Jean Rostand famously said: “Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god.”
It’s one of those lines which ring though now and again, even though it is awkward over-generalisation. Rostand was apparently obsessed with the philosophic implications of man’s self-awarness, as well as its ominous physical/ecological implications. A quick tour of history seems to bear out this phrase of his.
It is in this light that I want to write about two recent social/pop phenomenon that have been gaining steam recently. This is the fracas over “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, and the growth of a General Patton cult of personality (especially sense the release of Martin Dugald’s “Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Patton” .
Let’s do Patton first. George C. Scott’s Academy Award winning, 1970 movie, “Patton” put the General on the social consciousness in a big way. In the movie, Patton is larger than life, uncannily prophetic, and clearly an un-sung hero; a victim of his lack of political correctness. Put simply, it is an awesome movie.
Dugald’s book (which I should honestly state that I have not read, but have heard quite a lot about; I know quite a lot about Patton and WWII though) illustrates Patton’s life, and the mysterious circumstances of his death in the final days of WWII. Degrade insinuates that there was a conspiracy (FDR’s social/left administration looking the other way as the Soviets do the dirty work?) to assassinate the General and make it look like an accident.
“What happened,” poses Dugald, “to the driver of the truck that hit the General’s car?” And “Look at the tiny size of the hospital room where they took the General! Is this where you take your best general?” says Dugald. Patton wanted to use the Nazi army, and the US/UK forces in Europe to fight the Soviets then and there at the end of WWII(which was hugely impolitic at the time) and he wanted to be transferred to the Pacific theatre as well. Dugald seems to see this as evidence that the big political powers that be felt they had to take this trouble-maker out.
Let’s just say there is evidence of a conspiracy, simply some shady circumstantial murmurings that amount to nothing if we take a step back and consider the realities of that time and place. Using the German/Nazi army to fight Soviet Russian army was stupid then and should look stupid, racist, and buffoonish now. The Pacific theatre was in its endgame (the atomic bomb had been completed; battlefield fighting was a very different game) and it already had a prima-donna general: Douglas MacArthur. There can only be one.
This is the closing moves of WWII; the world is tired of war; Patton did not have the folk-hero status he does now, and in a military hospital filled with wounded, you use what space you have. The Soviets would not have been afraid enough of Patton to actually assassinate him; they regarded him as we should: a brilliant tactical general who was also a bit of self-important martinet.
Conservative America has done its best to turn the good General into a martyr, crucified by a nascent liberal/big government because he was not politically correct/utterly competent. Since Martin Dugald’s book, this has kicked into high gear, where before it was simply a murmur heard only at gatherings of armchair historians.
Chris Kyle’s story is more tricky. The movie “American Sniper” has already broken records in its sales for the opening weekend. Working at America’s largest bookstore chain, I can comfortably attest to the high volume of people buying copies of the book. Kyle is the highest “scoring” US sniper in history, at 234 kills (or was it 243? it hardly matters, does it?). Once I saw the book on the shelf, I knew that social war was brewing over Chris Kyle. And it has started.
Seth Rogan and Michael Moore have predictably tweeted the usual, attacking Chris Kyle and American’s lining up to watch and read about Kyle as Nazis/Nazi propaganda; Moore has called snipers ‘cowards’.
Before I go further, I want to luxuriate in the over-whelming sense of tone-def partisans yelling at each other with ears plugged with index fingers. Both “sides” have made of their mind. There is no debate, no space for a reasoned middle ground (much less people learning a lesson, one way or the other).
Conservative America is clearly ravenous for heroes. The Iraq War was from the beginning not fully understood or explained, but conservative America lined up for its patriotic duty, and after a decade of war, has little to show for it aside from PTSD, crippled veterans, a legacy of torture and militarism (America sure is not ‘safer’ by any means). It’s heroes (like Patrick Tillman (killed by friendly-fire, and therefore an example of military incompetence), General Petraeus (cheated on his wife; The Surge hasn’t worked) have been disqualified in one way or another (and calling all the soldiers “heroes” is frankly not that satisfying, nor particularly cinematographic). With Chris Kyle, it seems to be happening again. “Chris Kyle was a soldier doing his job,” says conservative America. They do not understand why every figure must come under withering political fire from the left (Nazi, murdering psychopath, etc), especially sense it is these soldiers that are protecting America from terrorism.
The other side of the debate, the ‘liberal side’. Wants to see mainstream America pause for reflect on Chris Kyle. 234 kills is quite a lot of people, especially when you have pulled the trigger on each and every one of them. This lack of pause indicates rampant militarism, hero worship (a ethically debatable one at that) of the worse kind, and gun-culture gone mad. More than this, liberals crave a ‘realisation’ from the mainstream of the level of militarism extant in our society, and the huge costs, both physical, moral, economic that has accompanied this general growth. Consider how long it took the US to become involved in WWI and WWII (perhaps the most eminently justifiable war ever) compared to the rush to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chris Kyle, from the get-go, seems a dubious role model. He may have been a soldier par excellence, but if we approach Chris Kyle from the standpoint of thoughtful reasonableness, we should not put the man on a pedestal. If we want to talk about military heroes, they exist – Kyle is not one of them. Real heroes tend to be hard to find. Rare.
The power of conservative America comes from its high level of conformism, married with the extreme wealth, both from the Wall Street/Big Business wing of conservatism, but also from the age factor. This means that conservatives are older, and therefore more wealthy (they have worked longer, but also grew up in a more equitable time in American society (where the economy was growing not unlike China’s today in terms of amount of growth). It is really no surprise then when “American Sniper” breaks records at the box office and at the bookstore.
What should we look for in a hero? Hero worship is not going away. People crave personification of their fears, desires, hopes, dreams, etc. Statistics leave pretty much everyone cold. But a face – General Petraeus personifying The Surge – can make all the difference. It helps us to get involved; fired up. A proper hero and role model needs to be a complex person, who soars over the rest of us mere mortals in multiple facets of existence. I mean that a true hero is both a leader of men and great lover of women, but say someone driven to make a positive change in the world, or someone who has dedicated his life towards some truly worth great goal; not a mere sniper who as racked a lot of kills.
I will close with another adage. I do not know who said it, but: “Never meet your heroes”. I think that this is especially true in the case of Chris Kyle.