In recent weeks, the culture of uncritical patriotism has returned to the news with the release of the film American Sniper. Chris Kyle’s case, and that of his supporters, involves a certain level of wrapping himself in the flag (literally: see the poster image above) and expecting people to rally behind the symbol without thinking about what is actually going on. Real, honest to goodness patriotism, however, is quite a bit more complex than that.
American Sniper, based on the Chris Kyle autobiography of the same name, alleges to tell the story of “America’s deadliest sniper.” Insofar as that goes, that’s likely a true statement. But whether it’s 160 or 255 or some other number is anyone’s guess as the Navy does not actually release those figures. However, if you read the book, and I have, you quickly run into problems. The first and most obvious problem one finds is the gross inaccuracy. Even when not talking about his exploits in wartime, the entirety of which are factually problematic, Kyle seems unable to relate the truth about his experiences here in America and they have been thoroughly debunked. He never sniped looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He never took down attempted carjackers who wanted his truck (and the ensuing cover-up conspiracy theories he spouted were truly bizarre). He never punched former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura in the face for saying awful things about SEALs in a bar (his estate, however, lost a defamation lawsuit brought by Ventura to the tune of $1.8 million, evidence that lying has its consequences even if you are America’s darling). Further examples abound.
At least he was honest when he admitted to starting bar fights on purpose to maintain his image. Credit where it’s due, folks. He also writes about his efforts to help fellow veterans in lieu of therapy by taking them to gun ranges and such, but that’s actually very dangerous and illegal in some states including Texas. PTSD can do all sorts of strange things to a person’s mind, including fear of being seen as weak and having massive problems with memories (Note: If you or a loved one are suffering from any of the symptoms of PTSD, please get help). I just wish no one else had to suffer for his sense of inadequacy. The rest of his non-combat tales are similarly absurd or impossible to verify. Director Clint Eastwood, famous for his critical and introspective Flags of Our Fathers, chose to ignore all this and left the lies out of the film. But then he invented his own.
More troubling, however, is that he seems to have been a bit of a monster. In one interview he was asked the number of people he had killed and replied, “The number is not important to me.” Had he stopped there, it would be fine. Unpleasant things are occasionally necessary in the defense of our nation and, as a veteran, I’m the last to criticize someone for doing what’s needed to keep himself and his buddies alive (please ignore for the moment the questionable necessity of the wars in the first place). But he ruins it a moment later by saying, “I only wish I had killed more.”
On page after page he reveals that he enjoyed what he was doing. Therein lies the distinction between a warrior and a murderer. A warrior acts as he does because he believes it necessary. A murderer kills because he likes it. Kyle assumed everyone he saw was an enemy to be killed. His book is filled with racism and Islamophobia that I can’t even begin to describe, saying “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis,” the people we were theoretically there to help, never mind that he bragged about looting apartments in Fallujah. There’s some homophobia in the mix for good measure among all the other vapid macho bullshit. He unthinkingly killed fellow human beings because he liked it, comparing one incident to the film Dumb and Dumber. By contrast, the highest kill count sniper in Vietnam, Carlos Hathcock, always emphasized that he “never got to like it” and did it because it was what was required to stay alive. Kyle was a monster, not a hero. But that doesn’t mean he deserved to be killed by one of the men he was trying to help, however unwise his methods. All of this of course ignores the associated tragedy of the murder of Chat Littlefield who was also present at the gun range that day. He might have been less famous, but he was no less human and his untimely end was no less unnecessary.
Kyle was a simple man with a simple worldview, the “with us or against us” of the Bush years. Because we live in a nation where 80% of those polled by Oklahoma State University think DNA in their food is a bad thing, the film has earned rave reviews and over $90 million at the box office on its opening weekend. We live in a nation where, when folks point out the lies, inconsistencies, absurdities, and depravities in Kyle’s story, they get threatened with rape and death. Seriously, it gets weird and personal and these folks think they are defending Kyle’s vision of faith and country. When asked about the controversy, screenwriter Jason Hall says he ignores it and director Clint Eastwood’s opinion is anyone’s guess.
But one should distrust those who uncritically wave the flag and/or a religious text. As is often but wrongly attributed to Sinclair Lewis but likely accurate nether the less, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” Kyle believed he was fighting a latter day Crusade and his defenders think our nation needs more of his sort of zealotry. Seriously.
As a free people, Americans have the right to question what our government and its operatives do in our name. To remain a free people, we have the obligation to ask those questions and demand answers. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a soldier in Iraq, a policeman in Missouri, or a politician in Washington. More than being a veteran or even an American, I’m a human being and that means I have an obligation to the truth. Kyle was a monster and he damns himself with his own words, the lies and the truth.