Feb 17

In Spring quarter of 2003 at UCSB, two months after America invaded Iraq, I saw some Quakers at a table by the Rec center advertising options for young men to sign up as conscientious objectors for the draft. I spent a good thirty minutes discussing what I could do, as a pacifist, with them. (They were really incredulous when I talked to them, which made me wonder why they even bothered to set up the table.) I left without officially signing up as a conscientious objector. I didn’t think a draft would occur in the near future; it seemed like plenty of young men were willing to fight.

Like, say, my twin brother, who, during the same Spring Quarter of 2013, approached a table advertising UCLA’s ROTC program, and soon signed up.

I thought about this memory again watching the excellent new play The Dodgers last weekend. (Full disclosure: my girlfriend is Stage Manager for the production. Still, get tickets here!) In the play, a group of draft dodgers on a commune in the sixties deal with the threat of getting drafted, a fictionalized account of playwright Diana Amsterdam’s actual experiences.

There’s no better compliment I can give this play other than this: it inspired an entire post's worth of thoughts.

Military Conscription is Crazy Unethical

In perhaps the most powerful scene in The Dodgers, four eligible, military-age hippies watch as the draft lottery unfolds, hoping their birthdays doesn’t get called. It’s ironic when they realize the draft lottery hasn’t been shuffled properly. It’s tragic when their birthdays do get called.

Oddly enough, despite its brief appearance on the campaign trail--Ted Cruz doesn’t think women should be drafted--the draft feels like a relic, though every young man who turns eighteen in America still has to register with America’s Selective Service System, in case America returns to military conscription.

The Dodgers reminded me of how crazy unethical a draft is. Like truly, epically unethical. I’m not sure how, thousands of years from now, anyone will justify their existence or purpose. It will be seen as another relic of a barbaric age. (To note, every future generation views past generations, or should, as barbaric).

Forcing someone to go to war is a violation of basic liberties. It is a violation of one’s personal agency, both in terms of threatening their safety, but also forcing them to kill. Now, a defender of a draft would argue that drafts serve the greater good by protecting everyone’s agency and safety while solving the inevitable tragedy-of-the-commons problem of going to war. But if a war is so just and noble it must be fought, I have trouble seeing how a country wouldn’t be able to get people to fight in it. (Not to mention the long-held pattern of the rich and powerful getting their children out of the draft, as is mentioned in The Dodgers.)

The subject is too long for a blog post, but I love that The Dodgers brings this issue up again.

Vietnam as the Counter-Argument to the Pacifism Counter-Argument

When you tell people you’re a pacifist, as I am, you invariably get one rebuttal question:

What about World War II?

My first, albeit sarcastic, response is, “What about it?” (World War II is much murkier ethically, than most Americans care to admit.) But my real response is, “What about World I?”. As I wrote in the “World War I Problem”, while the proponents of war love citing the good wars (like World War II) they ignore the bad (like World War I). They ignore the meaningless, strategically dubious-yet-devastating-in-human-terms wars.

I could easily substitute Vietnam for World War I and the argument remains the same. Vietnam was a pointless mess that tortured an entire generation, not to mention killed tens of thousands of Americans and millions of Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians. In retrospect, I doubt that anyone sees Vietnam as the bulwark against Communism people thought it was at the time. Russia would have almost certainly imploded two decades later regardless, with or without our involvement in Vietnam. Oh, and it was instigated on the basis of a lie. You kind of forget--I mean, I don’t, but the public at large--the stupidity and insanity of the Vietnam war. As we’ve mentioned before, Hollywood stopped making movies about Vietnam twenty years ago.

In our post-9/11 world, America has gone back to war, deploying troops to at least two countries--at least one of which began under false pretenses, again--and dropping bombs in, approximately, hundreds of other countries. We’ve forgotten how bad war can be.

Pacifists Aren’t Cowards

I do have one criticism with the play, and that’s that the main characters mostly focus on fear of dying rather than moral superiority of not fighting in an unjust war. (Not that this is inaccurate; I’m sure many, if not most, drafts dodgers didn’t want to die.)

When I had that conversation with the Quakers above, they pointed out that you can become a conscientious objector but still get drafted as a medic. For anti-war types and pacifists, this is an internal conflict, whether working as a medic saving American soldiers still furthers a war they consider immoral.

