Thinking about Chris Kyle

Today Texas is having something of a state funeral for native son Chris Kyle, the famous Navy sniper who was senselessly murdered at a shooting range by a clearly unbalanced Marine veteran whom he was trying to help. There has been a massive outpouring of grief over Kyle’s death, not least because he leaves behind two young children who face life without a father; as someone who buried his father, unexpectedly, at a too-young age, I can almost feel their boundless grief and pain.

Chief Petty Officer Kyle has been presented to us, particularly in what might be termed the “patriotic” media, as a legendary figure with near-supernatural abilities – which presumably makes his sad, even sordid, death all the harder to bear. There is no doubt that CPO Kyle was a top-notch killer, indeed the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, having an official tally of 160 confirmed kills in Iraq (of 255 claimed: given the stringent accounting methods, the higher number is probably closer to the truth). And he was a member of two groups the public has grown fascinated with in recent years, Navy SEALs and snipers, so this must be an overdrive moment for the war fetishists who savor killing from the comfort of their living rooms.

America’s fascination with SEALs and snipers especially is not hard to decipher, in the age of JDAMs and drones, when most killing by the U.S. military is done in a sanitized and indirect fashion, often from an ergonomic chair with a joystick located hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the impact zone where the body parts are strewn vividly. Special operators, on the other hand, close with and destroy the enemy – with rifle, bayonet, even knife if needed – in a manner once expected of whole armies but now confined to the killer elite. Snipers are unique in that killing a single person, identified with a scope, is the job itself. It’s the very essence of old school, and it has a powerful hold on some of the public, as many books and shows on the Hitler History Channel attest. Whether this fascination with sniping is a healthy thing is another matter altogether.

Chris Kyle cashed in on the trend, with a best-selling book about his exploits as the “Devil of Ramadi,” and after getting out of the Navy went into the private security business to sell his remarkable skills – as does any sensible veteran these days. Yet his views on his deadly work in Iraq have caused less comment than perhaps they should. I don’t doubt for a second that a lot of those 255 dead people were clean shots, taken out to save American lives; some people just need killin’ as they say, often accurately, in Texas. Yet Kyle himself admitted that the first person he took out was a woman who was armed with a hand grenade. Knowing something about how the insurgents in Iraq not infrequently corralled people into acts of war not altogether voluntarily, I wonder: was she a wife, a mother? Did she want to be there?

Kyle assured us that the enemy in Iraq was “a savage” – meaning, one supposes, that woman and the 254 others he felled. He professed zero regrets about any of it, indeed he believed that he was doing the Lord’s work with his rifle and scope. About one of his most remarkable shots, he professed his faith: “God blew that bullet and hit him.” Interestingly I have heard jihadists say exactly the same thing, verbatim, about their combat exploits. There’s a very good chance that many of those 255 dead Iraqis felt that they, too, like the Blues Brothers, were on a mission from God.

For all his talent, CPO Kyle was way off the international sniper’s gold cup, which is held by Simo Häyhä, a Finn who during World War II felled 505 of the enemy. It needs to be noted, however, that Häyhä was taking out Soviet soldiers who had invaded Finland, his home, while Chris Kyle was killing Iraqis, whose home he had invaded. Surely many of those CPO Kyle killed were fanatics bent on jihad and, per the Cheneyesque cliche, I’m glad we killed them “there” rather than “here.” But probably more than a few of those killed by Kyle, and by all Americans during our extended counterinsurgency in Iraq, were not religious lunatics, rather ordinary people defending their home and their honor against the foreign invader.

Having played a part in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the coming tenth anniversary of its kickoff brings a mix of emotions. While I have never regretted getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his genuinely evil regime, the U.S. military so badly mishandled Phase IV that the Pottery Barn rule surely applies, and America bears a big portion of the moral responsibility for the bloodshed and chaos which have plagued Iraq ever since the Ba’thist regime melted under our guns. Morally speaking, fighting for one’s home and family is not equivalent to invading someone else’s country, particularly in a war of choice, as Iraq was.

