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Archive for January 29th, 2015

Every movie rewrites history. What American Sniper did is much, much worse.

American Sniper has a problem. It’s a movie about a black-and-white distinction between good and evil, but it is set almost entirely in the Iraq War, which can only be honestly portrayed in shades of gray.

Faced with a choice between altering its narrative to account for that gray versus altering the facts of history, the film chose the latter.

It adopted an “honesty shmonesty” approach to the war: in its retelling, Iraq was a fight of Good Americans against Bad Terrorists, led by Chris Kyle, the Good-est American of them all.

The result is a sort of Hezbollah martyr video for the Fox News set; recruitment propaganda for culture-war extremists. I

n the world of this movie, the Iraq war is an extension of the war on terror; heroes with guns are our only hope of salvation; and anyone who doubts that is part of the problem. And if the film’s historic box office success and many award nominations are anything to go by, that propaganda is frighteningly effective.

Warning: This article discusses the plot of American Sniper in its entirety.

A black and white war

american sniper promo 1

The movie’s central moral metaphor is voiced by Kyle’s father during a flashback to his childhood. There are, he explains, 3 types of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs.

The evil wolves threaten the sheep. The sheep are good people, but vulnerable to harm because they’re too naive to understand that evil exists. That means that it’s up to the sheepdogs to protect them from harm.

In that metaphor, Kyle is America’s border collie, shepherding the weak and vulnerable away from harm. The movie’s Big Bad Wolves are al-Qaeda terrorists, led by a psychopathic child-torturer and his marksman sidekick.

And the sheep? They would be the other Americans who lack Chris Kyle’s vision and fortitude, and fail to understand that you’re either with us or against us. That includes fellow US troops who lack Kyle’s skill, or who dare to question the war.

Iraqis, by contrast, are not sheep: in this movie they’re either wolves themselves, or nameless collateral damage. Mostly wolves, though.

The movie’s “wolf” problem

Wolf

 

(Shutterstock.com)

American Sniper stacks its narrative deck, using imaginary history and characters to give Kyle a suitably evil foe to fight. While it’s never great to see a movie falsify a true story, American Sniper‘s disdainful attitude towards the truth is especially disingenuous in light of its broader “you’re either with us, or you’re a naive sheep” narrative.

To maximize the bigness and badness of its available wolves, American Sniper rewrites history, turning the Iraq War into a response to the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The film finds time for entire scenes of Kyle viewing TV news reports about al-Qaeda’s 1998 bombings of US embassies, and the planes hitting the Twin Towers on 9/11.

And when Kyle gets to Iraq, his commander explains that they are hunting the leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The inference we’re supposed to gather is clear: that Kyle is fighting the same people who attacked America in 1998 and 2001.

By contrast, the actual reasons for the Iraq war go unmentioned. The words “Saddam Hussein” are never uttered in the movie. Nor are “George Bush,” “Sunni,” “Shia,” or “weapons of mass destruction.”

As Zack Beauchamp points out, this depiction of the war is breathtakingly dishonest.

The Iraq War was not a response to 9/11: this was a war America chose, officially based on reports of weapons of mass destruction that were implausible at the time, and that have since been proven false.

In real life, Chris Kyle argued that America owed its troops support because those troops did not get to choose the wars they fought, or the strategy they followed: they wrote the government a blank check for their lives and waited to see if it would get cashed.

There’s a very interesting movie to be made about that idea, and about what it means to be heroic during a misguided war. American Sniper isn’t it.

Instead, the film heightens the good-vs-evil stakes by supplying Kyle with two fictionalized enemies: “The Butcher,” an al-Qaeda in Iraq enforcer famed for his brutality, and “Mustafa,” a Syrian who once won Olympic medals for marksmanship, but now spends his days as an al-Qaeda sniper, picking off American soldiers as they go about their noble work.

The Butcher is evil personified. He uses a power drill to torture a child to death in front of his screaming family. His workshop in a disused restaurant looks like the set for a cooking show hosted by Hannibal Lecter: a chained, mangled corpse dangles from the kitchen ceiling, and larder shelves are piled with dismembered body parts.

Mustafa, on the other hand, is Bizarro Chris Kyle. He’s equally skilled with a rifle, but instead of heroically protecting American troops, he’s picking them off, one by one. You know, evilly.

The movie’s “sheep” problem

Sheep

(Shutterstock.com)

The movie’s “sheep” problem is equally disturbing. The sheep are not the Iraqi civilians terrorized by the Butcher.

