U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Print the Legend

farewell addressMy friend and colleague here at S-USIH Andrew Hartman contextualizes the recent debate over the film American Sniper as another chapter in the Culture Wars: “The main difference between the 1988 debate about The Last Temptation and our current dispute over American Sniper might be that whereas the former was about religion and sex, the latter is about war and the American role in the Middle East. Perhaps this difference signifies a new culture wars frontier.” I don’t know if I see this as a new frontier or something unexplored on an older one.

I’ve read many reviews, including a searing one from Matt Taibbi in RollingStone in which he concludes: “The thing is, the mere act of trying to make a typically Hollywoodian one-note fairy tale set in the middle of the insane moral morass that is/was the Iraq occupation is both dumber and more arrogant than anything George Bush or even Dick Cheney ever tried.” So who does Taibbi want to indict? Not Eastwood or Hollywood, right, because neither have relationships to the war that actually matter. No, Taibbi has a much larger dumbass in mind–the collective “us.” In a comment he drops decidedly on our heads, he writes: “It’s the fact that the movie is popular, and actually makes sense to so many people, that’s the problem.”

Indeed, I have read posts on Facebook in which folks ask, one way or another, why do so many people like the movie, or choose to defend it against phantom critics, or (on the flip side) get so worried by its popularity that they feel compelled to ask existential questions about the nation and their fellow citizens. One might retort: heh! It’s only a movie! But heh, it is more–it is fast becoming a blockbuster, and in an age of fracture, perhaps blockbusters are the way we are forced to deal with each other. Don’t like the family dinners? Too bad, you’re sitting next to Uncle Sammy and listening to his war stories…literally. 

The strongest impression I have of American Sniper was that it serves as snapshot of a specific time in America’s recent past. I mean to apply that description to both the movie and the reaction to the movie. Leo Ribuffo commented on Facebook that we have yet to account for the wars of the recent past, and worse that we intellectualize this “war on terror” rather than, I suppose, engage in matters military and political. Andrew and I have gone back and forth a bit on that topic–I remain interested in how the Culture Wars often seem to avoid real wars or how the wars after 9/11 seemed to justify dismissing the real issues in the Culture Wars. And I promise to take up Kurt Newman’s suggestion to write about the documentary Dirty Wars in relation to voices such as Andrew Bacevich.

But for now, I want to hold the impression I have of American Sniper like Leonard Shelby holds polaroids in Memento–as a way to remind me of what I am supposed to think about the war. My impression can be boiled down to two ideas: first, Chris Kyle saw his and, by extension, his nation’s mission as divinely protected; and second, all those who questioned that mission were either weak-willed, nihilistic, or hysterical–in short, crazy. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

What are the facts behind that legend? A few years ago while researching God and War, I tried evaluating data on American popular opinion during the Iraq War. Below I lay out some of those findings.  

In mid-March 2003, U.S. combat operations in Iraq began. On May 1, President Bush flew aboard the aircraft carrier the Abraham Lincoln to make his ill-fated declaration “mission accomplished.” A few months later, in August 2003, the war grew increasingly sectarian and began to appear unmanageable for U.S. troops and their leaders. Not surprisingly, as the images and reports of the war darkened, public perceptions of the war darkened too. And so by the winter of 2003-2004 when opinion polls began to suggest growing dissatisfaction and then outright opposition in some quarters to the war among the American people, on might wonder if this reaction simply reflected the fickleness of a public that had once been as convinced as its president that the war would be easy and fast? 

In reviewing polls about national identity as well as polls regarding the war in Iraq, I was interested in the following questions: did American responses to questions about their nation indicate moral awareness that was not merely a product of cynicism about the war? Could these polls suggest that Americans held themselves and their nation up to some kind of moral standard?

The first two tables below reflect my combination of results from ISSP 2003 National Identity Survey. I grouped American responses into two tables: the first table lists categories in which American responses ranked the United States at the top or near to the top relative to other nations; the second table lists those categories in which American responses placed the United States in slightly more undistinguished positions relative to other nations.

The results appeared to indicate that Americans have a great deal of pride about those features of their nation that are most abstract. For example, table 1 suggests that Americans like being American and that this reaction is a reflection of what many scholars and observers refer to as an American creed. Americans have high opinion of their nation’s democracy, its institutions, and achievements. However, do such responses move the public toward national chauvinism?    

