Life and Afterlife of an American Hero

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.

Chris Kyle on a rooftop in Ramadi, Iraq

Chris Kyle on a rooftop in Ramadi, Iraq

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.

Chris Kyle on a billboard in Texas

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.


8 thoughts on “Life and Afterlife of an American Hero

  1. Spielberg is doing a film on this ugly and thoroughly fascist scum?

    although, on reflection, it may not be so surprising since just below Spielberg’s bleeding populism you can find a true American fascist… all you need to out Spielberg is a moslem catalist to release his inner right winger patriot…. and he still doesn’t know how to end his films after E.T.!… so maybe in this movie Kyle will convert to Allah after many false endings?

    • Spielberg has since left the project, since he “couldn’t in good conscience valorize such a pers–naw, just kidding, it’s because his “vision for the film did not align with Warner Bros.’ planned budget.” You’re pretty right about Spielberg, too. I’m reminded of Paul Verhoeven adapted Heinlein’s fascist fantasy Starship Troopers as an anti-fascist satire. Critics in the US widely didn’t get how subversive it was, and unfavorably compared it to anodyne sci-fi epics like Star Wars. In his book on Paul Verhoeven, Douglas Keesey responds to a critic who praised Star Wars’ superior “moral purpose,” by saying “moral purpose? George Lucas’s film, with its comic-book treatment as an exciting adventure, is more fascist than Verhoeven’s.” The same could be said about Spielberg’s simplistic, “gee-whiz” moralism and his patriarch-obsessed protagonists. It’s appropriate that we’re talking about Heinlein, too, since Heinlein’s “‘right-wing’ militarism actually reflects the liberal ideology of John F. Kennedy,” according to cultural critic H. Bruce Franklin. Like Pete Seeger said, when it comes to American liberals and war, “there’s no one more red-white-and-blue!”

      [Postscript: Jesus Christ, I think AI has the absolute worst ending of any movie I’ve ever seen. Only Spielberg could think it’s okay to add a coda where aliens show up to resurrect the protagonist and magically give him everything he’d been been working towards during his seemingly endless adventure.]

      • I worked on a videogame project off the A.I. brand that took place a couple centuries in the future. That movie and prospective franchise had a lot of world building behind it, and it was going to become some huge multimedia franchise.

        Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy, i.e. the box office thoroughly detesting it. We got a free movie night for our team to see it, and everybody’s morale was very down afterwards. The game project was quietly cancelled, still unannounced to the world, a few days later.

        It is just such a BAD movie… The game premise had absolutely nothing to do with it, thankfully. Still couldn’t save it from stink by association.

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  4. It looks very obvious the writer here places the word “Racist” as a lable on Chris and his opinions. This comes from a writer who has a differning opinion on military personel. Shall we place a negative lable on him ? Bias Military hater, with a propaganda agenda. It’s not as effective as Racist. which is nothing more than a opinion of a person. If you don’t like someone and they just happen to be of color. You will loose all your freedoms under the Constitution and be labled as a racist by liberal writers like this.

    • Hey, thanks for visiting. No liberal writers here, but I am similarly concerned about freedoms–chiefly the rights of people to not be murdered by the military.

      On the other hand, your series of well-reasoned and substantive points have caused me to reconsider. Maybe when Chris Kyle called the Iraqis “savages,” he was doing so in a way that was different from all the countless other Westerners throughout the centuries who’ve called darker-skinned people savages so that they could more easily slaughter them. Thanks for the perspective.

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