For me, it seems like a fair solution, fulfilling a constitutional obligation without violating personal values. I don’t want to go to war, not for fear of dying, but fear of killing. I don’t know what I’d do if I got shot at. I don’t think anyone does. (I assume, since my genetic equal served successfully in war, I probably could as well, but I don’t know.) Even if I were drafted--doubtful now, at my age--I would go, but I wouldn’t kill.

Sep 24

(This week and next we are discussing blockbuster films and violence, partly inspired by our friend’s IndieGoGo campaign.)

First, let’s establish bona fides. We LOVE Star Wars.

A few years ago, Michael quizzed his then fiance with a hypothetical from Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs:

“You meet the perfect person. Romantically, this person is ideal: You find them physically attractive, intellectually stimulating, consistently funny, and deeply compassionate. However, they have one quirk: This individual is obsessed with Jim Henson's gothic puppet fantasy The Dark Crystal. Beyond watching it on DVD at least once a month, he/she peppers casual conversation with Dark Crystal references, uses Dark Crystal analogies to explain everyday events, and occasionally likes to talk intensely about the film's "deeper philosophy."

“Would this be enough to stop you from marrying this individual?”

His fiance’s response? Yeah, because that’s how you are with Star Wars.

It’s true. Ever since our father made the fateful decision to rent Return of the Jedi at the local video store (okay, now I feel old), Michael C and I have loved Star Wars. We started a Star Wars collection, stored in six boxes at our dad’s house. We’ve read supplementary material (meaning the books now called Star Wars legends). And not just the novels, but the guides and technical manuals on weapons, planets, vehicles and more. Though it’s always been more of Michael’s thing, we’ve watched those damn movies countless times. Hell, we went and saw Phantom Menace in theaters when it was released in 3D a few years ago. (Except for the race scene, “Duel of the Fates” and Darth Maul, still terrible.)

I say all this to prep for potential backlash when I say the following:

The violence in Star Wars is pretty damn immoral.

We started this series in response to an email we got from someone about adding a tax to violent movies a few years ago. If you add a tax to violent movies, Star Wars should be the first one.

Why? Because Han, Chewie, Luke, Leia and Lando literally murder hundreds of people and aliens, and no one seems to give a damn. Consequences, what consequences? Most obviously, Luke is a mass murderer, blowing up a space station with millions of people on it. (I’ve read accounts that it had 31 million people.) That means Luke, aided by Han, killed 31 million people in A New Hope. Wow. (H/T to Clerks, of course, which made this point first.)

Doesn’t that qualify you for the dark side? More importantly, how does this never come up again in the series? Zero guilt.

But that’s too obvious, as evidenced by the Clerks reference. A much more personal mass murder occurred after the destruction of Jabba’s pleasure barge. Han, Luke, Leia and Lando just kill hundreds of people on Jabba’s pleasure palace, and two scenes later no one seems affected by it. It’s just shocking, really. To murder innocent people--slaves and servants as well--and no one remarks, “I feel really guilty. I just murdered, like, 400 people. Many were slaves.” (And let’s pause to consider that many were space groupies, just hanging out with Jabba, sleeping on his Jabba’s floor, which is odd. And uncomfortable.)

Hell, the only guy who feels bad about violence is Malakili (Oh, sorry, the guy who owns the rancor Luke killed). And it’s because Luke killed his pet, not a person. Sure, Luke almost goes to the dark side wanting to murder the Emperor. Not sure how he’s not already there.

Star Wars is a pop film. Pulp fiction. It’s the original summer blockbuster. It’s fun. It also views the world in binary terms: dark side versus light side. And if you’re on the dark side, you can die without moral complications. If you work for the Emperor, ditto.

There are two historical precedents to judge whether Luke should have absolutely no moral qualms about killing: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pilots involved felt no guilt about their involvement. Which makes sense, to some degree. Japan attacked America first. They wouldn’t surrender. A land invasion would have cost possibly millions of American lives. Just like destroying the Death Star, which had already destroyed a planet in service of an evil emperor.

