By Chris Kyle, with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
Morrow, $26.99, 400 pp.
As he writes in his No. 1 best-selling American Sniper:
The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives. Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government. I had a job to do as a SEAL. I killed the enemy — an enemy I saw day in and day out plotting to kill my fellow Americans. I’m haunted by the enemy’s successes. (emphasis mine) They were few, but even a single American life is one too many lost.
Chris Kyle’s autobiography, subtitled The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, may not be the best war memoir ever written, but it might be the most unapologetic since George S. Patton’s War as I Knew It.
For better or for worse, American Sniper has hit the bestseller list, not merely because of Kyle’s frank account of combat and his love for his job or because of his remarkable achievements. No, the book and its author have gained a considerable amount of notoriety because Kyle reports he punched out Jesse Ventura (identified only as “Scruff” in the book, but confirmed in media interviews) at the funeral wake for one of his fellow SEALs when Scruff told the SEALs they “deserved” to lose a few guys.
Kyle opens his book in a similar fashion to the most famous sniper biography of all, Marine Sniper, Charles Henderson’s telling of the story of Vietnam War sniper Carlos Hathcock — with a story about the need to shoot a female combatant.
In Kyle’s case, the woman approached a Marine patrol surrounded by children with a grenade hidden in her clothes. Kyle was still in training as a sniper and was merely spelling his chief on the long gun when the decision had to be made.
It was the first time I’d killed anyone while I was on the sniper rifle. And the first time in Iraq —and the only time — I killed anyone other than a male combatant. It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it. The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.
It was clear that not only did she want to kill them, but she didn’t care about anybody else nearby who would have been blown up by the grenade or killed in the firefight. Children on the street, people in the houses, maybe her child. . . . She was too blinded by evil to consider them. She just wanted Americans dead, no matter what.
My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day.
Kyle makes no bones about the fact that he feels — whatever the wisdom of the overall mission or the merits of America’s Iraqi allies — that the fight in Iraq was against evil, and protecting innocents and American combatants against that evil gave him a deep satisfaction:
Savage, despicable evil. That’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy “savages.” There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there.
Kyle does not put himself in the category of Carlos Hathcock — who, after all, battled a far more skilled foe in a far more difficult terrain. In fact, he is quite modest about his own abilities, saying he wasn’t even the best shot in his own SEAL sniper training class. But like an infielder with an instinct for where the next ground ball is going, Kyle was “lucky enough to be positioned directly in the action.”
“Lucky?” He made his own luck.
Unlike the Hathcock book and Shooter, Marine sniper Jack Coughlin’s memoir of being at the top of the Marine kill list in Iraq, Kyle doesn’t spend a lot of time on sniper tactics. Shooting geeks will have to look elsewhere for those details.
And, unlike most SEAL memoirs, his book doesn’t detail his training and how hard “Hell Week” was. This is more a work about the warrior ethos and — surprisingly and poignantly — the toll his constant deployment takes on Kyle’s wife Taya, who contributes her own first-person perspective at various points in the narrative.
The closest Kyle comes to the kind of tactical talk that fills most sniper volumes is when he tells the one way SEAL snipers operate differently than those in the other services. According to Kyle, SEALs often would attract attention so that he and his colleagues could kill the bad guys that came running.
Nor was Kyle the kind of guy who took comfort in the fact that he usually could kill from a very long distance and not get into the mix of things. When he was deployed with Marines in Fallujah, for instance, he figured he should be helping the Marines kick down doors. After all, he was a SEAL before he was a sniper, and that was specifically something he was better trained for than they were. He writes:
I also knew that I would be in a s***load of trouble if I did get hurt — going down on the streets was not what I was supposed to be doing, at least from an official point of view. It was definitely right—what I felt I had to do — but it would severely p**s the top brass off. But that would be the least of my problems if I got shot, wouldn’t it?
The combat stories in American Sniper range from first-hand accounts of heavy fighting to the poignant stories of victims and brutality, to the macabrely humorous. One time, Kyle recounts, foreign insurgents in body armor tried to cross a river paddling behind brightly colored large beach balls. He foiled their scheme by shooting the balls one at a time.
A debate about counter-insurgency operations vs. anti-terror operations rages among military leaders and military thinkers. One school thinks the mission should focus on winning the population’s hearts and minds, while the second focuses mainly on putting down the bad guys. Bing West, one of the prominent thinkers, is convinced the first approach worked well in Iraq but is a miserable failure in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, Kyle doesn’t quite refute the benefit of winning over the people in Iraq, but he thinks a lot of the smart people are putting the cart before the horse:
You know how Ramadi was won?
We went in and killed all the bad people we could find.
When we started, the decent (or potentially decent) Iraqis didn’t fear the United States; they did fear the terrorists. The U.S. told them, “We’ll make it better for you.”
The terrorists said, “We’ll cut your head off.”
Who would you fear? Who would you listen to?
When we went into Ramadi, we told the terrorists, “We’ll cut your head off. We will do whatever we have to and eliminate you.”
Not only did we get the terrorists’ attention — we got everyone’s attention. We showed we were the force to be reckoned with.
That’s where the so-called Great Awakening came. It wasn’t from kissing up to the Iraqis. It was from kicking butt.
The tribal leaders saw that we were bad-asses, and they’d better get their act together, work together, and stop accommodating the insurgents. Force moved that battle. We killed the bad guys and brought the leaders to the peace table.
That is how the world works.
Finally, however, Kyle worked himself into the ground, having ignored and covered up his injuries like an athlete playing hurt. When he returned stateside, he found his marriage was on almost as shaky ground as his health and needed healing, too.
However, when the Navy shrinks examined him, they found out a peculiar thing. It wasn’t combat that bothered Chris Kyle and made his blood pressure rise — combat situations actually calmed him. It was having to sit by and watch bad people hurt good people that put his nerves into orbit.
He sums up his attitude:
There’s another question people ask a lot: Did it bother you killing so many people in Iraq?
I tell them, “No.”
And I mean it. The first time you shoot someone, you get a little nervous. You think, can I really shoot this guy? Is it really okay? But after you kill your enemy, you see it’s okay. You say, Great.
You do it again. And again. You do it so the enemy won’t kill you or your countrymen. You do it until there’s no one left for you to kill.
That’s what war is.
I loved what I did. I still do. If circumstances were different — if my family didn’t need me — I’d be back in a heartbeat. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL.
American Sniper is apt to stay in the news for awhile, thanks to Ventura’s recently filed defamation lawsuit against the author. Even with all of Kyle’s exploits, if he can actually “defame” the ex-pro wrestler and failed Minnesota governor, that could be his most amazing feat.