With the exception of one murdered child and his payoff-demanding father, the Iraqis in the film are pretty much all terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Rather, the sheep Kyle protects are the other American soldiers. For a movie that’s been lauded for its support of the troops, that’s a surprisingly disdainful view of their bravery and skill.

In the movie’s telling, ordinary soldiers’ lack of SEAL training makes them sitting ducks (sitting sheep?) for insurgent attacks.

At one point, Kyle leaves his sniper’s perch to lead a group of Marines as they clear buildings in Fallujah, telling the awed soldiers, who burst with gratitude that the hero Chris Kyle has deigned to join them, that he can show them a thing or two.

Even Kyle’s own brother is given sheep status: when he deploys with the Marines, it’s cause for family concern, not celebration of his heroism. And when Kyle sees him later on an Iraqi airstrip, he’s shaking with exhaustion from battlefield trauma.

A different movie might have acknowledged that those soldiers were, in many ways, more heroic than Kyle. They took greater risks with less training, and many of them lost their lives in battle as a result. American Sniper, on the other hand, presents them as an undifferentiated mass of grunts, waiting for Chris Kyle to save them.

Worse, the movie’s sheep-wolves-sheepdog narrative implicitly blames them for their own peril. The “sheep” are in danger because they are too naive to understand the evil in the world, not just because they are under-trained or under-resourced.

The movie is very clear on that point. In a scene depicting the funeral of Marc Lee, Kyle’s friend and fellow SEAL who was killed in action, his mother reads a moving letter Lee wrote a few weeks before his death, in which he questions the legitimacy of wartime glory, and worries that it can lead to an “unjustified crusade.”

It seems, for a moment, like the film might be attempting to grapple with the justness of the war itself, or at least consider the possibility that a person could be both heroic as an individual, and ambivalent about the greater mission.

Nope.

Instead, the following scene features an angry rant from Kyle, who insists that “that letter” killed Marc, not the bullet that hit him. In the world of American Sniper, doubting your role as champion of good and enemy of evil is a fatal condition.

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle Warner Bros

 

 

american sniper promo 1

(Shutterstock.com)

The movie’s “sheep” problem is equally disturbing. The sheep are not the Iraqi civilians terrorized by the Butcher. With the exception of one murdered child and his payoff-demanding father, the Iraqis in the film are pretty much all terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Rather, the sheep Kyle protects are the other American soldiers. For a movie that’s been lauded for its support of the troops, that’s a surprisingly disdainful view of their bravery and skill.

In the movie’s telling, ordinary soldiers’ lack of SEAL training makes them sitting ducks (sitting sheep?) for insurgent attacks. At one point, Kyle leaves his sniper’s perch to lead a group of Marines as they clear buildings in Fallujah, telling the awed soldiers, who burst with gratitude that the hero Chris Kyle has deigned to join them, that he can show them a thing or two. Even Kyle’s own brother is given sheep status: when he deploys with the Marines, it’s cause for family concern, not celebration of his heroism. And when Kyle sees him later on an Iraqi airstrip, he’s shaking with exhaustion from battlefield trauma.

A different movie might have acknowledged that those soldiers were, in many ways, more heroic than Kyle. They took greater risks with less training, and many of them lost their lives in battle as a result. American Sniper, on the other hand, presents them as an undifferentiated mass of grunts, waiting for Chris Kyle to save them.

Worse, the movie’s sheep-wolves-sheepdog narrative implicitly blames them for their own peril. The “sheep” are in danger because they are too naive to understand the evil in the world, not just because they are under-trained or under-resourced.

The movie is very clear on that point. In a scene depicting the funeral of Marc Lee, Kyle’s friend and fellow SEAL who was killed in action, his mother reads a moving letter Lee wrote a few weeks before his death, in which he questions the legitimacy of wartime glory, and worries that it can lead to an “unjustified crusade.” It seems, for a moment, like the film might be attempting to grapple with the justness of the war itself, or at least consider the possibility that a person could be both heroic as an individual, and ambivalent about the greater mission.

Nope.

Instead, the following scene features an angry rant from Kyle, who insists that “that letter” killed Marc, not the bullet that hit him. In the world of American Sniper, doubting your role as champion of good and enemy of evil is a fatal condition.