Table 2 suggests that the admiration Americans have for their country has some limits–that the legend might be a bit ambiguous. While Americans are proud to claim their national identity, there was a good deal of ambiguity about what it means to be American. Americans like living in the United States but do not necessarily feel close to their nation nor do they think it impossible for people who do not share U.S. customs and traditions to become fully American. Further, Americans claimed that they can feel ashamed of their nation, and they rejected the idea that they would support their country even when it is wrong. Perhaps the key category for the purposes of testing whether a public moral accounting is possible is whether Americans think the U.S. should follow its own interests even if this leads to conflicts with other nations. Americans said no. As Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes of PEW have noted, “contrary to widespread misconceptions, America’s pride in their country is not evangelistic…In reality, [Americans] are far more likely to say ‘We think the American way is great; we assume you want to be like us, but, if you don’t, that’s not really our concern.”[1]

2003 ISSP Data[2]

Table 1: Categories that suggest American pride

QuestionVery/ Agree StronglyRank For ‘Very’ out of 35[3]Fairly/Agree
How proud are you of U.S. history61.4330.8
How proud are you of U.S. fair and equal treatment of all groups in society25.2349.4
How important is it to have U.S. citizenship82.8113.2
How proud are you to be American79.8317.9
How important is it to respect political institutions and laws72.2423.9
I would rather be a citizen of the US than of any other country74.7115.3
Generally speaking the U.S. is better than most other countries40.7138.1
How proud are you of the way democracy works in the U.S.33.0155.7
How proud are you of U.S. influence in the world22.8254.9
How proud are you of U.S. economic achievements39.1147.6
How proud are you of U.S. scientific and technological achievements58.8136.8
How proud are you of the U.S. armed forces75.8118.1


Table 2: Categories that suggest a lack of hubris

How important is it to have lived in the US for most of one’s life58.6522.5
How important is it to feel American68.2623.8
How close do you feel to your country52.41237.1
How important is it to be born in the U.S.57620.5
There are some things about the U.S. that make me ashamed of the U.S.18.21437.9
The world would be a better place if people from other countries were more like the U.S.15.9524.7[4]
People should support their country even if the country is wrong[5]11.31225.1
I am often less proud of the U.S. than I would like to be5.91026.1
How proud are you of the U.S. social security system12.914[6]41.8
For certain problems, like environment pollution, international bodies should have the right to enforce solutions[7]19.32442.9
The U.S. should follow its own interests, even if this leads to conflicts with other nations12.92034.1
It is impossible for people who do not share U.S. customs and traditions to become fully American[8]9.23323.6

I considered the results from the ISSP National Identity Survey in relation to a PEW study that asked Americans more specifically about U.S. foreign policy. The PEW data suggested that from the end of the Cold War to the middle of the Iraq War, American support for a tough military posture had declined, as had feeling of patriotism and national confidence. Taken together, the PEW categories portray a people who lent support to their leaders but also pulled some of that support when actions of those leaders ran counter to a set of moral expectations.

PEW Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes, 1987-2007[9]

Table 3: Its best for the future of our country to be active in world affairs

OptionEnd of Cold War20032007
Completely agree505042


Table 4: The best way to ensure peace is through military strength

OptionEnd of Cold War20032007


Table 5: We should get even with any country that tries to take advantage of the U.S.

OptionEnd of Cold War20012007


Table 6: We should be willing to fight for our country…right or wrong

OptionRepublicansDemocratsVeteran HouseholdNon-Veteran Household


Table 7: Patriotism and Self-Confidence

I am very patriotic545649
Agree: As Americans we can always find a way to solve our problems746658


Table 8: Preemptive Force can be justified

OptionMay 2003December 2004January 2007

The combined results of the surveys from ISSP and the PEW create a composite portrait that seems to suggest that Americans at least began to wonder if the nation’s actions were not undermining the moral arguments made for being in Iraq in the first place. 

Daniel Yankovich pointed out in 2006 essay in Foreign Affairs, Americans had the self-awareness to acknowledge “that the rest of the world sees the United States in a negative light.”  Many Americans believe that the United States is seen as “arrogant” (74 percent), “pampered and spoiled” (73 percent), a “bully” (63 percent), and a “country to be feared” (63 percent).  However, this understanding does not undermine American opinion the meaning of the nation itself, which many continue to see in a positive light as a “free and democratic country” (81 percent), a “country of opportunity for everyone” (80 percent), and country generous to other people (72 percent) and a strong leader (69 percent).[10]

So if it was not insanity that afflicted large swaths of the American public who began to question the war, what about the divinity of Kyle’s and America’s mission?