Ron Paul got himself into a world of controversy recently by tweeting that Kyle’s death “seems to confirm that ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword’,” a statement which, although undeniably crass given the circumstances, merits more examination than the media, in blow-off mode, gave it.  “Treating PTSD at a firing range doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Paul added, to much gnashing of teeth, even though it expresses an obvious truth about the hazards of taking the mentally unwell to shoot guns.

Realitätsflucht (“flight from reality”) is a great German word which needs an English version, since the United States has been engaged in institutionalized escapism about so many things for a decade and more. About our ailing economy, about our money-laden politics, about our ominous social trends, about just and unjust wars, not least about when and how killing is morally acceptable. We’re long overdue for “the talk” as a country about many big issues. Thinking we’re uniquely on the side of the Lord in our military expeditions is one of the first agenda items I’d like to see brought up for a convo, and it won’t be a short one. I implore my fellow citizens, especially those who think that our snipers have their head-shots guided by the Almighty, to recall that German soldiers through both World Wars wore on their belt buckles the prominent line: GOTT MIT UNS (God is with us).

The needless death of our deadliest sniper ought to be a moment of reflection about our warriors and what we ask them to do for us – also, where and why and how. My own faith tradition, while far from pacifist, embraces a view of war which is a good deal more introspective than many Americans seem inclined to today. Traditionally, Orthodox warriors, even those who had defended their homes against pagan invaders, were instructed to pray and ask for forgiveness, and to abstain from communion for months, sometimes years – since even a just war means killing other humans who, like all of us, are made in God’s image. Chris Kyle stated confidently about his sniping, “I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job,” and perhaps he was right; he’s finding out now.


15 comments on “Thinking about Chris Kyle”
  1. Gott mit uns.

    In what seems an other era, American fighting men were issued the Episcopal Service Cross, subdued of course, along with their Bible and Prayerbook.

    It bore a simple inscription, encircling a simple Crusader’s Cross,


  2. While Ron Paul’s comment may appear “undeniably crass”, it should be noted that it is difficult to both get the point across, and remain nuanced in the 144 characters allowed by Twitter.

    1. 20committee says:

      Twitter has its uses; making profound and nuanced statements on controversial subjects, alas, isn’t one of them.

  3. I should have also added that I really appreciate your thoughtful commentary on the subject.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thank you, much appreciated!

  4. NoSuchAuthor says:

    I hope to see Chief Kyle in heaven some day.

  5. tomnichols379 says:

    John – a good and thoughtful column. Since (as you know) I come from the same Christian denomination you do, I’m uncomfortable as well with any kind of hoo-hahing about taking human life. I do think that it’s in the nature of young men to respond that way to the rush of combat, even for years after, and I think it’s especially part of the American evangelical tradition to see the world as divided into good Cowboys bad Indians.

    With that said, I don’t think it’s fair to bring in the tired observation that everyone thinks God is on their side. That’s true, but irrelevant. Everyone thinks their cause is just, or they wouldn’t be out there fighting for it. I don’t want to fall into the trap here of saying that God takes sides, and that it’s only true some of the time that “God is with us,” but I would go all the way back to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural and point out that Christians, with the exception of complete, Quaker-like pacifists, need not believe that God has no role or interest in human conflicts.

    Put another way, I find it very hard to believe in a Creator who was the architect of the Universe, but who got taken by surprise by World War II and then had no had hand in its outcome.

    Unlike the “bad things happen to good people” school of secularized Protestants and Jews (like Rabbi Kushner), who in effect deny God’s omniscience or omnipotence, I think our faith has always understood that evil is the necessary effect of free will, and that therefore there are people who individually or collectively engage in acts contrary to God’s will. Saying that jihadis think that way too isn’t saying anything at all, since even on their own terms (just like the Germans of World War II) they were sinning according to the terms of their own faith.

    I’ve always thought that what people like Kyle have meant about feeling good about their actions is that they were placed in a situation where someone was going to die, and they were basically the arbiters of who the victims are: either the Iraq woman (under duress or not) or U.S. soldiers.

    I don’t know that I would have had the fortitude to pull the trigger on that woman, but I know that once she exploded her grenade and people died anyway, I’d probably have spent the rest of my life wishing I had.

    Anyway, just a thought. Everyone might say God is on their side, but deep in their hearts, I doubt everyone who says it really believes it.

