This is easily the most controversial book I’ve read for the Cannonball.
First: about me. I was never in the military. But I was an army brat, and have spent most of my life around military or ex-military. While I am under no illusions about my qualifications to speak on war, I do think I understand the kind of person Chris Kyle was (in the most general sense). I’ve known people like him (in temperament if not experience) my whole life. And, frankly, I don’t like them. We just don’t mesh well. I try to take a more nuanced view of the world, and think everyone is the hero of their own story, even those who inhabit the role of villain for others. Chris Kyle is a self-described redneck and cowboy who counts God as his first priority.He hunts, loves guns and dipping tobacco, and absolutely loves to fight. So much, in fact, that he’s been arrested numerous times.
That, at it’s core, is my fundamental problem with him as a person: he glories in being the cause of human death and suffering. He wouldn’t phrase it that way, perhaps, but that’s what he does. I can’t help but feel that the kind of clarity of purpose on display here is typically a benefit to being mentally enfeebled. By his own estimation, Chris Kyle murdered nearly 300 people (the military “recognizes” roughly half of them). Every single one of them was a “savage”, and evil, and deserved to die. He displays absolutely no doubt or shred of guilt at taking their lives. Seldom will you come across such wanton indifference to the loss of life, outside the testimonial of a serial killer, at least.
And while I can’t say his apparent reveling in death endeared him to me…..is this necessarily a bad thing? The conundrum here is that he did precisely what we, as a country, asked him to do. And he excelled at it. Can we, now, condemn him for having the aptitude to so ably perform the job we gave him? Humility, kindness, and empathy are all traits, I think, that we should strive for. And we should strive to create a world where our heroes can exhibit those traits while still serving as a model for us to emulate. But when there is a war to be fought, you can’t have both. Bravado is an inherent benefit in conflict, and kindness and empathy are anathema to violence. It’s an insensible paradox to expect our warriors to embrace such cognitive dissonance.
Though I may flinch, I don’t begrudge Kyle his arrogant confidence that he made no mistakes. I think he’s, to some degree, required to dehumanize the people he was trained to kill. But what he doesn’t ever seem to grasp is that, from the perspective of his targets, he was evil incarnate. Iraq, for the United States, became a kind of I Am Legend scenario: we started off seeing ourselves as the victim, only to end up being the monsters. We invaded their home. We created the conflict. We started the fight. The violence was our responsibility – not theirs. And we didn’t exactly endear ourselves to them for a number of reasons (our rendition program, Abu Graib, Guantanamo Bay, and extrajudicial killings, to name a few).
Kyle goes to great lengths to justify violence on the part of Americans (understandably), but would we really behave so differently had our roles been reversed? If the US was invaded, if our government was overthrown, would there not be an armed insurrection against our interlopers? If Kyle’s thesis that violence isn’t nice holds true, then can we really condemn them for resorting to heinous actions to fight an overwhelming and better armed force intruding into their communities?
If it’s true that we should allow our warriors to do what must be done in order for them to achieve their objectives, then surely the same must hold true for the people we’re fighting. I think it’s a dangerously misguided principle to condemn in others what we, ourselves, embrace.
The elephant in the room, here, is the reason we went into Iraq in the first place. I don’t think it can be argued, as Kyle awkwardly attempts to, that the people fighting the war don’t get to choose when, where, and whom they fight while simultaneously claiming to be fighting a just cause. If god is on your side, and you are killing people who are “evil”, then the cause of the war is important. And, as should be readily apparent to everyone at this point, the foundation – the legal pretext that justified the invasion – was a sham. It was never proven.
Kyle mentions “French and German” labelled WMDs that were found, which is highly misleading. In short, the reason the Bush administration gave – that Hussein was actively engaged in building a chemical weapons program – was a lie, and a massive intelligence failure. All that was ever found in Iraq were old, discarded munitions from the Iran-Iraq War. We did not fight a “just war”, and had no legitimate reason to be there.
Given that, our enemies can just as easily be described as defending themselves from an unwanted invader, rather than an unappreciated liberator.
None of which, of course, makes Kyle wrong for defending his fellow men in uniform – but he’s trying to do so while occupying the moral high ground. I don’t think think he’s able to.
It’s impossible to not draw comparisons to Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, especially given that Luttrell is brought up two or three times in American Sniper. Both men rail against bureaucratic malfeasance and political obstructionism, dehumanize their enemy, and have an almost satirical form of patriotism. The difference, for me at least, is that Luttrell’s more bigoted or myopic views seem to manifest around the deep personal tragedy he experienced, whereas Kyle just seems to generally see all people of the Middle East as savages, undeserving of basic human understanding. Which makes him a fairly unsympathetic person.
He did a lot of undoubtedly great things. He saved countless lives through his military service, and spent his post-war years helping veterans overcome PTSD and other injuries, and he ultimately gave his life trying to reach out to a young man suffering with problems he wasn’t able to cope with. For all he may have lacked, I don’t think anyone can take those things away from him, which is probably why he resonates so well with so many people. The lies and exaggerations he told don’t, I believe, change the fundamental truths of this book, or his life.
But shouldn’t they still tarnish his image? I believe so.
I don’t much like Chris Kyle, and I can honestly say that I abhor his myopic worldview. But his experiences are valuable for understanding the Iraq War and, perhaps more importantly, many of the people who fought in it. From my own experiences, I can’t say his opinions were unique or unrepresentative.
I had numerous problems with this book, but the thing I may have liked the most were the occasional asides by his wife, Taya. This book is at least partly about the struggles he had trying to juggle his need to keep fighting, and his obligations at home. The inclusion of his wife’s voice was a welcome addition. In a world where the family’s voice is often left out of the narrative, it’s good to hear from the people our warriors are (ideally) fighting to protect.
This is a book I’m heavily conflicted over. How do you judge the memoir of a confirmed liar resilient to self-reflection who undoubtedly did great things for his country? Was he a terrible person because he was well-suited to the role we needed him to fill? Was he a great person in spite of his darker tendencies? I think there’s plenty of room for discussion. And, I’m not entirely sure, but I feel this may be the most important memoir of the war, partly due to how unclear my final judgement is.