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American Sniper: The Psychology of Killing

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American Sniper, the most recent American box office hit and Clint Eastwood’s most successful film to date - nominated for 6 Oscars and winning the Best Achievement in Sound Editing Category - is a biographical film based on the most lethal sniper in US military history.

Background

The film is based on Chris Kyle who, with 255 kills (160 officially confirmed by the Department of Defense), is the deadliest marksman in the history of the US military.

After the US embassy bombings of 1998 Kyle decided to enlist for the US Navy; he was eventually accepted for SEAL training and became a Navy SEAL sniper.

The September 11th attacks of 2001 led to Kyle being sent to Iraq, leaving his wife behind. The first people he killed were a woman and a boy who used a grenade to attack US Marines. Despite being upset by the experience of killing, he’s given the nickname ‘legend’ for his many successful kills and is soon assigned to hunt for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of terrorist group al-Qaeda.

In total Kyle serves in Iraq four times, seeing many friends and colleagues die and missing the birth of his son and daughter. On his return from the fourth tour, he struggles more than ever to adjust back to ‘normal’ life and tells a psychiatrist that he’s haunted and plagued by those he was unable to save.

He is encouraged to help injured soldiers at the VA hospital and starts coaching severely injured veterans at a shooting range. All of this helps him re-adjust to civilian life.

In 2013, a fully-recovered Kyle says goodbye to his family for a day at the shooting range. On this day, Chris Kyle – considered a hero – was killed by a veteran he was trying to help.

What makes American Sniper such a hit?

One of the main reasons American Sniper has proved to be a hit film is because it displays the harrowing effects of being involved in war. Hollywood has a way of glorifying war and death, and making the audience believe that a soldier’s main aim is to kill the enemy with a ‘kill or be killed’ mentality.

Although there may be a little truth in what you usually see on screen, the majority is completely inaccurate.

When portrayed on screen, it seems that one of the greatest fears of war is dying. However, one issue that’s rarely, if ever, tackled is the equally distressing thought of taking the life of a fellow man. The fear of killing a man can be seen when soldiers endanger themselves to avoid having to kill someone else, and this is something that occurs much more frequently than you might think.

In both humans and animals, it is a natural instinct to attempt to scare an enemy before killing them. This is a technique known as posturing, and the idea is that the target will retreat and therefore death will be avoided. Even in the World Wars posturing was a technique that soldiers used whenever possible and, as a result between 80% and 85% of ammunition was fired into the air above enemy heads rather than directly at them.

In films, killing is portrayed as being far easier than it is in reality and the mental strain that all soldiers suffer is rarely displayed. This is where American Sniper differs from the majority of Hollywood war films. The psychological impact of war and the distressing effect it has on soldiers isn’t hidden or covered up; the audience clearly sees, from the moment of his first kill, that Kyle is uneasy about what he’s doing. Killing isn’t something that comes naturally and, as the film develops they see the huge stress that his job puts on his existence.

When at home, Kyle struggles to re-adjust to civilian life, his family life is continually put under pressure and his only way of dealing with the horrors that he’s seen is with psychiatric help.

Soldiers that have been involved in close combat are highly likely to develop some kind of psychiatric disorder. After a few months of combat, almost everyone will display signs of mental stress. However, the way it manifests will depend entirely on the individual. It’s common for soldiers returning from combat to suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The treatments for PTSD vary and depend on the severity of symptoms. Sometimes symptoms can be mild and will decrease over time, as the stressful situation is forgotten. However, for some people they will continue to get worse, as they’re haunted by their actions or, as the case of Kyle in American Sniper, plagued by the people he couldn’t save. PTSD can be extremely frightening and debilitating, making it impossible to live a normal life and adapt to a new routine. In this instance psychological treatment, in the form of psychotherapy or medication, will be necessary.

Psychology is a fascinating subject, with so many branches to explore and, if it’s something you’re interested in pursuing, then American Sniper is definitely the film of the season. It’s based on a true story and therefore has a closer representation to the psychological effects of war than any other Hollywood blockbuster.

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