Except that something still has to, or should, gnaw at you. Those were civilians in Hiroshima. And surely some of the soldiers on the Death Star weren’t evil, just doing their job. Even in the clip from Clerks above, what’s upsets them is the death of contractors, not those in the Imperial Army, which doesn’t make a lot of sense if you take conscription, poverty, patriotism and a myriad of other factors into account for why someone joins the military. Hell, knowing the poverty levels on many planets, I’d be sympathetic to anyone who joined the Imperial Guard. (Unless they’re all clones, but do clones have souls?)

And none of this excuses killing everyone on Jabba’s palace...

Which brings me to the worst part of this whole thing, the most nihilistic thing I can write: I just don’t care. These moral issues don’t change my love of the original trilogy; I think it’d be bad parenting to not show a kid the original Star Wars trilogy. But if you really think about it, from a moral viewpoint, Star Wars is morally reprehensible. Though I think these movies are pretty corrupt morally, I love them. Having realized they are corrupt morally, I still love them. And not really any less than before.

In many ways, really, that’s the the actual problem.

Sep 17

(This week and next we are discussing blockbuster films and violence, partly inspired by our friend’s IndieGoGo campaign for Burp Girl. Read the whole series here.)

For anyone who’s tried to be a screenwriter--and read the books or listened to the podcasts that go along with that--you know your screenplay has to have one thing: stakes. What’s at stake? If nothing is at stake, the story won’t be dramatic. (I could digress that this “rule”, like any rule, is broken all the time and I don’t actually believe every story must have stakes, but that’s a much longer argument for later.)

Unfortunately, trying to make their movies stand out, Hollywood has made the stakes too damn high.

I’m not the only person who’s pointed this out. Todd VanDerWerff at Vox (quickly becoming our favorite writer about the entertainment industry) made this argument about Jurassic World: it works because the fate of the world isn’t at stake.

“...in a film like Jurassic World, the world won't end; instead, people's lives will. Instead of asteroid versus everybody, this is dinosaur versus human, or even dinosaur versus dinosaur."

VanDerWerff makes a great point. I mean, even Ant-Man--whose power is literally a shrinking suit--kept referencing that the world would end if the technology leaked. Uh, no it wouldn’t have.

I actually have a slightly different complaint/take, born of the same impulse to raise the stakes too damn high: by taking the world to the brink of chaos, the heroes in many blockbusters actually lose. The only victory is pyrrhic at best. To establish stakes, cities get destroyed by rampaging monsters, villains, aliens or robots. Millions are killed. But they’re defeated at the end by the heroes. The world didn’t end, but millions still died.

In other words, I know longer feel good leaving many big budget films, because I believe the heroes have lost.

Some examples:

- The last chapter in the approximately seventeen-hour-long Hobbit series demonstrated this phenomenon perfectly. Smaug destroys Laketown, killing most everyone in the town, and a few hundred humans survive. Then the orcs attack and specifically attack the humans. How many people, if any, survived? Even if the good guys “win” at the end, at what cost? Most everyone is dead. Most of the dwarves are dead. A bunch of immortal elves died. Everyone’s dead, except for Frodo and Gandalf. Yay? (And the fate of the world wasn’t at stake.)

- Or take The Dark Knight Rises. Rises from what? Technically, Batman “wins” after he saves Gotham from a nuclear explosion. Then again, the citizens of Gotham were held hostage in a quasi-terrorist police state, with the executions of thousands by show trials led by Scarecrow for six months. Technically Batman “saved” Gotham, but I’d argue, end result, Gotham (and Batman) lost. Winning would have stopped Bane in the first place.

- Or, more infamously, Man of Steel. Even when it was first released, critics and fanboys widely panned the film for having Superman and Zod basically destroy all of Metropolis. Sure, Zod didn’t take over the Earth, but millions died.

- Captain America: Winter Soldier. We loved this movie. But did Captain America really win, or did HYDRA? End result: HYDRA destroyed SHIELD. Mission accomplished? Sure, other meta-humans weren’t killed. Still sucks.

Oddly enough, I’m not sure this trope is out there. I tried to research it, and aside from articles comparing the first two Avengers films to Man of Steel, others haven’t made this specific point.

