A climactic moment in Clint Eastwood’s film adaptation of Chris Kyle’s autobiographical book, American Sniper, gives the audience a slow-motion behind-the-bullet viewpoint as the projectile flies 2100 yards from Kyle’s rifle until its impact against the head of an Iraqi sniper who is targeting American soldiers. As the Iraqi goes down, we see a small spray of red splash against the fluttering rooftop canopy behind him. The scene is based on an actual incident, though Eastwood takes dramatic license with some of the details in order to heighten the tension. As Kyle remembers the incident in his book, there was no “sniper versus sniper” component to his longest verified “kill”; the Iraqi insurgent was aiming an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade launcher) at an Army convoy. And, aside from its length, the shot was not one that Kyle himself seemed to think was particularly tense or dramatic. Of the nearly 160 confirmed kill shots that Kyle made in four tours of duty as a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq, the one that affected him the most was the first one. Near Nasiriya, Iraq in 2003, Kyle shot and killed a woman—the only time he killed anyone other than a male combatant—who had pulled a pin on a grenade and was walking with it toward a patrol of U.S. Marines about 50 yards away. He did not first shoot the woman’s son, as Eastwood’s film depicts it. Despite the typical adaptational exceptions—compressed timeline, composite characters and events, conjectured dialogue, etc.—Eastwood’s American Sniper is a fairly faithful rendition of Kyle’s own account of his military exploits and, as far as I can tell, an accurate verisimilitude of the experience of the close-quarters urban combat during the Iraq war.
To mix military metaphors, discussions of the movie American Sniper have become a cultural minefield in the weeks since its wide theatrical release (see, e.g. http://thehill.com/policy/defense/230134-success-of-american-sniper-rekindles-culture-war-over-iraq). The minefield extends across the religious as well as the political spectrum, pitting left against right, “patriots” against “pacifists”, pro-Iraq war versus anti-Iraq war, Chris Kyle lovers versus Chris Kyle haters. The movie did not so much cause this cultural confrontation as become the occasion for its present manifestation. In any case, I am going to try to not wade in or weigh in on either side of that imbroglio. What I want to do is look at American Sniper in a broader context, as one cultural artifact of war and remembrance—war from the warrior’s point of view, especially the modern American warrior.
“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 to kill. That’s what war is.”
That’s what war is. A fellow seminarian and friend of mine was a captain in a Marine Reserve tank company. It was from him that I first learned the dictum: The purpose of the military is to kill people and destroy property. This is the bare truth of the matter and there is no point in dressing it up. Kyle’s book certainly does not. As a nation we ask men and women in our armed services to be ready to kill other men and women as necessary acts of war. Setting aside the question of whether America’s wars have been just wars (I think some of them have been and some of them have not), it would seem axiomatic that loving your enemy as Christ commanded us would mean that you cannot kill him. C.S. Lewis disagreed: “Does loving your enemy mean not punishing him? No, for loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment—even to death. If you had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged” (from Mere Christianity).
Looking at what you were actually doing in the midst of war and what the blood of your enemy on your hands meant is a common thread in many combat memoirs. Eugene Sledge was a mortarman for the 1st Marine Division in the Pacific campaign during WWII. During the assault on Peleliu, part of a small coral atoll in the Caroline Islands, Sledge anguished over the first time he killed a Japanese soldier face-to-face:
“I looked down at my carbine with sober reflection. I had just killed a man at close range. That I had seen clearly the pain on his face when my bullets hit him came as a jolt. It suddenly made the war a very personal affair. The expression on that man’s face filled me with shame and then disgust for the war and all the misery it was causing” (from E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa).
Yet in a sort of meta-reflection Sledge realized that “such sentiments for an enemy soldier were the maudlin meditations of a fool. Look at me … feeling ashamed because I shot a damned foe before he could throw a grenade at me!”
“I never considered myself a killer although I had killed several of the enemy. Killing did not make me happy, but in this particular circumstance, it left me momentarily satisfied—satisfied because it led to confidence in getting a difficult job done with minimal casualties. Nor did I ever develop a hatred for the individual German soldier. I merely wanted to eliminate them” (from Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters).
We who have never served in the military can scarcely imagine the experience of those who have served in combat. In a review of Eastwood’s American Sniper, Michael Totten, an editor for City Journal and a combat journalist, writes:
“No experience produces as much anxiety as going to war, and anxiety changes the brain chemistry—sometimes temporarily, other times indefinitely. When the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, it strips away our ability to think in shades of gray. It’s a survival mechanism that evolved to keep us alive; it’s older and more primitive than human consciousness itself. Complex and slow higher-brain reasoning inhibits the fight-or-flight response necessary in times of imminent danger, so the brain is hard-wired to short-circuit around it. As a journalist in various combat zones, sometimes embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq and other times working solo, I’ve spent time in that mindset. It’s not pleasant and it’s not pretty, but there’s nothing immoral about it.” (http://www.city-journal.org/2015/bc0130mt.html)
In the midst of this anxiety it is not surprising that soldiers often turn to prayer and look for God. During a lull in the fighting on Peleliu, Eugene Sledge writes, “I heard a loud voice say clearly and distinctly, ‘You will survive the war!’” No one around him had spoken or heard a voice. Sledge concluded, “I believed God spoke to me that night on that Peleliu battlefield, and I resolved to make my life amount to something after the war.” Sledge carries his Bible and prays regularly. During a horrendous frontal attack on a Japanese airfield, Sledge recites Psalm 23 over and over—“Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me”—as artillery and machine gun fire kill Marines all around him. As night fell at the end of D-Day, Dick Winters remembers, “Before I dozed off, I did not forget to get on my knees and thank God for helping me to live through this day and to ask His help on D+1.”
The film version of American Sniper does not dwell on his religious beliefs, but Chris Kyle’s memoir is as unvarnished and un-nuanced about his faith as it is about his vocation as a sniper: “I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. …. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation.” Kyle believed “God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth”, but he did not believe that any of the kills he had during the war will be among the sins he must answer for: “Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
It might be tempting to dismiss Kyle’s declaration as affected cowboy bravado—Kyle actually was a cowboy—and his faith as central Texas cultural Christianity; some bloggers and columnists have been much more unkind, even vicious. Tempting, but unfair. I had wanted Kyle’s account to be more thoughtful and reflective—like Dick Winters, Eugene Sledge, Hal Moore’s memoir of the Vietnam war, We Were Soldiers Once … And Young, and others —but that is just my personal projection. The other war memoirs and recorded oral histories I have read were all written decades after the events themselves. Kyle’s memoir was written only four years after his final deployment in Iraq and American Sniper is more like an after-action debriefing than an introspective remembrance; the immediacy, tension, and anxiety of combat come through his excited and profane prose. It is this immediacy and tension that Eastwood’s film takes up and presents–very well–leaving reflection to those of us seated safely in the theater.
Chris Kyle was no warrior-poet-king like David, and American Sniper is no Psalm, but the juxtaposition of his deadly vocation alongside his self-declared faith in Christ sets our reflection on the God we worship within a framework which has some semblance to David’s career and self-understanding. Who is God, that he is mindful of us, even when we must kill our enemies to serve our country?