The “sheepdog” problem

Sheepdog <img alt=”Sheepdog” src=”https://cdn1.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/SAu_0xxAB1MzCvTT9OOzMVrBaxw=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/3327852/shutterstock_245292823.0.jpg”>

(Shutterstock.com)

That with-us-or against us construction is a problem, because the movie isn’t just selling a vision of the Iraq War, it’s selling a vision of violence as the only effective resistance to the forces of evil.

In the movie, Kyle is infallible. We never once see him shoot a civilian who he mistakes for a combatant. When another soldier tells him that the wife of one of Kyle’s “kills” claims he was carrying a Koran, not a gun, Kyle dismisses his concerns by saying  “I don’t know what a Koran looks like,” before describing in detail the exact type of gun the man was holding.

When Kyle shoots a young child and a woman in an early scene, the film is careful to show the grenade they were carrying exploding, leaving no doubt that Kyle was correct about the danger they posed to nearby American troops. In a climactic scene, when Kyle disobeys an order to hold his fire and nearly gets his entire team killed, the movie still eventually validates his decision: he kills the bad guy, and all the good guys survive unharmed.

That reinforces the movie’s construct of good vs. evil — sheep vs. wolves. Because Kyle is always right, any limits on his use of violence would, by definition, leave American soldiers in danger. That’s something only a naive sheep could want.

But pretending that heroic sheepdog warriors never accidentally kill civilians is a dangerous lie about the true nature of combat. In the real world, even well-intentioned soldiers do sometimes kill innocent people, because that is how war works.

Pretending otherwise is an insult to the many American veterans who have to spend the rest of their lives grappling with their actions during the Iraq War, and to the thousands of innocent Iraqis who have been killed since the conflict began. And it’s also dangerous, because it tells Americans not to worry about the harm our wars may do to civilians, who are probably all terrorists anyway. It’s bad enough to hide that truth behind euphemisms like “collateral damage,” but much worse to write it out of the story completely.

The result: recruitment propaganda for an imaginary war

American Sniper Tweets <img alt=”American Sniper Tweets” src=”https://cdn2.vox-cdn.com/thumbor/b3_vb-FUafo-hj0ZhCqsFTfUxgY=/cdn0.vox-cdn.com/uploads/chorus_asset/file/3327854/American_Sniper_Tweets.0.jpg”>

(Cryanne)

Given all of that, it is hardly surprising that many viewers appear to have absorbed American Sniper‘s message as “Muslims are evil and should be killed.”

It would be bad enough if this were merely a shockingly inaccurate portrayal of the Iraq War and an appallingly insulting one of Iraqis themselves. But it’s worse, because this movie feeds the narrative that the civilized world is at war with Muslims, that the only solution is to respond with crushing violence, and that people who refuse to believe that are naïfs — sheep, rather — who are dangerously undermining America’s security.

That’s not a story that’s limited to Clint-Eastwood-directed warsploitation movies. You’ll hear the same thing on Fox News, where this month Jeanine Pirro delivered a bloodthirsty rant calling for mass murder as a solution to the problem of Muslim extremism, and the network repeatedly made the false claim that radical Islamists had taken over parts of European cities, turning them into Muslim-only “no-go” zones.

That’s its own form of dangerous extremism. Its premises are wrong, and its results are dangerous. By feeding that narrative, American Sniper is part of the problem.

American Sniper

  1. Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL who the Oscar-nominated film “American Sniper” is based on, wrote a book by the same name that encapsulates his hatred, bigotry and enthusiasm for killing “Iraqi savages”, most of which is sanitized or missing from the movie.
    Here is Chris Kyle in his own words:
  2. In stark contrast, the Hollywood version of Chris Kyle is a complex and likable hero.
    I knew going into the movie that he would be glorified and sanitized for mass consumption. What I was not prepared for is the outrageous lengths to which the film goes to erase US criminality in Iraq while portraying the local Arab population, including small children, as violent irrational monsters.

 

 

Does Your Boss Thinks You’re Awesome? Ask him to just say you’re awesome

If your boss thinks you’re awesome, will that make you more awesome?

This question came to us recently, when we were working with the top 3 levels of management in a multinational.

When asked to rate their direct reports on 360 evaluations, some managers consistently rated everyone higher, and others consistently lower, than the average. We wondered if this was a result of bias, and what effect it had on the people who worked for them.

