Have you seen “American Sniper” yet? Have you read the book? I have done neither…the title/subject matter itself is not simply uninteresting to me, it’s downright repugnant. But even in my relatively small online world, I have been able to pick up on the tug-of-war of opposing opinions surrounding the movie’s popularity. And so of course I feel the need to weigh in.
I grew up in the sixties. I am the proud product of a pop culture that was steadfastly anti-war. We were anti-war because we, or our siblings, neighbors or classmates were conscripted into the military without much choice in the matter, and then sent to die by the hundreds in the stinking jungles of a tiny country thousands of miles away. Or to return from those jungles irrevocably damaged—physically, emotionally, or both. What was not to hate about that? How do you not raise a keening wail of sadness and outrage about it? How do you not grow up with a solid distrust for the military, international relations, and the economic and political forces that would send a generation of young men into hell for no credible reason?
Those were powerful lessons we learned as youngsters. And many of us—I, at least—believed that these lessons had been learned for good and all. We believed that the ignominious stalemate in Indochina bought with the lives of so many of our beloved would influence the actions of our nation for generations to come, if not forever.
Forever? Not so much. Generations? Well, maybe….not so much.
Forty years after the “end” of the Vietnam War, we’re still at it. In Afghanistan. In Iraq. And creeping toward Iran, North Korea, and any other country our beer-swilling, gun-toting armchair warriors decide harbors “savages who hate Americans.” These diligent patriots are egged on by media which are controlled by forces with enough money to make anything they want happen, anywhere they want, for their personal economic/political gain.
So now, in a world some of us so desperately, naively hoped was headed for peace, understanding and universal good will, we have “American Sniper.”
Here is what I know about Chris Kyle: Kyle served in the military from 1999 to 2009. He was handy with a long-range weapon. So handy that he became the “go-to” sniper for the US in Iraq, charged with protecting the invading American forces in that region from the ambush tactics of the indigenous population. According to Wikipedia, he killed between 160 and 250 men and women during his service in the war, for which he was copiously decorated by the military. He left the Navy in 2009, and proceeded to produce a book about his exploits in Iraq—American Sniper. In 2012, he was shot and killed by another Iraq war veteran at a recreational (!) shooting range somewhere in Texas. (One report states that Kyle and another friend were attempting to help the killer work through his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At a shooting range.)
Of course, somebody (Clint Eastwood. Surprise.) had to make his book into a movie. Which has boosted Kyle’s standing to American Hero. And Martyr.
On social media over the past couple of weeks, my more conservative friends have posted raves of the movie and the book, praises for Kyle as a bona fide hero, and suggestions that anyone who does not agree is not a “real” American. I’ve avoided confrontations with these folks. They’re entitled to their opinion. I guess.
And for awhile, I was unable to articulate WHY the near-deification of such a man made me so damn uncomfortable. Not without sounding like a self-righteous old fart, anyway. But as happens to me so often of late, I was able to sort out my feelings in a comment thread on an internet article. This particular article was a story about the word “murder” being scrawled across the bottom of an LA billboard touting the “American Sniper” movie.
The question was, Hero or Villain? Rather than re-create some decent off-the-cuff thinking, I’ll just print my part of the comment thread verbatim:
Me: I don't think he's a villain. He may be a sort of hero, since he was decorated for his actions in uniform. There are probably young men alive today that would not be alive if Chris Kyle did not exist. But I think what I object to is that he sensationalized his service in his book. I don't know too many men who face the horrors of war then come home and basically brag about their service. Most men who have actually had to kill other human beings do not feel good about it. If they do, honestly, there is something wrong with them.Reply #1: more would be alive if they hadn't have signed up to fight and die for nothingReply #2: It's funny: a guy comes home and is okay with what he did, and there's something wrong with him. A guy comes home and had night terrors about what he did, there's something wrong with him. I hope there is some happy medium but you're not leaving much room for it.Me: I would feel much more comfortable being around someone who suffered night terrors for what he was called upon to do in combat than around someone who "was okay with what he did." If you can be okay with taking human life, it's probably because you are successful at dehumanizing the ones you kill. Kyle calls them "savages" in his book. Says he "wish(es) (he) would have killed more because the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives." This pretty neatly puts an entire group of people into the category of sub-human. And begs the question, "Who did the territory belong to? Americans? Or the "savages" out to kill the invaders? And what would you have called yourself if the shoe was on the other foot?" What if a foreign army came to YOUR country to "spread freedom?" If you ran at them with a grenade in your hand, would you be a savage, or a hero? As I said, Kyle no doubt saved American lives while he was in Iraq. But that doesn't mean the Americans BELONGED in Iraq in the first place...
So yeah. He did what he was paid to do. He did it with great skill. But when your “job” is to assassinate other human beings, you don’t come home and exploit it for personal gain. If you have an ounce of humanity in your body, you make peace with what you did as a matter of performing the duty entrusted to you while you were in uniform in a combat zone. And you leave it on the battlefield and walk away.
Kyle did not do this. He was a sociopath; a violent man who was singularly unashamed—even proud—of his record of homicidal violence.
And he came to a violent end. Was it justice? Karma? I’m not qualified to make that call.
But I truly do not think he is deserving of the kind of sycophantic idolization being heaped upon his memory by some. He was a killer. Paid to kill. We don’t need that kind of “hero” in the world today.