I think I know why this happens. It’s not just about raising stakes, though that’s a huge reason why. More importantly, big budget blockbusters are too predictable. Everyone knows a happy ending is coming. How do you make the audience feel suspense then? Destroy so much that it appears like they won’t win.

But if you lean too far in the “Will the heroes win?” direction, at some point, my answer will just be no. It’s a logic concern. Midway through watching the last Hobbit film, I turned to my girlfriend and said, “There’s no way they can realistically come back from this.” I was right. Twelve dwarves joining a massive battle won’t make a difference.

More important, though, is the moral question: how do other filmgoers not notice or, worse, not care about this? If millions of anonymous people die on screen, doesn’t it matter? You shouldn’t leave the theater feeling good about what you’ve just seen.

Sep 15

A few weeks back, my friends Ben and Christina told me about a comedy webseries they are producing, partnered with Stan Lee’s World of Heroes. In it, Christina plays the heroine Burp Girl, a superhero with a power you can imagine. (Here is the link to the first episode and a link to their IndieGoGo campaign.)

Ben asked me if On V could write a post linking the themes of On Violence and super-hero movies to help promote the campaign. Maybe something about the violence endemic in comic book movies? I asked Eric C and he said, “A post? We have a whole series on that.”

You see, a few years ago, we received an email from a reader about putting a tax on violence in Hollywood films. It inspired Eric C to write a rebuttal post, “Hollywood’s Actual Violence Problem”, arguing...

“Hollywood does have a “violence problem”, but the problem isn’t violence; it’s morality. Like the screenplays that Michael C and I wrote, Hollywood films tend to be violent. Unlike our screenplays, they lack a moral point of view. They fail to the show the cost of violence and its complexity. Violence itself isn’t the problem, but how Hollywood portrays that violence. As Ebert’s dictum goes, it's not what a movie says, but how it says it...

“If we want to solve Hollywood’s violence problem, Hollywood needs to show the audience the problems with violence: the guilt that comes from killing and the lingering effects of PTSD.

“Not to mention the complexity of violence. Hollywood needs to show the difficulty of violence: killing the wrong people and the unintended consequences of killing those wrong people. Or even the unforeseen consequences of killing the right people...

“In short, Hollywood should stop glorifying violence. Stop presenting heroes who can kill dozens without guilt. Show violence as it actually is: complicated, hard and ugly. Present violence the way it actually is, and we may want to be less violent.”

That one email inspired Eric to rethink and examine violence in Hollywood, especially in big-budget blockbusters, comic book movies and action films. In Star Wars, Luke, Han and Leia just go around murdering people, from Yavin to Tatooine, with little emotional consequence. Legolas and Gimli might be sociopaths. And in comic books, we went from never killing bad guys to offing them left and right.

In short, it spawned a whole bunch of post ideas. Turns out, though, Eric C never actually finished outlining the series or writing more than two posts. Well, worry no more. We’re finishing that series. We’ll call it, “A Few More Takes on Hollywood’s Violence Problem”.

And support our friend’s IndieGoGo campaign!

Apr 13

(We first published this on the website KillScreen a few years ago, but it’s no longer there. So we’re republishing it here.)

When I first played Oiligarchy, it shocked me.

Ostensibly a resource management game, I managed “one of the biggest Oil companies in the World”[sic]. To win--or finish the game, depending on your point of view--I had to clear cut forests, support right-wing anti-socialist dictators, rig elections and pay for political influence, start multiple wars in the Middle East, hire defense contractors to defend my oil platforms, deplete the world’s oil resources, and finally cover the world’s surface with “human power plants,” converting humans into fuel.

My actions caused the end of the world. “The Last World War started for the control of the remaining oil resources and quickly went out of control...You will spend your last days in the darkness thinking about your role in this mess,” the game explained to me at the end.

The thing that shocked me wasn’t Oiligarchy’s “message” that unbridled greed and resource depletion will cause the end of the world. (I already, to a lesser degree, thought that before I played the game.) No, I was shocked at how easily gameplay could be manipulated to serve an ideology. Basically, Oiligarchy doesn’t rise above the level of propaganda.

