“Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems.” These words belong to Ryan Job, a US Navy SEAL who died a few years after sustaining serious injuries in Iraq. They show up in the 2012 autobiography of Chris Kyle, “the most lethal sniper in US military history.”
Chris Kyle is a symbolically perfect representative of US citizenship. Cowboy, Texan, father of two, he did four tours of Iraq and tallied at least 160 confirmed kills while on duty.
After the publication of American Sniper, Kyle made the rounds of mainstream media. For the most part, he referred to his enemy as “Iraqis” or “insurgents” or “bad guys,” but the book’s prologue clarifies his feelings about what, not who, he was fighting in Iraq: “Savage, despicable evil.” He refers to Iraq as “injun country,” characterizes high-kill areas as “target-rich environments,” and overall has a dim, racist view of every single Iraqi he comes into contact with, enemy combatant or not. On some level, it’s easy to embed in Kyle’s narrative while reading his book – easy to be riveted,easy to hope that Kyle and his fellow fighters will emerge unscathed,easy to feel relieved when their “threat” is “neutralized” – especially if you take Kyle at face value, when he says in a SOFREP.com interview that the US was “going back to right a wrong” in Iraq.
Kyle styles himself as the purveyor of good over evil, following a meticulous moral code. His version of the US presence in Iraq asserts the military’s strict adherence to rules of engagement – it’s not enough to think an Iraqi is about to engage in war, he says, he’s got to see the person pick up a gun or a grenade. In one instance near the end of the book, Kyle zeroes in on a child dragging a rocket launcher. He doesn’t pull the trigger: “I wasn’t going to kill a kid, innocent or not … I’d have to wait until the savage who put him up to it showed himself on the street.”
In American Sniper, insurgents die with regularity every fire fight, but you can count the number of American casualties on two hands, and each American death or injury is gut-wrenching and memorable. This is partially due to Kyle’s voice and perspective – but it’s also due to the complete disparity in combat casualties between Iraqis and Americans. It’s the amount of training, financial dedication and access to high-tech weaponry and armor that make the pace of Kyle’s autobiography possible.
For a time, Chris Kyle fulfilled the US fantasy of superhuman strength and justice. But then, in early 2013, he died – not on a tour of Iraq but on a gun range, when Eddie Ray Routh, a fellow Iraqi vet with PTSD, snapped and shot him and another man several times. Routh’s double homicide sent shock waves through military and civilian America and made headlines across the globe.
But Routh’s post-service violence is nowhere near uncommon. American soldiers have been fighting for over a decade in the Middle East. They’ve been waging a war for a metaphor – “freedom” – but the reality of what they experience on the ground is wreaking psychological havoc when they return to America. In 2011, the Veterans Administration treated almost 100,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In 2012, 349 active service members committed suicide, outpacing the number of soldiers killed in combat in Afghanistan. Chris Kyle’s death is just once instance among many, emphasizing the painful home truth of what happens when a country organizes its identity around violence, dehumanization and martial strength.