If Your Boss Thinks You’re Awesome, You Will Become More Awesome

To understand this better we looked at a larger set of 360 data to identify 50 of the company’s managers who rated their direct reports significantly more positively than everyone else on a five-point scale (that is, they gave a higher percentage of their subordinates top marks than their colleagues did, skewing the curve to the right, as in Lake Woebegone, where everyone is above average).

We also identified 31 managers who consistently rated their direct reports significantly lower than their colleagues, skewing their curves to the left.

The difference is stark: Only 18.4% of the people working for the “positive-rating” managers, or the easy graders, were judged as merely “competent” (that is, just average) compared with fully 51.4% of those working for the “negative-rating” managers, clearly the harder graders.

While neither group judged even 1% of their workers as truly problematic and in need of significant improvement, almost 14% of those working for the negative-rating managers were judged to need some improvement compared with only 3% of those working for the positive-rating bosses.

isyourbossjudginv2

It’s hard to parse the meaning of these data.

Are the positive-rating managers indulging in grade inflation?

Do the lower ratings actually represent a more objective and deserved analysis of a subordinate’s performance? (After all, it does follow the standard bell curve.)

Or perhaps the ratings are in some way self-fulfilling, and the leaders who see the best in their people actually make them better, while those who look more critically make their subordinates worse.

We favor that second interpretation, since whether deserved or not, the psychological effect of these ratings was dramatic.

Anyone who joined us in the discussions with the subordinates of these two sets of managers would have instantly seen the impact. The people who’d received more positive ratings felt lifted up and supported. And that vote of confidence made them more optimistic about future improvement.  Conversely, subordinates rated by the consistently tougher managers were confused or discouraged—often both. They felt they were not valued or trusted, and that it was impossible to succeed.

These feelings directly translated into higher or lower levels of engagement: engagement scores for those working under the negative raters averaged in the 47th percentile, whereas scores for those reporting to the positive raters averaged in the 60th percentile.  This difference is statistically significant.

It’s possible that the negative-rating managers simply had more than their share of less-engaged employees, but we believe the far more likely explanation is that everyone’s engagement levels started out roughly the same and that widely different daily interactions, culminating in extremely divergent performance reviews, had a strong impact on engagement levels.

This is a particularly alarming possibility when you consider the seemingly reasonable motives of those who gave consistently lower ratings.

We frequently heard them say something like, “I want my people to get the message that I have high expectations.”  Those who gave high marks to their people also had high expectations, but they were more focused on sending the message that they had confidence in their people. They truly felt that they had selected the best people for those positions, and they expected them to succeed.

And did they SUCCEED?

To see, we looked at the overall leadership ratings the two groups’ 360 evaluations. We were not surprised, by now, to see that the bosses who rated everyone lower on their performance also rated them lower on their leadership abilities, while the bosses who gave the highest marks to their teams in general gave high marks on leadership as well.

The degree of difference was startling, though—with leadership ratings averaging only in the 19th percentile for the low raters and 76% for the high raters.

And the thing is, the peers, subordinates, and other associates also rated the leadership skills of the employees working for the low-rating managers lower than those working for the high raters.

The gap was not nearly as great, as you can see in the chart below, but it was consistent and significant.

ifyourbossthinks v2

The fact that the ratings given by both the low- and high-rating managers were so different from the ratings given by others suggests that both sets of managers are biased (or that managers trying to force rank their staffs are judging them unfairly).

And it also shows that these biases and rankings have become self-fulfilling, influencing subordinates’ behavior to the extent that others ultimately can see it.

If this is so, these tough graders aren’t doing the organization any favors.

There’s an interesting study that is related to this issue called “Predicting non-marital romantic relationship dissolution: A meta-analytic synthesis.”  This was a meta-analysis of 137 studies collected over 33 years with 37,761 participants.

These studies were looking at factors that cause non-married couples to break up or stay together.  The number one factor that kept people together was something they called “positive illusion” – essentially that the person you’re dating thinks you’re awesome.

Is it possible, then, that if a boss thinks you’re awesome you will become more awesome? On a personal level, it’s hard to dismiss.

We’ve spoken with hundreds of leaders whose bosses thought they were awesome, we know the impact is real.


Jack Zenger is the CEO of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a co-author of the October 2011 HBR article Making Yourself Indispensable.Connect with Jack at twitter.com/jhzenger.


Joseph Folkman is the president of Zenger/Folkman, a leadership development consultancy. He is a co-author of the October 2011 HBR article “Making Yourself Indispensable. Connect with Joe at twitter.com/joefolkman.


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