Of legends and snipers. Clint Eastwood’s war movies for Social Scientists

Guest post by Marco Di Giulio*

American sniper (2014) is just the last of several movies Clint Eastwood dedicated to the Military and its connections with American and western society. This post recalls the main landmarks of Eastwood’s recherche in this field, offering a sort of retrospective for social scientists. My perspective is in fact that of a (modest) scholar in Politics and Administration, certainly not that of a professional movie critic. As such, the only thing I can do to celebrate the career of this extraordinary director is to highlight how he has been insightful in grasping some of the more sophisticated problems concerning the functioning of institutions, and in particular those characterizing the U.S. Military.

Many directors, of course, have dealt with similar issues. Although sometimes celebratory – think about John Ford’s The long grey line (1955) – war movies have been mostly iconoclast and de-costructivist, as in the case of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpieces, Paths of Glory (1957). However, no one else a part from Clint Eastwood has experimented with the juxtaposition of both registers. What makes Eastwood different is indeed the effort to de-construct and re-construct the Military at the same time.

Eastwood is well known and celebrated for his demystification of American myths, as the Academy Awards won by the western heroes depicted in The Unforgiven (1992) show. Less well known and acclaimed is however his effort to scrutinize human feelings to find the very origins of institutions, which is what makes him the ideal successor of John Ford. As sociologist James Coleman put it, institutions are the cement of society and can be properly scrutinized only by paying attention to micro-behaviours of every-day life. In the following paragraphs I will point out three lines of institutional analysis which can be found in Eastwood’s war movies and which have in addressing some of the main dilemmas of complex organizations.

Decisions under ambiguity: improvisation and its limits

There is a widespread consensus among many prominent organizational theorists such as Herbert Simon, James Thompson and James March that, under the conditions of environmental uncertainty or ambiguity, organizations are likely to take decisions which are far from being rational, in the simplest meaning of this notion. They do not calculate costs and benefits, nor are they capable of coherently aligning their operational skills with their goals. They simply do not know what to do. Nonetheless, they ought to decide, and they normally do so by recurring to repertories of standardized routines which – more or less consciously – they adapt to the new situation. Sometimes they simply improvise, moved by what Thompson called inspiration.

A similar a theme emerges in Eastwood’s portrayal of the Military. The problem mainly emerges in two of his movies: Heartbreak Ridge (1986) and American sniper (2014). The former tells the story of sergeant Tom Highway (Clint Eastwood), a grouchy, misogynist and alcohol-addicted Corea’s decorated veteran, who after years past in army logistics is allowed to go back to serve as a platoon instructor. Once in office, Gunny – this was his battle-name during the war – realizes that the American army is no longer what it used to be when he left it many years before. The New American Army, as major Powers – a West-Point under-experienced cadet – used to call it, is now an efficient organization, inspired by New Public Management principles, which in those years were rapidly spreading in western countries. Nowadays, all that officials have to do is to implement standardized training protocols, which have no connection with real field operations’ needs. Thus, of course, the movie revolves around the conflict between Gunny and the new generation of officials.

All in all, Gunny succeeds in revitalizing a platoon of demotivated and socially marginal fellows. He does so by forging them with his own educational methodology, well described by the motto improvise, adapt, overcome, to mean that – in the field – no fixed rule can apply and each soldier as well as the platoon as a whole should develop an attitude characterized by unconventionally under uncertainty. A real military operation somewhere in south-America finally comes up to test such an approach towards strategic decision making, which clearly emerges as the true added-value of any efficient organization.