In Oiligarchy, you have two choices: play the game, drill for oil and cause the end of the world, or don’t play and get fired. (There is also a rare ending called “retirement” where, if you stop contributing to the political system and stop drilling for oil, you retire peacefully and society evolves into a post-carbon world. But I didn’t get that ending, and the gameplay doesn’t lead you naturally to it. In other words, that's not the point.)

I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily the message of Oiligarchy could have been flipped on its head. What if the Heritage Foundation made a Sim City-style game where taxes destroy the economy? Or the Cato Institute made a game where environmentalists destroy our quality of life? These hypothetical games would be just as hollow as Oiligarchy.

There is this optimistic feeling in the air that video games will change us for the better; that they will save the world. But if the persuasive games genre ever truly takes off, every point of view on the spectrum will jump into the fray, and we will be back where we started, except the games will be worse for it.

The makers of Oiligarchy should remember: propaganda is propaganda, no matter what the message. For every Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The Jungle, there is a Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will.

And gameplay shouldn’t be abused to push blatantly political messages.

Mar 23

(Spoiler Warning: I basically spoil everything in the book and movie of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Then again, it is over 40 years old)

When we started On Violence, Michael C and I had an odd writing arrangement. He would write two posts a week on the military and violence; I would write one post a week on art and violence. (And not just limited to contemporary art, as this post proves.)

At the time, this worked out quite well. I was living in Italy with Michael C, so I had plenty of time to power through books and movies on war, and write up reviews. (It also helped to inspire us on other projects we’re working on…) As time passed, we focused less on art--plus we wrote about everything we needed to write about war memoirs--and I began writing up more military and foreign affairs posts.

Recently, I’ve been able to catch up on some books I’ve been meaning to read (for years now). Researching the intelligence community for a new screenplay we’re writing, I read John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Excited by the book, I re-watched the film for the third time.

Here’s my review: they’re both wonderful. Review over.

What matters more than the what is why: why do the book and the film work so well?

On the surface, the book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is, ostensibly, a spy thriller about a retired spy investigating a mole--oddly enough, according to my copy’s introduction, a word invented by John Le Carre--at the top of the British intelligence services. And yes, that is the plot.

But the subplot of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy matters even more. The wife of the main character, George Smiley, has left him and, more importantly, cheated on him with a former friend and colleague. In basically every chapter, Smiley recollects events and puts together puzzle pieces about the main plot, then, at some point, he thinks about his wife Ann and her betrayal. In terms of mental energy, George Smiley spends almost as much time thinking about his wife’s affair as he does the larger mission to find the mole.

(In the same vein, the chapters about Jim Prideaux--a retired spy who was captured by the Russians--spend zero time discussing spy craft, focusing on Prideaux’s relationship with a lonely boy at a boarding school.)

In other words, this spy novel is actually about personal relationships. The two plots work together perfectly, thematically: spies can’t trust anyone; neither can husbands. (For Prideaux, he’s been retired and forgotten, and is both figuratively and literally broken.)

It’s why critics love Le Carre (and other “genre” writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and Elmore Leonard). They write literature even when they write in a “genre”. In my mind, when I view and analyze fiction, I make a distinction between fiction and literature. Fiction describes all writing. Literature, for me, rises above the rest, an esteemed category for the best books, usually defined by the quality of the writing, the characters, and whether or not the book has anything to say about the world we live in. (And like pornography, it’s that thing: I know it when I see it.)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is literature.

On to the film: why does it work so well? First, the wonderful acting, including almost every important British actor: Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, Tom Hardy, Simon McBurney, Toby Jones, and, of course, Gary Oldman.

More importantly, the film is paced so well. In short, the film moves slowly and doesn’t explain everything on the first go. It takes a second viewing to understand the subtext and meaning in each distinct scene. I love this. I love this style of filmmaking. I want more complicated films, with lots of details packed into every crevice that you can’t catch on the first viewing.

Great literature often fails on the screen for two reasons. First, great writing often doesn’t translate. Think about the problems filming great stylists like Hemingway.

Second, and more importantly to this film, you lose inner-monologues. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (the novel) bubbles over with plot. It can’t all fit in the film so the director and screenwriter didn’t didn’t even try to force it all in. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film), we also lose most of the subplot featuring Ann. Yes, one scene hints that Bill has slept with Ann, and other characters ask Smiley about Ann, but we don’t have an inner-monologue running throughout the film. Basically, we can’t hear what Smiley is thinking.

