American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History
Chris Kyle, with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
ISBN-13: 978-0062082350 (also available for Kindle)
Last summer, I reviewed the brilliant play Civilian by Herman Daniel Farrell III, after it was performed at the New York International Fringe Festival. It was a minimalist presentation of the communication problems faced by young American soldiers (real ones) as they returned home from the Middle East and attempted to enter college. It consisted entirely of lines taken from interviews with the men and women themselves. The play was powerful mainly because Farrell succeeded in completely sidestepping the fetishization of war, hero worship and archetypal role playing that are generally inherent in even the most sensitive of military dramas. And, in doing so, it wasn’t just real — it was accessible to those of us who don’t normally have the chance to understand.
The problem is that, sadly, stuff like that doesn’t sell. Contact with our own soldiers is almost always much more indirect; and when it comes in the form of chest-beating accounts of ridding the world of anti-American evil, as does American Sniper by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, we tend to think (wrongly) that all soldiers must be like this. They all must be hopelessly callous and narrow-minded.
A better subtitle for this autobiography would have been a line taken from page 70 of American Sniper: “Shooting the big machine gun was fun!” Because aside from giving some background information about his SEAL training, experiences during his four tours of duty in Iraq — which lasted from the start of the war in 2003 until 2009 — and his knowledge of various weaponry, Kyle seems content to tell us repeatedly that he did have fun while at war, and that all his enemies deserved to die horrible deaths.
It seems to me no coincidence that Kyle, who during his time in Iraq compiled more confirmed sniper kills than any previous American soldier, begins referring to enemy strongholds as “Injun” territory and enemies themselves as “savages.” He’s not stupid, and he’s not inhuman. He’s simply chosen to live within an American historical narrative (or deluded fantasy, depending on your perspective) that rewards good shooters for their ability to murder people who have dark skin and a strange way of life. And Kyle enjoys that life because it’s treated him well.
This book offers so very little in terms of thoughtful commentary and reflection that I question its author’s (and his former employer’s) motives. What it does offer is proof that the language, myths and ethos of American frontier life — and, before that, European colonization of the Americas — still hold sway over certain people in this nation. Defending freedom and country means little more than protecting one’s own interests and removing all those who may, inconveniently, stand in the way of glory. Good and evil are black and white, there is no time for sympathy unless it is for your own child, and God is always behind our bullets. But I guess you can just watch the Republican primaries if you want to hear about that stuff.