Improvising may be, thus, unavoidable; it may even be successful or, at least, the best decisional shortcut one can adopt in extreme situations, but it remains a highly-risky pattern of action. In this sense, American sniper contributes to critically revise one of Eastwood’s most solid milestones: the unconditioned faith in self-organizing celebrated in Heartbreak Ridge and present in other non-war movies. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) grew up in Texas, with precise ideas about good and evil, the perceived necessity to protect the weak from the bullies, and a failed career as rodeo-cow-boy. After 9/11, he reversed his sense of protection toward the entire nation and joined the Army, where he successfully passed the Navy Seal training. Kyle was initiated to war in Iraq, where he has been selected as a sniper, covering platoons in counter-insurgency operations. In settings such as this, a sniper plays a crucial role since, thanks to his position on the top of a building, it can more easily discover an enemy behind a woman or a child, and hunt out rival snipers in roofs kilometres away from him. Chris Kyle is strongly convinced that improvisation and adaptation are the only viable tactics to dismantle enemies. Hence, he personally contributed to modify field tactics, for instance when he supported the creation of Navy Seal’s task forces to support platoons on the ground and personally led a number of operations. Progressively, Kyle discovered dilemmas related to impulsive decision making. A sniper is in fact prepared to his own mistake about the nature of the killed: it is up to him to decide, and if a civilian, he alone bears the responsibility. Conversely, things are different when dealing with complex operations that involve more units. What if a decision is correct, but the timing is not? Twice, during the movie, severe American losses occur due to Kyle’s wrong timing in triggering an action without waiting for external support. With American Sniper Eastwood masterly criticizes his own military doctrine, making us aware of how dramatic improvisation can be.

On (the need for) legends

Do legends, heroes, exist in real life? The short answer is: no, they don’t, or, at least, they do not exist without a public that perceives them as such. The men and women we think about as heroes usually live ordinary lives, characterized by the same desires and fears as anyone else. Nonetheless, the institutions and organizations we live and operate within – and the army surely constitute an endless supply of examples in this sense – constantly produce legends and heroes, creating narratives about extraordinary persons, capable of embodying organizational goals. Throughout the XX Century, social scientists progressively uncovered how the opposition individual-organization is ultimately a false dichotomy. Organizations are neither something different from individuals who act within them; nor are superiors to individuals in any way, as XIX thinkers used to think. Needless to say, the good functioning of any given organization depends only to some extent upon formal rules. Much more depends on the existence of trust among people involved. The alignment of their private motives and organizational goals is far from being contractual deal. On the contrary, it involves emotional commitment and sense of belonging and, in turn, trust incentivise loyal behaviours of individuals among each other and toward organization. For this reason the creation of heroes is crucial and functional to establish a trustful environment in organizations which expose their members to a considerable risk (ultimately death).

In his career as a director, Eastwood has cyclically come back to these issues, each time with a new variation. In Heartbreak Ridge, Corea’s decoration represented for Gunny Highway a sort of stigma. The New American Army was in no need for legends. Efficiency and effectiveness would have been reached by rational and formalized protocols. Nor was Gunny’s platoon initially scared by his decaying myth. Sergeant Highway eventually gains the respect of the platoon one day at a time, as he progressively manages to instil in that collection of demotivated losers a sense of self-respect. American sniper addresses the same topic from a different angle. Chris Kyle has, as a matter of fact, way more reasons to be treated as a hero. The legend – as his comrades in Iraq used to call him – counts more than 160 recorded kills. His fellow soldiers created and boosted his halo and this, in turn, contributed to forge their sense of protection: a sniper such as Kyle becomes little short of a guardian angel in risky counter-insurgency operations. If the legend of Gunny highway played a pedagogical role, a sort of military bildung characterized by an intergenerational transfer of organizational values, Chris Kyle personifies a certain ideal-type of military leadership, based on a mix of individual braveness and protectiveness of his own group. In a certain sense, American sniper logically precedes Heartbreak Ridge. Similarly to Chris Kyle, Gunny Highway becomes a myth for having saved tens of soldiers from an otherwise certain death in Korea. And just as Gunny Highway, Chris Kyle would have surely encountered hurdles in integrating back into civil life, had a mentally disturbed veteran he was helping not decided to kill him.

