The XX Committee

Thinking about Chris Kyle

Today Texas is having something of a state funeral for native son Chris Kyle, the famous Navy sniper who was senselessly murdered at a shooting range by a clearly unbalanced Marine veteran whom he was trying to help. There has been a massive outpouring of grief over Kyle’s death, not least because he leaves behind two young children who face life without a father; as someone who buried his father, unexpectedly, at a too-young age, I can almost feel their boundless grief and pain.

Chief Petty Officer Kyle has been presented to us, particularly in what might be termed the “patriotic” media, as a legendary figure with near-supernatural abilities – which presumably makes his sad, even sordid, death all the harder to bear. There is no doubt that CPO Kyle was a top-notch killer, indeed the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, having an official tally of 160 confirmed kills in Iraq (of 255 claimed: given the stringent accounting methods, the higher number is probably closer to the truth). And he was a member of two groups the public has grown fascinated with in recent years, Navy SEALs and snipers, so this must be an overdrive moment for the war fetishists who savor killing from the comfort of their living rooms.

America’s fascination with SEALs and snipers especially is not hard to decipher, in the age of JDAMs and drones, when most killing by the U.S. military is done in a sanitized and indirect fashion, often from an ergonomic chair with a joystick located hundreds if not thousands of miles away from the impact zone where the body parts are strewn vividly. Special operators, on the other hand, close with and destroy the enemy – with rifle, bayonet, even knife if needed – in a manner once expected of whole armies but now confined to the killer elite. Snipers are unique in that killing a single person, identified with a scope, is the job itself. It’s the very essence of old school, and it has a powerful hold on some of the public, as many books and shows on the Hitler History Channel attest. Whether this fascination with sniping is a healthy thing is another matter altogether.

Chris Kyle cashed in on the trend, with a best-selling book about his exploits as the “Devil of Ramadi,” and after getting out of the Navy went into the private security business to sell his remarkable skills – as does any sensible veteran these days. Yet his views on his deadly work in Iraq have caused less comment than perhaps they should. I don’t doubt for a second that a lot of those 255 dead people were clean shots, taken out to save American lives; some people just need killin’ as they say, often accurately, in Texas. Yet Kyle himself admitted that the first person he took out was a woman who was armed with a hand grenade. Knowing something about how the insurgents in Iraq not infrequently corralled people into acts of war not altogether voluntarily, I wonder: was she a wife, a mother? Did she want to be there?

Kyle assured us that the enemy in Iraq was “a savage” – meaning, one supposes, that woman and the 254 others he felled. He professed zero regrets about any of it, indeed he believed that he was doing the Lord’s work with his rifle and scope. About one of his most remarkable shots, he professed his faith: “God blew that bullet and hit him.” Interestingly I have heard jihadists say exactly the same thing, verbatim, about their combat exploits. There’s a very good chance that many of those 255 dead Iraqis felt that they, too, like the Blues Brothers, were on a mission from God.

For all his talent, CPO Kyle was way off the international sniper’s gold cup, which is held by Simo Häyhä, a Finn who during World War II felled 505 of the enemy. It needs to be noted, however, that Häyhä was taking out Soviet soldiers who had invaded Finland, his home, while Chris Kyle was killing Iraqis, whose home he had invaded. Surely many of those CPO Kyle killed were fanatics bent on jihad and, per the Cheneyesque cliche, I’m glad we killed them “there” rather than “here.” But probably more than a few of those killed by Kyle, and by all Americans during our extended counterinsurgency in Iraq, were not religious lunatics, rather ordinary people defending their home and their honor against the foreign invader.

Having played a part in Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, the coming tenth anniversary of its kickoff brings a mix of emotions. While I have never regretted getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his genuinely evil regime, the U.S. military so badly mishandled Phase IV that the Pottery Barn rule surely applies, and America bears a big portion of the moral responsibility for the bloodshed and chaos which have plagued Iraq ever since the Ba’thist regime melted under our guns. Morally speaking, fighting for one’s home and family is not equivalent to invading someone else’s country, particularly in a war of choice, as Iraq was.

Ron Paul got himself into a world of controversy recently by tweeting that Kyle’s death “seems to confirm that ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword’,” a statement which, although undeniably crass given the circumstances, merits more examination than the media, in blow-off mode, gave it.  “Treating PTSD at a firing range doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Paul added, to much gnashing of teeth, even though it expresses an obvious truth about the hazards of taking the mentally unwell to shoot guns.

Realitätsflucht (“flight from reality”) is a great German word which needs an English version, since the United States has been engaged in institutionalized escapism about so many things for a decade and more. About our ailing economy, about our money-laden politics, about our ominous social trends, about just and unjust wars, not least about when and how killing is morally acceptable. We’re long overdue for “the talk” as a country about many big issues. Thinking we’re uniquely on the side of the Lord in our military expeditions is one of the first agenda items I’d like to see brought up for a convo, and it won’t be a short one. I implore my fellow citizens, especially those who think that our snipers have their head-shots guided by the Almighty, to recall that German soldiers through both World Wars wore on their belt buckles the prominent line: GOTT MIT UNS (God is with us).

The needless death of our deadliest sniper ought to be a moment of reflection about our warriors and what we ask them to do for us – also, where and why and how. My own faith tradition, while far from pacifist, embraces a view of war which is a good deal more introspective than many Americans seem inclined to today. Traditionally, Orthodox warriors, even those who had defended their homes against pagan invaders, were instructed to pray and ask for forgiveness, and to abstain from communion for months, sometimes years – since even a just war means killing other humans who, like all of us, are made in God’s image. Chris Kyle stated confidently about his sniping, “I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job,” and perhaps he was right; he’s finding out now.

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