The high price of excellence
By Steven Martinovich
Chris Kyle is what people of our grandparents' generation would have called a hard man. Today we would call him a throw-back to an earlier time; a plain-spoken man whose trust must be earned, little foolishness is brooked and once he calls you friend you know that means far more than the occasional boy's night out, it means he's there when you are in serious trouble. They are a seemingly vanishing breed, only produced in places where hard work doesn't mean getting your reports in before the end of the week.
Kyle isn't only a stand-up guy, he's also one of the most deadly human beings in the history of American warfare. According to official records, the former U.S. Navy SEAL sniper is credited with 160 confirmed kills, with a total number that could be as high as 255. The story behind that number is recounted in the remarkable American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, a chronicle of Kyle's early life, four tours in Iraq and his struggle to balance his work with his personal life.
Kyle begins his story growing up in Texas and quickly moves through his early life of intelligent but disinterested student, professional rodeo rider and cowboy, before chronicling his decision to join the U.S. Navy in order to become a SEAL. He describes the brutal training regimen that makes even men in top physical condition feel like slobs. It is an intensively competitive atmosphere even as it builds lifetime friendships among the relatively few graduates of the training. Kyle is one of those few and is posted to SEAL Team 3 where he desires nothing more than to be tested in combat. Thanks to 9/11, he gets his chance and is eventually sent to Iraq as a sniper.
Once there Kyle often provides what is called "overwatch", the role played by snipers covering other soldiers engaged in an operation. Before Kyle knows it, he's provided a bounty of targets and has days when he kills over a dozen men without much effort. Not satisfied with merely sniping, Kyle often manoeuvres his way into ground missions, contrary to orders, with Army and Marine units to clear houses and neighbourhoods in places like Fallujah, Rahmadi and Sadr City. Kyle eventually serves in several major battles where he proves why SEALs deserve their deadly reputations.
American Sniper isn't all war. Before Iraq Kyle marries a beautiful young woman named Taya who is supportive but eventually is forced to live with the pressure of knowing her husband isn't merely at war, but doing the some of the most dangerous work there. In passages written by her, she describes the conflicting feelings of pride and resentment she has for a husband gone away for long stretches while she raises two young children on her own. The marriage nearly crumbles before the two overcome their problems.
There is grim humour in this book. Kyle recounts one time SEAL snipers were providing cover for a search and destroy mission when he spotted insurgents attempting to cross a river using colourful beach balls. Kyle calmly shot the beach balls out from under them and watched most of the insurgents drown, with the remainder later mopped up by Marines. It's the type of story you can't help but laugh at even while you know that men – even if they were the bad guys – died an awful death at his hands. And yet given the daily horror that Kyle and his fellow soldiers experienced, it's understandable why they found it funny. No surprise that Kyle came back to the United States knowing that he had changed as a human being after his experiences.
American Sniper is a terse book when it comes to Kyle's kills. Anyone looking for extended description of his work is likely to be disappointed as he generally prefers instead to recount events surrounding each one. More time is actually spent describing his SEAL training and preferred weapons over most individual kills. That is not a weakness, however, as one could probably only read so much of the various ways a bullet can tear apart the various parts of the human body. As soldiers are fond of telling people who ask questions about death, how can they describe what they've done so you can understand if you haven't done the same things?
Although the popular conception of elite forces is one of arrogance to go along with extreme competence, American Sniper proves Kyle to at least be a different breed – even though he was good enough to be known to the insurgents as "The Devil of Rahmadi" and have an $80,000 bounty on his head. He repeatedly goes out of his way to laud the regular Army and Marines he worked with for their extraordinary work in Iraq and argues the only difference is he's been better trained, not that he's braver. And despite his accomplishments he does not view himself as the best sniper in American history – reserving that honour for Marine Corps sniper Carlos Hathcock – arguing that he simply had more opportunities to increase his total over other, more talented shooters.
Much has been made of Kyle's use of the word "savages" to describe and label the men he fought and killed during the Iraq conflict. Kyle was and remains unapologetic about the word, arguing that anyone who uses and targets civilians as the insurgents do in Iraq is deserving only of that description. He makes it clear that he considered them men without honour and every one of them he killed saved American and Iraqi lives. He offers no regrets and indeed celebrates each kill as a good thing. Whatever a critic might say of Kyle, they would also be forced to agree that he is a man of sure bearing, utterly clear in his convictions.
Although Kyle would be the first to argue otherwise, American Sniper truly is the story of an American hero – the type that earlier times would have been subject of a movie. We live in different times and men like Kyle aren't celebrated. Whether that's progress is debatable but we do know this much: America is kept free by men like him. Some would be uncomfortable in the presence of a man proud of killing over thirteen dozen men – and those are merely the confirmed – but those are people who cherish freedom without acknowledging the price tag that comes with it. America is fortunate to have men like Chris Kyle, one who knows and paid for them.
Steven Martinovich is the founder and editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.
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