first reaction was to call “Bullshit!” Were all young women potential Suzannes, we would have seen endless repeats of the Manson horrors in the nearly 50 years since the events. Instead, those murders still stand as a touchstone of horror because nothing since has eclipsed their mindless violence.

The Manson cult was at the far far end of the normal curve during truly abnormal times. In just the two years leading up to the murders, we had the huge escalation of a senseless war, the explosion of the anti-war movement and counter-culture, a breakdown of generational trust, my generation’s first experiences with powerful, mind-altering drugs, and a sexual revolution. In a country of more than 200 million people, that roiling stew of disruptive forces bubbled to the surface about 20 broken souls, deranged by drugs and in the thrall of a false prophet.

On reflection, however, maybe Ms. Clein was making a different point. All we have to think of are the teenage executioners of Pol Pot’s Cambodia or the child soldiers of Africa to recognize that the capacity for evil lies latent in the young. And, while in fiction we want our protagonists to find redemption or transcend their flaws perhaps Evie’s failure to rise to the occasion was making the point that a civilization that keeps our murderous impulses in check is not innate, but something external that has to be actively inculcated and supported. That’s something to keep in mind amid the current insanity of gun violence, and as more dark clouds gather on the horizon.



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