While there was no evidence linking the crisis sparked by 9/11 to the war waged in Iraq, large parts of the public believed the president when he framed the entire period as fight against forces of “evil” that threatened a force for “good.” In his farewell address, President Bush reiterated his moral argument: “I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This Nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense and to advance the cause of peace.”[11]

Ira Chernus argues that Americans accepted Bush’s moral argument because he addressed an anxiety that has persisted since the Vietnam War. Americans, Chernus contends, “could act out their sense of internal coherence by proving that they were not weak, that they had not spiritually surrendered, that the Vietnam War had not robbed Americans of their moral strength, spiritual discipline, and will to sacrifice.” As a religious scholar, Chernus directs particular attention to the way the neo-conservative philosophy of the Bush administration developed “in a sphere many would call religious.” Thus if this period came to resemble a religious crusade, it did so in the name of the American creed, rather than any particular church. And therefore Iraq became “a crucial test case of Americans’ patriotic dedication to country.”[12]

Indeed, American public morality developed at this time not merely outside American churches but in conflict with many of them. The Christian Century reported in May 2003 that “opinion polls showed that the spiritual movement opposing the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had little impact on churchgoers, much less on the American public—both overwhelmingly support both the war and President Bush.” Mark O’Keefe cited a Gallup poll that recorded two out of every three Americans who attend church at least weekly supported the war. A PEW study registered 62% of Catholics and an equal number of Protestants supporting the war, and 77% of evangelical Christians behind the war effort. Thus, O’Keefe noted that while “leaders of mainline Protestant denominations, included the Episcopal, Evangelical, Lutheran, and United Methodist churches, opposed war, and Pope John Paul II worked passionately against it…the flocks disagreed with their shepherds.”[13]  

Two statistical studies for this period lent credence to the notion that Americans used religion to evaluate and support the war. Corwin E. Smidt identified “religious salience” as a variable that helped explain who would support key initiatives in the war. Smidt defined this term as “composite variable incorporating whether the respondent reports being a member of a church, whether he/she attended church in the last seven days, the extent to which the respondent reported religion was important in his/her life, and whether the respondent believed that religion can answer today’s problems.” He concluded that “respondents who exhibited a high level of religious salience were more likely than those for whom religion was not important to state that removing Saddam [Hussein] was necessary to achieve disarmament.” Religious salience was also useful in identifying those respondents who favored an invasion of Iraq and who believed that Islam strongly encourages violence.   Smidt suggested that in his study “religious variables generally rivaled political variables and generally exceeded social-demographic variables in explaining differences on such issues [as discussed above].” However, Smidt does not explain why a person’s religious salience would be predictive of the kind of world view that would lead him or her to these foreign policy positions.[14]

A second study clarified the connection. Paul Froese and F. Carson Mencken argue that such support for the Iraq War came in part from the effect of a “sacralization ideology.” They define the term as “the extent to which individuals feel that their religion should influence and be a part of public policy debates.” And thus Froese and Mencken hypothesized that “those who support stronger ties between faith and public policy are those who are most sympathetic to religious arguments used to justify the use of military force in a proactive foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East.” They examined data collected in the Baylor Religion Survey from 2005 and tested for religious effects on war attitudes. What they discovered reflected the basic operation of civil religion. They concluded that “President Bush’s framing of the Iraq War as a struggle of good versus evil appealed to a certain segment of the population that is not fully identified as Republican or conservative. Instead, Americans who feel that their religious faith should be more influential in political matters have placed their trust in President Bush and, in turn, lend their support to the Iraq War.”[15]

Taken together, the combination of religious salience and sacralization ideology offer insight into how public morality can be expressed in terms that are not solely religious or political, but both. That combination can be understood through the idea of civil religion. Thus it was not surprising that at least a few religious leaders attacked the existence of civil religion as much as Bush’s use of it. Jim Wallis, of the evangelical left, illustrated this in an article for Sojourners entitled, “Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s theology of empire.” While Wallis devoted considerable space to critiquing what he saw as Bush’s abuse of Christianity, he focused his editorial wrath on an American national faith: “Bush seems to make this mistake over and over again—confusing nation, church, and God. The resulting theology is,” Wallis emphasized, “more American civil religion than Christian faith.” Wallis largely confirmed studies suggesting a willingness among Christians to support their president’s moral argument. He ended with a warning: “American Christians will have to make some difficult choices. Will we stand in solidarity with the worldwide church, the international body of Christ—or with our own American government?”[16]

The documentary footage that ends American Sniper makes clear the answer to Wallis’s question. While Wallis offered his question rhetorically, Clint Eastwood chose to end his film emphatically–at a particular level of abstract, the nation is indeed legend.  

[1] Andew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, “The Problem of American Exceptionalism.”

[2] ISSP 2003, “National Identity,” accessed at: http://www.za.uni-koeln.de/data/en/issp/codebooks/ZA3910_cdb.pdf

[3] Thirty-five nations in the total sample.