To compensate for this loss of the personal, the film turns one of the characters into a gay man (a nice, subtle touch that humanizes the character as concisely as possible) and adds a flashback--not included in the book--to a New Year’s Eve party that partly fleshes the personal relationships out between the characters. It works, maybe not as well as the book, but then again, they’re different mediums.

But check out both.

Feb 23

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars and American Sniper, please click here.)

As I wrote last week, we didn’t have time to fully debunk either the facts or ideology of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper. Fortunately for us--and the country--many other writers did. (Some of them got attacked for it.) Today, we’d like to share the best of those links.

A note first. This post is in no way exhaustive of the people criticizing American Sniper and/or Chris Kyle, which is a good thing; unlike, say, Lone Survivor, where it really seems like On Violence and Ed Darack were the only people who addressed the facts and ideology of the book and film.

(And before someone points out that we shouldn’t criticize Kyle’s political beliefs because he passed away, well, that’s illogical. Many people criticize the writings of people who passed away. And he wrote the book and profited from it. Fair game. If you don’t want criticism, don’t write books.)

First, two particular articles stand out for addressing the problematic portions of American Sniper before the movie came out and setting the stage (by finding the most egregious quotes in Chris Kyle’s memoir) for later criticisms of American Sniper. Laura Miller, for Salon, wrote “Death of an American Sniper”, the first article I could find that points out the problematic politics of the memoir, including Kyle’s hate of the Iraqis he was there to help. Next up, Isaac Chotiner, for The New Republic, wrote “If Chris Kyle Had Been a Muslim, We’d Call Him an Extremist”. The title sort of says it all.

A few of our favorite writers--and friends of the blog--chimed in with some of our favorite takes:

- Brian Turner (our review of his poetry here) wrote “I Served in Iraq, and American Sniper Gets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.” for Vulture. He points out that a great Iraq war film has yet to be made, because it won’t focus on the plight of the Iraqis.

- Alex Horton, for the Guardian, points out that we don’t need another war film glorifying special operators.

- Zach Beauchamp really takes the film to task in “American Sniper is a dishonest whitewash of the Iraq war” pointing out the numerous errors in the film. (Also check out this Vox piece on the film and the sheepdog analogy.)

- John Horgan has a great take on the science of war and American Sniper, linking this film to a discussion of the anthropology of war. (We’re huge Horgan fans.) Also, this post has an insane comments section.

- The folks at Kings of War connect American Sniper to force protection. This post actually asks the question I wished more people asked, did Chris Kyle’s kills save American lives?

- And Don Gomez at Carrying the Gun chimed in.

After the movie came out last month, a number of writers then tackled the book and film’s politics. Again, we love seeing this sort of response, with many (liberal) writers addressing a problematically popular film based on a book steeped in right-wing politics:

 

- Lindy West, for The Guardian, really went after Chris Kyle in “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?

- Dennis Jett, in another The New Republic article, wrote “The Real 'American Sniper' Had No Remorse About the Iraqis He Killed”, which is both true and sad.

- Finally, Matt Taibbi really lets loose on the book in “American Sniper is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize”. In particular, he identifies a passage in the memoir where Kyle hints that he shot innocent people to up his kill count.

- And you can find more (albeit very, very liberal) political takes in Salon’s “Our “American Sniper” sickness: How American exceptionalism wrought Guantanamo”, another Salon piece “American Sniper’s” biggest lie: Clint Eastwood has a delusional Fox News problem”, and Mondoweiss “How a culture remembers its crimes is important: A review of ‘American Sniper’”.

As for debunking American Sniper, Snopes.com has a pretty thorough summary. Also, we just found this blog post by Michael McCaffrey at his personal website, and it appears to be one of the most thorough accounting of the facts behind American Sniper.

So in the end, that’s a lot of great stuff to read. There are still a few more issues left to be discussed, in our opinion. (For example, rules of engagement and determining whether Chris Kyle’s kill count makes America more or less likely to win in Iraq.) But at least this is a start.

And we know writers who will be willing to do this sort of criticism in the future.

Feb 19

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2015 Oscars, please click here.)

