(Opinion) Military accountability

Chris Kyle, a retired Navy SEAL and bestselling author of the book "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History", holds a .308 sniper rifle in this April 6, 2012, file photo. Kyle was one of two people reported killed on the gun range at Rough Creek Lodge near Glen Rose, Texas, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2013.

It’s almost considered sacrilege to express any form of criticism toward members of the military. Sure, saying that the military as a whole could use some work is perfectly fine — especially in light of the public’s current view of the war in Iraq — but the individual soldiers are never to blame.

I noticed this first when rewatching “American Sniper,” a movie chronicling the career of sniper Chris Kyle. The movie takes pains to show the trauma that Kyle and his fellow soldiers endure in service of a cause they believe to be just. Kyle suffers from severe PTSD and his relationship with his family becomes strained. The war is rarely shown in a positive light. The American troops are in Iraq to kill some really bad people, but at a steep cost.

However, the movie never stops to examine the fact that most of the war was a product of a lie told to the public by the Bush administration. In the movie, the snipers are never shown killing innocent civilians. The only people who are killed are those who pose a threat to someone else. None of the characters die from friendly fire.

“American Sniper” reflects a trend in American movies to go to any lengths necessary to prevent soldiers from being portrayed any way but in the most sympathetic light. Doing so comes at the cost of depicting the realities of war and the psychology of soldiers.

Nowadays, it is fairly common for blockbusters to receive funding and resources from the Department of Defense. Some movies include “Transformers,” “Iron Man” and “Man of Steel.” “The Avengers” was infamously denied funds from the Pentagon because it was unclear if agency SHIELD was a part of the U.S. government or was an international organization, a question that has still not been answered. SHIELD possibly being run by global security council apparently takes some of the patriotic fervor out of the movie.

On the surface, there seems to be nothing wrong with having the government fund commercial projects. The government provides funding for the arts through the National Endowment for the Arts and the Smithsonian Institution. Both of these are great institutions that help lesser-known artists achieve recognition while providing the general public with a guide to American culture.

However, the fact that the Pentagon chooses the projects it funds based on their patriotism presents a moral conflict. Filmmakers should not be beholden to special interests in the government because they are in the position to influence culture. Movies may not affect behavior but they are effective means of directing social dialogue.

Even if the quality of these movies is dubious — i.e. “Armageddon” — that does not hinder the fact that they function as some of the world’s most expensive propaganda. The DOD may not provide all of the funding for a film but being given the final approval of a script is a powerful tool for spreading a message across the U.S. and even the world.

I recognize that it is folly to attempt to persuade the Pentagon to put its money to use elsewhere. After all, it is getting what it wants: a public that is generally very supportive of the military. It is the most trusted institution in the U.S., with 74 percent support as of July 2018 — higher than small businesses at 67 percent and the police at 54 percent, the only other institutions with support from a majority of Americans.

It’s not just the DOD that is pushing for more favorable depictions. The CIA stopped production of a movie about the Iran-Contra scandal and helped produce “Zero Dark Thirty.” It has sought to rehabilitate its image after the Cold War, during which it was frequently portrayed as antagonistic.

It would be ideal if the government and Hollywood end their relationship, but I don’t foresee that happening any time soon. Therefore, the burden is on us to discern propaganda when we come into contact with it. There is no harm in enjoying a summer blockbuster as long as people are able to separate fantasy from reality.

We’ve grown so used to accepting the Pentagon’s version of events that as of 2014, the majority of people believed that the CIA’s enhanced interrogation methods work and suggesting that our military has committed a shockingly high number of war crimes is controversial. We never take the time to see soldiers as individuals who are just as much capable of evil as the institutions they serve.

I do acknowledge the fact that the majority of people who enlist do so in order to receive an affordable education. As someone with student loans of my own, I can completely sympathize with those who are either unwilling or unable to put themselves at the mercy of a mountain of debt.

Still, everyone in the military is there because they chose to be. There is currently no compulsory draft ongoing.

I’m not suggesting that we turn against soldiers. Far from it. What I want is accountability in the public eye for unethical or illegal actions. When it comes to national defense, sometimes the moral lines do become blurred, but the U.S. is not fighting in the Middle East to defend itself.

The “war on terror” is not a war with another nation; it’s a war with an ideology, which cannot be wiped out with drones. Terrorism does not pose a threat to the U.S. as a state. It is not strong enough to overthrow the government. Terrorism does pose a threat to American lives, but it’s a relatively low one: Americans are more likely to be killed by cattle than terrorists. The U.S. has not faced a legitimate threat of invasion arguably since the Cold War.

In his book “What It Is Like to Go to War,” Karl Marlantes describes an experience during his time serving in Vietnam in which he killed an enemy soldier who was trying to surrender. He writes about how hard it was to admit to himself that he committed a war crime, how he chose to forget rather than confront the truth.

Does Marlantes deserve to be imprisoned over this crime? I don’t believe so, but I understand people who would wish to punish him to the fullest extent of the law. Hearing about more experiences like Marlantes’ is essential to understanding the dichotomy between the soldiers of stories and in reality. The Pentagon may try to suppress these stories but it is incumbent upon American citizens to seek them out regardless.

We cannot afford to be uncritical of the military. We must be willing to recognize the flaws in the current system and be prepared to stand up for human rights. We have to look beyond what we want to see in order to truly grasp the truth.

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