[4] For this category, the United States ranked 16th.

[5] For this category, 32% of Americans responded that they “disagree” that people should support their country even if it is wrong, ranking it 15th in this category.

[6] There is a three way tie for 14th place in this category.

[7] For this category, Americans did not overwhelmingly reject this choice, with 12.1% disagreeing and 4.8% disagreeing strongly.

[8] For this category, 36.8 Americans disagreed, ranking the U.S. 4th.

[9] PEW Trends in Political Values and Core Attitudes, 1987-2007, accessed at: http://people-press.org/reports/pdf/312.pdf

[10] Daniel Yankelovich, “The Tipping Points,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2006), accessed at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/20060501faessay85309/daniel-yankelovich/the-tipping-points

[11] President George W. Bush, Farewell Address, January 19, 2009.

[12] Ira Chernus, “The War in Iraq and the Academic Study of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 76 (December 2008), 847, 855.

[13] Mark O’Keefe, ”Antiwar movement stalled in pews,” Christian Century, (3 May 2003), 14, 15.

[14] Corwin E. Smidt, “Religion and American Attitudes Toward Islam and an Invasion of Iraq,” Sociology of Religion, 66:3 (2005), 249-251, 260.

[15] Paul Froese and F. Carson Mencken, “A U.S. Holy War? The Effects of Religion on Iraq War Policy Attitudes,” Social Science Quarterly, 90 (March 2009), 105, 112.

[16] Jim Wallis, ”Dangerous Religion: George W. Bush’s theology of empire.”


7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Great post here, Ray! So much to reflect on.

    Looking at your tables, would you say there’s a contradiction between responses to the question “Are you proud of the US military” (Table One)–which remain high–and the Pew question about peace through military strength (Table 3)–which are trending lower? Is it now possible to question American military policy and still “support the troops?” I reminded of one SDS veteran, talking in the documentary REBELS WITH A CAUSE, about the war protesters’ conflicted relationship to the army.

    Also, is it ironic that we’re so caught up in debating a film about a human killing machine when increasingly our armed forces are mechanical? Talk about the culture wars distracting from the real face of war!! The image of “American Sniper” in 20 years will be a robot (like those frighteningly featured in the opening of the new Robocop film) or some guy with a joystick.

  2. Full disclosure, I have not seen “American Sniper”. However, after reading and reflecting on some reviews as well as this and Andrew’s post about “American Sniper”, within the context of the culture wars, it struck me to think generally about how wars within the American public discourse are perceived, imagined, and remembered. I am reminded of Jackson Lears “Rebirth of a Nation” and how near the end of Reconstruction a popular memory of the Civil War shifted away from the issues of slavery to one of personal sacrifice and military heroism in an effort to re-unite, or rebirth, the nation anew from a cultural unwillingness to grasp or face the tragedy of the war. And I wonder if there is a similar theme? It seems that, by way of reviews, “American Sniper”—and perhaps also “Lone Survivor” which was about a 2005 counter-insurgence in Afghanistan—is framed around sacrifice and military heroism, and maybe remembering Iraq in this way reflects a broader cultural unwillingness to grapple with the geo-political dynamics and killings, both militarily and civilian, of the war. Further, I also wonder if this possible unwillingness to grapple with these questions surrounding the war in Iraq is not part of a broader cultural debate about how the war as a whole should be remembered; for its political and geo-political dynamics, as a tragedy, or a story of redemption which may (I would posit does) carry religious and political ideological undertones. But, I am outside of the field I study and could be far off.

    Mark: I really like your point on the irony of the debate. And I wonder how much of remembering the war through sacrifice and military heroism perhaps relates to slighting the relevance and use of drones and other mechanical weapons in modern warfare?

  3. I haven’t seen ‘American Sniper’ and am not planning to.

    I have a few reactions to a fairly quick reading of the post. First, I’ve read elsewhere at least one critique of the movie that accuses the movie of racism and links Eastwood’s apparent devaluation of Iraqi lives to the history of U.S. genocide against Native Americans, etc. This seems a line of criticism of the movie that is at least worth noting. (I can link to the particular critique I have in mind if someone wants me to.)

    Second, without having any particular familiarity with the literature on American ‘civil religion’ or ‘sacralization ideology,’ I must say I’m a bit skeptical of the argument that Bush’s good-vs-evil framing of the Iraq war somehow managed to strike a religious chord for some, or maybe, to put it differently, if it did strike that chord, as some of the research mentioned in this post apparently suggests, then it did so because the churchgoers in question weren’t paying much attention to what was actually going on in the M.East and to the absence of evidence for the Bush admin’s claims about Saddam Hussein and his regime. That embarking on a war that violated int’l law and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians cd find any sort of religious justification says something rather unflattering about religion in ‘the public sphere’, istm.

