What does the posthumous veneration of Chris Kyle say about America?
In May 2013, Steven Spielberg announced that his next film would be an adaptation of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper: the Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper In U.S. Military History. Bradley Cooper will star as “the Devil of Ramadi,” the Navy SEAL whose 160 confirmed kills are his claim to fame. That America’s most beloved filmmaker is going to give Kyle the same reverent treatment he gave Oskar Schindler and Abraham Lincoln, starring People magazine’s “Sexiest Man of 2011,” says a lot about the place that Kyle occupies in the popular imagination. However, a long-form biographical piece by Nicholas Schmidle in the June 2013 New Yorker, as well as Kyle’s own memoir, paints a disturbing picture about Spielberg’s latest subject. If Kyle is to be celebrated as an American hero, it speaks volumes about America and what our values have become in the decade+ since the Global War on Terror began.
Following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the US began the War on Terror: a war sold to the public ostensibly against a brand of totalitarian religious extremists; “Islamofascists” who had no regard for the sanctity of life, basic human decency, or democratic institutions. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney declared that in order to fight this new war, the US “would have to work the dark side.” “I’m not a fan of politics,” Kyle explains in American Sniper, “I like war.” For someone who loved to kill, Kyle was in the right place at the right time.
Kyle opens his bestselling memoir with an anecdote about killing an Iraqi woman about to harm American troops. Kyle only saw this woman through the scope of his McMillan TAC-338, but he knows enough to describe her as having a “twisted soul.” A more introspective person may have wondered what would compel someone to risk their life in defense of their homeland. Kyle, though, never questioned that someone who would oppose the US was anything but a “savage.” Kyle saw the world in Manichaean terms, untroubled by moral inquiry or doubt. Kyle chose to live the world where a monolithic entity known as The Terrorists “hate us for our freedom,” rather than based on complex causal factors. Kyle and the rest of Charlie platoon of SEAL Team 3 emblazoned themselves with the skull logo of Marvel’s “Punisher,” a one-man “war on crime.” Kyle’s moral universe was as simple as a comic book’s, comprised of good guys like American troops and bad guys like the “savages” in Iraq.
Kyle continuously returns to this racist characterization of Iraqis as savages. To the degree that he thought anything at all about the people whose country he was helping conquer and subjugate, Kyle stated “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis. I hate the damn savages.” A necessary part of any imperial project is the racist dehumanization of the Other. The Islamophobic racism spawned by the War on Terror sounds identical to the racist language deployed against every past American enemy, like US commander in Vietnam Gen. William Westmoreland’s opinion that “the Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does a Westerner…We value life and human dignity…they don’t.” A dehumanized enemy is one that can be killed with impunity, and Kyle never hinted at even a pang of doubt over the brutal nature of his work. In a piece on Chris Kyle following his death, Laura Miller of Salon writes “Kyle describes killing as something ‘fun’ that he ‘loved’ to do.” It makes one wonder who specifically are these life-valuing Westerners to whom Westmoreland was referring. Kyle’s bigotry against the “savages” in Iraq is part of a long, inglorious tradition of racism in the service of Imperial ventures. Most racist killers, though, aren’t valorized posthumously in films by the guy who made Amistad.
In response to an accusation that Kyle had killed a civilian, he boasted “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.’” One of the more stunning revelations from the New Yorker piece on Kyle is the way the SEAL saw himself as a Christian warrior, fitting within a disturbing tradition of Christian fundamentalism in the War on Terror. “Like many soldiers, Kyle was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism,” Schmidle wrote. “He tattooed one of his arms with a red crusader’s cross, wanting ‘everyone to know I was a Christian.’” Some have made the obvious point that, had the religious iconography and language been Muslim rather than Christian, Kyle would have been derided as a “jihadi terrorist.” It’s equally revealing, though, to think about what kind of Christian this makes Kyle.
The red Crusader cross is a symbol used to represent a fundamentalist Christianity that is explicitly militant and totalitarian in nature. It’s no coincidence that Anders Behring Breivik emblazoned the cover of his 1500-page manifesto with just this symbol. Chris Hedges called his 2007 book on the organized Christian Right American Fascists, a provocative title given the injunction against throwing around the F-word in political discourse. However, one of Kyle’s favorite personal anecdotes, recounted in the New Yorker, makes it hard to argue against that characterization.
“The SEALs began telling stories, and Kyle offered a shocking one. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, he said, the law-and-order situation was dire. He and another sniper travelled to New Orleans, set up on top of the Superdome, and proceeded to shoot dozens of armed residents who were contributing to the chaos.”
Schmidle is careful to frame the recollection as an incredible one, noting that many challenge the veracity of the story. It’s consequential, though, that Kyle would offer up this story, regardless of its plausibility, for the edification of his comrades. Embedded within this story’s DNA is the idea that it is desirable for the most powerful to take control of a situation and impose order through violence. In Kyle’s moral universe, this is not an act of murderous vigilantism, but the proper way for things to function. If this is not an articulation of a Christian Fascist worldview, it’s a decent approximation.
This is what an American hero believes in his core, and says so in his best-selling memoir.