Back in the mid-1990s a marine public-information officer took me into a secret watering hole at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, that served as a private clubhouse for snipers. There was, however, one key condition: Nothing I saw and heard there could be used in a piece I was then writing for the Washington Post Magazine.
And for good reason, it turned out: The barroom walls featured white-on-black Nazi SS insignia and other Wehrmacht photos and regalia. The marine shooters clearly identified—privately, anyway—with the marksmen of the world’s most infamous killing machine, rather than with regular troops. If there was a joke in there, I missed it.
On one level, this pride of craft made a certain sick sense. Killing is a sniper’s very specific job; his mantra is “One shot, one kill.”
And by his own account in American Sniper (William Morrow, $27) Chris Kyle was extremely good at it. The ex–Navy SEAL, awarded two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars with Valor, among other medals, is credited with more than 150 kills in Iraq, with the probable number (which includes those unconfirmed by a third party) considerably higher.
“After the first kill, the others come easy,” Kyle writes in his breezy, conversational memoir, co-authored with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. (He often addresses readers as “y’all.”)
“I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything special mentally—I look through the scope, get my target in the crosshairs, and kill my enemy before he kills one of my people,” he writes. He repeats the “I could care less” thought several times throughout the book.
The Vietnam War’s most famous sniper, marine gunnery sergeant Carlos Hathcock, once said he agreed with Ernest Hemingway’s observation that “certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter.”
“He got that right,” Hathcock told a biographer. But he added: “I like shooting, and I love hunting. But I never did enjoy killing anybody. It’s my job. If I don’t get those bastards, then they’re gonna kill a lot of these kids dressed up like Marines. That’s the way I look at it.”
Hathcock’s measured statement comes as a relief after slogging through Kyle’s alternately self-celebrating and self-pitying book, an exemplar of the narcissism of our times. Judging by the success of Kyle’s memoir, a Sniper Housewives reality-TV franchise can’t be far behind.
Traditionally (which is to say, during the century before 9/11), Americans have been ambivalent about snipers, at least in popular culture. We accepted what our snipers do as an integral tool of war—even as we depicted snipers on the other side as sneaky and bloodthirsty cowards. But we didn’t revel in the sniper’s vocation—nor did American snipers themselves.
At a minimum, history suggests life is not kind to military snipers. Nightmares, alcoholism, bar fights, car accidents, and jail stints litter their civilian records. Some come completely unhinged, like Charles Whitman, the marine sniper who killed sixteen people and wounded thirty-two others from his perch atop the University of Texas bell tower in 1966. In March, army sniper Robert Bales, thirty-eight, a veteran of three tours in Iraq before his deployment to Afghanistan, went on a shooting rampage in Kandahar, allegedly killing sixteen men, women, and children.
Of course, hundreds, maybe even thousands, of American snipers have gone on to crime-free, even happy lives after hanging up their scopes. Kyle insists that after ten years as a sniper, he found that killing another man was “no big deal.” Yet after his discharge (from an accumulation of wounds), he found life somehow unbearable.
At first, he seemed not to notice. “Fighting is a fact of life when you’re a SEAL,” he says at one point, mindlessly off-loading responsibility for a string of altercations, one of which landed him in jail when his wife was having a birthday party for their child. “I’ve been in a few good ones.”
Ha-ha. Later on, however, his ex-SEAL lifestyle, which seems to involve a lot of needless bar brawls, is not so much fun.
“I started drinking a lot, pounding back beers,” he writes. “I’d say I went into a depression, feeling sorry for myself. Pretty soon drinking was all I did. After a while, it was hard liquor, and it was all through the day.” Finally, after driving off a highway one night and totaling his pickup, he sobered up—though one can only speculate how long the recovery will last.
Kyle’s whole story, in fact, reads like a melancholic country-and-western ballad with its dead-end jobs, bar fights, wandering eyes, and teary reconciliations with a too-forgiving woman. Such misadventures are laced together with a tobacco-dip-and-whiskey patriotism, the kind beloved by Republican cynics and sports-stadium operators everywhere. Along the way, Kyle bashes antiwar protesters, Congress, his bosses, and “pussies” in his various units. And like many of the musical protagonists in the half-heroic country canon, Kyle is by his own account a sorry-ass husband and father, a Peter Pan in camouflage and night goggles.