    1. 20committee says:

      I don’t begrudge CPO Kyle or anyone the belief that God is on their side. Whatever my myriad sins, pretending to know the mind of the Almighty isn’t one of them. Based on a lot of study of military history, I tend to find that God is on the side of the big battalions, actually. You may find theological meaning in that or not; all pretty opaque to me.

      A couple points (if I may …): The muj in Iraq, for instance, have a great deal of their own theology behind them, since all Islam believes that jihad in defense of Muslims who are under foreign/infidel attack isn’t only just, but actually required of Muslims (fard ayn – “individual duty”), though one may support the jihad by many means, not just with sword in hand, eg through donations. Where AQ and the lunatics go off the rails is interpreting ALL jihad against the West as defensive, anywhere, even when it explicitly targets civilians (ie mass terrorism a la 9/11) – this is something which few Muslims, and basically no mainstream clerics, endorse in any way. But it also explains why few Muslims will openly criticize HAMAS, since it is defending Muslims against Israeli occupation; yet the same Muslims often sincerely despise AQ and their methods. It’s complicated.

      American Protestantism has a long history of its own sort of jihadism: supporting the crusade against the Confederacy on grounds of abolition; supporting Wilson’s efforts in World War I to “make the world safe for democracy”; more recently supporting George W. Bush’s crusade in the Middle East (psycho-spiritually, Wilson and Bush are very alike in many ways, so much so this historian finds it unnerving). With the decline, indeed collapse, of mainline Protestantism, which carried the 1861-65 and 1917-18 jihads, that calling has fallen to Evangelicals, who seem to have taken the task on with gusto. All part of a long American tradition which I don’t think has exactly been the best part of the Republic.

      For the record, in Kyle’s shoes I would have shot the woman with a grenade, even though she had a child at her side. It saved American lives, which was the job he’d been sent to do. But I would not have called her a “savage,” nor would I have said I have “no regrets” about my hundreds of kills – I’d have plenty – and boasted that God was guiding my shots. And I consider myself the first among sinners.

  6. tomnichols379 says:

    I would have assumed that the place the jihadis go off the rails is in indiscriminate killing, which no major religion (or even minor ones?) condone. I don’t like the “savages” comment — but I think I understand the “no regrets.” Paul Tibbets never lost a night of sleep over dropping The Bomb, and in later years he horrified peace activists when he told one of the victims of Hiroshima that if he had to to do again, he’d do it without hesitation. You can feel bad about killing, but not regret its necessity — but now I’m trying to read Kyle’s mind, too, and maybe I’m imputing more sophistication to him than there was.

    I think (or hope, anyway) that we can both agree that Ron Paul is a jackass.

    1. 20committee says:

      Over three decades after the terrible event, Bomber Harris said he would do Dresden all over again. People, including Ron Paul, are strange.

  7. Daniel says:

    Thanks for this post – something troubles me about how Kyle’s mourners don’t stop to think about the bigger nature of the Iraq War itself. How do you celebrate a life that didn’t stop to think about how many lives it ended?

  8. Steve says:

    Translating “Gott mit uns” as “God is with us” is badly inaacurate.

    Though no verb is mentioned in the German, it is to be automatically assumed that it is “to be,” but left open is if it’s in the indicative or subjunctive; “(that) God be with us”, a prayer makes at least as much -I’d say a bit more- sense than the declarative “God is with us.” Leaving it open allows the ambiguity of both interpretations.

    I don’t think an army with officers like Rommel (or Patton) would be ever be crude enough to only go with the indicative.

    1. 20committee says:

      I speak German at home every day, do you?

      1. Steve says:

        Given that 3 of my 4 grandparents spoke German as their first language, that I began learning German shortly after slipping out of my mother’s womb, that my high school was taught in German, that I did my military service in German, that my academic career was partly at a German language university, and that I live in a German-speaking country, what do you think?

        Hätte der Kaiser und seine Leute ihrerzeit sich auf den Indikativ festlegen wollen, hätten sie ganz sicher noch ein “ist” eingefügt; zumal “Gott sei mit uns” eines der häufigsten Stoßgebete überhaupt ist und war. In den Schützengräben gibts ja bekanntlich keine Atheisten.

Comments are closed.