When I started reading American Sniper, I didn’t get past the first sentence without reading something inaccurate.

In the author’s note, Chris Kyle opens the book by declaring, “The events that happened in this book are true.” The American legal system disagrees, since it gave Jesse Ventura an award for defamation and HarperCollins announced they’d pull the subsection from the book where Kyle claims he attacked Jesse Ventura from future editions of the book.

So, no, not all of the events that happened in this book are true. (Chris Kyle also claimed that Saddam had WMDs, as we’ve written about before.) He also made up other stuff in interviews, including...

- In interviews promoting American Sniper, Chris Kyle claimed he shot two men who tried to carjack him in Texas. When the police arrived--according to Kyle--they ran his name, and a phone number for the Department of Defense popped up. When the cops called it, they were told to let Kyle go. After the New Yorker fact-checked this assertion--by calling every police station where the event could have happened--it’s pretty clear it didn’t happen.

- Kyle also claims he went to New Orleans after Katrina and shot looters from a rooftop, something pretty much everyone agrees never happened.

So four ridiculous stories, four debunkings. And if you think the way I think, you’ve probably drawn the same conclusion as me:

Chris Kyle might have made up other stuff in American Sniper (the book).

Which brings me to the over-riding question, something we’ve been bombarded with since the announcement of the film: Eric C and Michael C, when are you debunking the military portions of American Sniper?

Not anytime soon. Aside from the WMD claim, the debunked anecdotes all took place in America. It’s much easier to fact check things that happened at home. When we extensively fact-checked Lone Survivor, things were easier mainly because it was just one story--so the details could be debunked--and frankly, Ed Darack had written the best history of the region at the time. Darack also had access to the after-action reports. The facts were written down, and one could find when they were changed (including the Medal of Honor citations). American Sniper is a collection of anecdotes. How do you debunk that?

The first way: have a skeptical soldier or veteran (like Michael C) read the book and highlight the most ridiculous portions. (For example, this website pretty convincingly argues that Chris Kyle didn’t encounter war protesters with baby killer signs on his way to Iraq.) This is how we started with Lone Survivor. Eric C read the book and hated its politics, so he made Michael C read it. Then Michael C responded with, “Yeah, the politics are bad, but something doesn’t sound right about this mission. Especially the number of kills.” (I’d specifically look at the section in American Sniper during the battle of Fallujah.)

But this wouldn’t “prove” anything. Critics could just say, ‘You have no proof he made that up” and they’d be right. (Like that link above. There’s no way to prove Kyle didn’t see those signs; it just doesn’t make sense that he did. Unless he took a detour from the airport to a local college campus. And even at college campuses, most peace protests are, well, polite.)

So we would have to find hard proof. On to our second idea on how to fact check American Sniper: Go to the Iraq War Logs--famously released by Chelsea Manning via Wikileaks--search for specific incidents from the book, and see if they match up. Unfortunately, this appears to be impossible, since the Iraq war logs don’t include soldier’s names, and it appears Special Operations reports aren’t included. Also, if Kyle changed anything for his memoir, this would make it virtually impossible to search for in the Iraq war logs.

So that would be a dead end.

There’s still another way. If an enterprising reporter has the time and will, they can FOIA request documents about Chris Kyle. Someone could request his “kill log” the Navy allegedly used to confirm his record setting number of kills. Then they could compare that to events in the book. (Or compare their reporting in Iraq to details in the book.)

We doubt this would work. The Navy could/would stone wall for years--especially if they knew why the reporter made the request--and claim security concerns for not releasing the information.

In some ways, this post is an apology, because we didn’t try to debunk the facts in American Sniper. The cynical note, which I’ll end on, is why: when we debunked Lone Survivor, no one seemed to care. Certainly not the mainstream press.

Had Lone Survivor achieved the success of American Sniper, this might have been a different story.

And still, anyone who criticizes American Sniper, prepare for death threats from any and everyone including random people on Twitter, Medal of Honor winner and a former candidate for Vice President. In some ways, it’s just not worth it. You can’t criticize veterans, even if you’re right.

(That said, if any reporters experienced in FOIA requests out there would like our input/help/team-up to analyze the Chris Kyle story in-depth, we would love to.)