Maybe this gun-wielding saga of arrested development explains the runaway popularity of Kyle’s casually brutal memoir. His tale starts in north-central Texas, where his father was a deacon, his mother a Sunday-school teacher. Kyle writes that as a young ranch hand, cowboy, and competitive bronco buster on the rodeo circuit, he “learned the importance of family and traditional values, like patriotism, self-reliance, and watching out for your family and neighbors.”
In 1999, he enlisted. He concedes he’s no foreign-policy expert, boiling the post-9/11 world down to us and them.
“I don’t see too much gray,” he writes. “I was raised with, and still believe in, the Christian faith. If I had to order my priorities, they would be God, Country, Family.”
And weapons. Like many a rural-Texan child, he grew up hunting and fondly remembers his first guns. As a sniper, he’s in love with his tools, lovingly cataloguing them again and again in what gun-loving readers must experience as a kind of vicarious weapons porn.
On home leave from Iraq, he gets a tattoo of “a crusader cross” on the front of one arm—inadvertently fulfilling Al Qaeda’s principal stereotype of Americans. “I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in red, for blood.” Offhandedly, he adds: “I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting.”
“Savage, despicable evil. That’s what we were fighting in Iraq,” he writes after describing his first kill, a woman who walked into a street with a grenade in her hand as marines advanced into her village. After a moment’s hesitation, he drops her with a shot.
“That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy ‘savages,’” he writes of this scene. “There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there.”
Well, yes, of course there is. In the first weeks following the air strikes and invasion, many Iraqis, despite their loathing for Saddam Hussein, rose up against the Americans until the insurgency proved hopeless. Later, sullen, disenfranchised, and unemployed Sunnis picked up the fight, and so did nationalistic and pro-Iranian Shiites. Then came Al Qaeda’s ruthless kidnappers and suicide bombers, determined to kill Americans at all costs. Then we paid the Sunnis who had been killing us to kill them.
Many insurgents, of course, found succor among Iraqis whose homes had been evacuated, destroyed, or looted by the Americans. That’s why, after the marines evicted 250 people from an apartment complex on the edge of Fallujah, Kyle set up his sniper nest in one of the top apartments to target insurgents from above.
But despite his firsthand, multitour exposure to the conflict, Kyle seems oblivious to the notion that such tactics can be self-defeating. “To me, the home I was in was just another part of the battlefield,” he breezily observes. “The apartments and everything in them were just things to be used to accomplish our goal—clearing the city.” He even put a baby crib “to good use” as a rifle platform. Then he started “rummaging through the complex to see if I could find any cool shit—money, guns, explosives. The only thing I found worth acquisitioning was a handheld Tiger Woods game.”
I guess he missed the memo on winning hearts and minds.
Beyond the blasť particulars of Kyle’s he-man approach to stateside life, American Sniper reads like the ultimate armchair warrior’s wish-fulfillment fantasy. It depicts a world where America’s enemies are reliably sinister and evil, and where regular-guy snipers such as Kyle can redeem themselves on a greater historical stage in the time it takes to get off a well-turned rifle shot. It is, in its own way, the same narrative fantasy that launched the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions in the first place. And with Chris Kyle as the battle-hardened guide for readers eager to escape the unsightly reversals and unintended consequences of such overseas ventures, American Sniper provides a kind of alternate history. It banishes much of the bad news from Iraq and Afghanistan (and before that, Somalia, Beirut, and Vietnam) altogether, while making the story of a Robert Bales or a Charles Whitman seem like nothing more than a sad detour into personal tragedy. In the place of the sobering real history of America’s decade-plus invasions abroad, American Sniper provides the simple thrill of victory, displacing the constant agony of defeat—if only for the time it takes for these four hundred self-aggrandizing pages to breeze by.
Jeff Stein, a military intelligence case officer in Vietnam during the war, writes the SpyTalk blog from Washington, DC.