American Sniper, the State of the Union, and the Dueling Narratives of Crisis in the United States


Jeffrey Greenberg

“The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong.”

Barack Obama tonight officially closed the book on the year 2014 and welcomed Americans into a new period of the 21st century. The speech was largely starry-eyed, harkening back to the president’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention, a time when he called for an American political system that transcended party, racial, religious, and ideological lines – a time to work together amidst the strife of prolonged war and uncertainty.

For the past 6 years, our executive has presided over a continuation of global discord. As the 2000s became the 2010s, al-Qaeda and the Taliban became ISIS, Georgia became the Ukraine, and the wounds of recession gave way to the frustration of economic uncertainty. So, has the shadow of crisis passed? Certainly, it seems as though Americans today have grown used to the state of perpetual war around the globe and of domestic stagnation at home. “Millennials” such as myself , who faced their transition to adulthood in the context of the Bush and Obama White Houses, especially have a sort of inherent cynicism regarding foreign policy, skepticism about the departure of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a tacit acceptance of a world ruled by conflict. By proclaiming that “the shadow of crisis has passed” in his State of the Union address, President Obama has attempted to end this mindset, to bring us backward as much as forward, to channel the often Conservative ethos of American dominance and power in the 20th century and use that as a model to push his administration’s domestic agenda into the next decades.

The fact is, we cannot just close the book on 2014. The shadow of crisis still looms tall over much of the world. In 2015 we face the same problems we faced in 2014, that we have faced since the beginning of Obama’s presidency and beforehand, and that we have faced, as the president points out, since “terror touch[ed] our shores” in 2001. In the past week, Israel deployed their Iron Dome against Lebanon in the north, highlighting continued conflict on the Middle East’s Mediterranean coast. Boko Haram indiscriminately massacred hundreds in Nigeria. ISIS militants killed 13 children for watching a soccer game, threw a homosexual man off of a roof to his death, and added two Japanese hostages to Jihadi John’s notoriously publicized list of snuff films. Death tolls rise in the Ukraine as fighting has intensified. Twelve satirical journalists in Paris perished as Islamic radicals targeted the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a nearby kosher deli. Crisis, if anything, has become more normalized in the American psyche.

On the domestic front, President Obama’s rhetoric was almost uncharacteristically positive for a State of the Union address in the modern era. While the body of his speech recognized to some extent the continued threat of ISIS and other foreign policy problems, he largely ignores perhaps the greatest domestic tension of his presidency, that of Ferguson and its related protests. Indeed, under the Obama presidency, many believe race relations have generally deteriorated and a new culture war has emerged to divide the American citizenry over issues such as identity politics, censorship, and the limits of speech.

So what then is the nature of crisis in 2015?

This past weekend I saw American Sniper in theaters. With a $105 million opening weekend, spurred on largely by the conservative parts of the country, it reminds of a different narrative regarding conflict in the 21st century. Far from being black and white, American Sniper highlights the horrors of war and the difficulty of navigating the complex political relationships of the Middle East, but in profiling a man who in the classic sense fulfills all the qualities of an American hero, the film creates a different narrative regarding foreign policy threats and domestic identity. Chris Kyle’s biopic galvanized American audiences, reminding them of the last decade more than President Obama’s State of the Union ever could. In this unabashed glorification of Western civilization and of the determination felt by the US in at least the early stages of the Bush era, the reality of present day conflict is made to stand in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of the President.

Indeed, American Sniper harkens back to a different time in this country, an ability to recognize the horrors of war and come out stronger as a nation. President Obama, by pushing full steam ahead into a “new era” without recognizing the domestic division of his presidency and the continued threat of conflict abroad, fails to ameliorate the sheer apathy felt by many Americans toward the government under his administration. In contrast, the embrace of the film, I believe, stems largely from the same mentality that elected a Republican Senate in 2014. There are, without a doubt, dueling narratives of what makes America great in the modern era. On one side we have the President’s agenda for economic and social change. On the other, a silent majority’s hope for a redo on the major social and foreign policy issues of the president’s administration

Indeed, the shadow of crisis has not passed, and extends forward to haunt us from the early stages of the Obama presidency and the later Bush years. To rhetorically ignore the tenuous position of modern world order is to do a great disservice to the legacy of Chris Kyle and to the continued attempt of this country to grapple with contemporary politics.

By channeling a speech from a decade ago into his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama attempts to bring the country along with him into a progressive agenda both domestically and abroad, but he perhaps misses the most important aspect of the national dialogue. If there’s anything we can tell from the contrasting receptions to American Sniper and America’s president, it’s that Americans do want to put an end to the problems of the last decade, including the domestic and foreign wounds that have been laid bare under the Obama presidency. The difference is, they want to do it not simply by closing the book, but by taking the time to write its epilogue.

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