    Finally (and relatedly), I don’t really get the Ira Chernus argument that (to quote the post) “Americans accepted Bush’s moral argument because he addressed an anxiety that has persisted since the Vietnam War. Americans, Chernus contends, ‘could act out their sense of internal coherence by proving that they were not weak, that they had not spiritually surrendered, that the Vietnam War had not robbed Americans of their moral strength, spiritual discipline, and will to sacrifice.'”

    First, to the extent that this argument is about dispensing with or overcoming (or whatever) the so-called Vietnam syndrome, that is what G.W. Bush’s father claimed he had done with the first Gulf War. Second and more pertinently, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not involve any actual sacrifice for the vast majority of Americans; I believe the number of people who served in those wars constitute less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. From the standpoint of most of the U.S. population, they are examples of what the sociologist Michael Mann has called ‘spectator sport’ wars, conflicts in which the population cheers on the troops but from a safe distance (as one cheers a team in a stadium or whatever). This is of course in some contrast with certain earlier conflicts, where the presence of the draft spread out the sacrifices more widely (even if, in the case of Vietnam e.g., quite unevenly in terms of socioeconomic status). So Chernus’s argument, or implication at any rate. about the war in Iraq involving sacrifice on the part of the population as a whole doesn’t make sense.

  4. Yes to this. Civil religion waxes and wanes; wars are the occasion for its revival. At those moments, “true religion” (to use Huddie Ledbetter’s terminology) is powerless to stop it. The same thing happened during the run-up to the Gulf War.

    At the time, I was friendly with a group of extremely devout young Catholics. They would often excoriate their more liberal fellows with the phrase, “You can’t ignore the pope just because he’s not pronouncing infallibly!” When the pope stepped forward to oppose the war, they responded, “Well, he’s not pronouncing infallibly!”

    Thus has it ever been.

  5. Thanks for the excellent comments and questions, which, as usual, do more to explicate the issues in my post than the post did in the first place!

    The idea that I think gets to this collective conversation is the way material events in history become abstractions and how those abstractions relate back to the evaluation of the events in history. Part of this approach reflects work done on memory and collective memory and I think another part reflects the relationship between what is meant when we attempt to have historical debates about legacies of the nation. We see this happening with movies consistently, and it seems to me, especially in since the 1970s with the rise of blockbuster films that tend to generate debates often better than events unfolding in real time.
    For example, Louis points out the incongruence of actual military service since Vietnam and the effusive praise for military sacrifice over that same period. As James Fallows observes in a recent review of American military effectiveness in recent conflicts, reality would suggest that Americans actually care very little about war and that the military itself cares relatively little about fighting wars effectively. And yet, American Sniper gives millions Americans a kind of patriotic high, even though it relates a history that most Americans either care little about or, more significantly, had very little to do with. I think Chernus’s insight hits that conflict squarely–the legacy of Vietnam remains a constant presence, but that legacy is engaged at a level of abstraction–moral strength–rather than as a material act (real sacrifice, wether to fight in conflicts or prevent them from happening).

  6. Ray,
    Thank you for your reply to the comments. I agree that these conflicts have remained abstract for most Americans (I have the Fallows article, but haven’t gotten to it yet). At the same time, there may be some indications (and I’m speculating a bit here) that at least some Americans who did not participate directly in the conflicts are eager for first-hand but also for nuanced views of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — i.e., views that reflect a somewhat different perspective than the memoir (and now the movie) ‘American Sniper’ apparently does.

    A number of veterans have written memoirs or works of fiction based on their experiences, some of which have gotten a fair amount of attention. And the success of books by journalists such as Rajiv Chandresekaran and Dexter Filkins (The Forever War), which adopt (as I understand it; haven’t read them, though I’ve been meaning to read Filkins) a somewhat detached view, is perhaps also significant. And now we’re seeing retired officers publishing critical retrospectives. No doubt the literature (non-fiction and fiction) emerging from these wars, and the movies also, will furnish someone with a dissertation topic some day. And it ties in of course, as you say, to collective memory and commemoration — which opens questions prob. too broad/complicated for a comment box.

    • Thanks Louis. I agree, the comment box fails to provide the room we need to explore the ideas you have raised. There is an interesting grant from the NEH that involves academics and veterans in conversation. I’ve also followed some of media projects established to remember veteran accounts as they unfold in this somewhat ambivalent post-war period.

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