Flags of Ours Fathers (2006) is probably the movie that focuses the most on the ‘production’ of heroes. It explores both causes and consequences of such a phenomenon, cleverly alternating individual and collective implications. The movie tells the backstage story of the epic Joe Rosenthal’s picture, Raising the flag of Iwo Jima, where six marines belonging to the 25th Regiment are caught in the very moment in which the U.S. flag was being hoisted atop the Suribachi mountain. The picture became immediately famous at home, as it vividly transmitted a longed for sense of victory to a nation that was getting tired of war. Policy makers and newspapers boosted the myth and the six soldiers were called back home, celebrated as heroes and told/obliged to tour the whole country to advocate war-bond raising to finance the final military effort.

In reality, however, they were not heroes, for one simple reason: Rosenthal’s picture has not caught the very moment of the flag being hoisted. That had happened the day before, but a second flag was hoisted and only then did Rosenthal capture the moment. The sudden and undeserved fame of those marines made them realize the profound hypocrisy of how war is described at home. War is not about heroes or, at least, it is not about extraordinary, fearless men. What is more, the closeness of the final victory they were representing was far from conveying the moment they were actually experiencing. The frontline reshaped the meaning of victory, where it lost most of its mythological aura. The propaganda machine went on fostering the cognitive dissonance of marines, many of whom experienced disaffection and depression.

Patriotism and nationhood

Today, the idea of national mobilization could not be more distant from our culture. However, only a century ago thousands of soldiers erected trenches all over Europe. Outside the boundaries of western civilization, people still organize themselves and are willing to die under the justification of ideologies, which are not far from those we have progressively softened or neglected.

Eastwood’s Flags of Ours Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) describes the war in the Pacific area, retracing the Iwo Jima battles from both the American and the Japanese perspective. Both movies are about patriotism. In other words, they try to answer the (social science) question: Why do rational agents go to war? Of course, most of them have historically been coerced to enroll, especially in field operations. There are however many others who behaved as ‘ordinary heroes’, facing bullets in order to save the dead body of a fellow soldier. The Japanese went above and beyond, with many cases of suicide, not only as a last resort instrument to hurt the enemies, but also – and more interestingly – in order not to have to surrender and be captured by them. Sometimes such an extreme choice was made in explicit noncompliance with officials’ orders, but with a spirit of loyalty to a superior collective belonging.

What Eastwood suggests with his movies is that the motives to such actions are not to be found in national interest, the defence of one’s Country’s liberty, or the ‘liberation’ of the enemy. Eastwood’s reconstruction leads us to the very experience of those soldiers: he shows us the collective sharing of hopes, fears, and jokes on behalf of a group, but also tells the stories of individuals with their own private life, memories and projects to deal with. This sense solidarity is not only based on frontline camaraderie. The existence of a normal life back at home, with families and friends, is an essential element to the discourse on nationhood.

The feeling of belonging to a collective body called nation underpins the highly problematic nexus between army and society. The idea of nation is crucial in forging military discipline and organizational culture, but it constantly produces effects on the whole society. The difficulties of veterans of dealing with civil life is a topos. Once back home, soldiers hardly find the same vivid sense of human cohesion they experienced in the frontline. Eastwood’s Gunny Highway and Chris Kyle do not bring any innovation to this discourse. In this respect, only Gran Torino (2008) – which paradoxically is not a war movie – has been path breaking. In this movie, Walt Kowalsky is a Polish-American Korean war veteran who lives in a neighbourhood populated by Asian immigrants. The death of his wife and the turbulent relations with his son fuel his sense of alienation and decadence of American values. Despite his moody nature, Kowalsky gradually starts spending time with a Thao (Bee Vang), a Hmong living in closeby. Kowalsky introduces Thao to the “true values” of American life, the importance of having an honest job, of taking care of one’s private property (house, work tools and, of course, cars), of having good friends and a good wife. By doing so, and eventually sacrificing his life to help Thao dealing with a gang, the reluctant and grouchy Kowalsky discovers that American values can be transmitted and regenerated far beyond the boundaries of ethnicity and cultural divides. A magnificent story of redemption in which a veteran ultimately – even if tragically – makes a contribution to his society.

* I would like to thank Tina for always being willing to read my stuff and talk about Clint Eastwood.

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