And The Militarism That Gives Such Men a Platform
I’ve largely stayed out of the ludicrously impassioned debate raging through social media on the Michael Moore/American Sniper debate. Frankly, I have no money on this horse race. I am a fan of Michael Moore’s documentaries, even if I don’t always agree with his conclusions. Likewise, I appreciate the depth and dramatic turns that are an integral part of Clint Eastwood’s movie-making. I’ve not yet seen American Sniper, so I cannot comment on the quality of the movie. Whereas I understand Moore’s position with regard to his uncle and the source of his feelings on snipers in general, I’m not sure that referring to these soldiers as cowards is an effective way to extend the debate.
That being said, everything a person says does not necessarily have to be predicated on extending the debate. If nothing else, I can appreciate the universalism by which Michael Moore is basing his evaluation. Imagine, if you will, our feelings about a foreign sniper in the United States who boasts about killing a confirmed 160 Americans. Let’s say this soldier claimed that every person he killed, including men, women, and children, was armed and a threat to his fellow soldiers. Would that change our opinion of him? Of course, we would never identify such a person as a “soldier,” let alone a “hero”. This person would, without debate, be referred to as a terrorist. His boasting would be attributed to blood lust rather than patriotism. Certainly, Clint Eastwood would not make him the hero in one of his movies.
In this context, it’s hard to understand the idol worship and mindless adulation of Chris Kyle. Once the narrative is turned around, it is hard to justify hero-worship in the context of war and warriors. After all, a person considered a war hero on one side is, almost by default, a war criminal on the other. So it could be said of Chris Kyle, the most successful sniper in American History. Consequently, debate on this matter, Kyle’s status as a hero, can only be circular, endless, and fruitless.
I have, however, become interested in how the nature of the debate speaks on The United States’s self-destructive love affair with militarism. So I’ve read a great deal, of late, on The American Sniper, both the man and the fictional depiction created by Eastwood (and it would be well if we remember that his movie is fiction, not a biography). From what I’ve read, I can say that I don’t believe Chris Kyle was a coward. In fact, he was most likely sincere about his patriotism and dedication to his country.
He was, however, a sociopath.
I don’t say this lightly, and if I’m misreading something I will be happy to rescind everything that I’m saying here. What strikes me is Kyle’s clear lack of affect over the fact that he killed over 160 people. In one passage from his self promoting memoir, he describes killing a teenage boy and watching as his mother rips her clothes and wails over her son’s corpse. He expresses nothing more than contempt for people whom he labels savages, by which he means all Iraqis, not just the insurgents.
I’m not a veteran. I’ve never been in combat. I have, however, spoken with many combat veterans over the years. All of them, without exception, have been reticent about discussing the lives lost by their actions. Even when those actions are justified by the psychopathic norms of war, and the soldier acted to save himself or others. Those who have killed, even under the most justifiable circumstances, often carry the grief with them for the rest of their lives. “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man…” as one of Clint Eastward’s more thoughtful characters once said.
Yet here is Chris Kyle, with pride, vanity, boasting of over 160 kills to his name. He wrote a book about it, and Clint Eastwood created a fictionalized and, from what I hear, glorified account of his exploits. This is, to my experience, outside of the normal response. On the part of Chris Kyle, it is indicative of a disturbing disconnect between himself and the enormity of his actions, even if each of those killings were justifiable according to the rules of war. The latter caveat is so far outside of the realm of probability as to be laughable if the subject matter weren’t so macabre. Name a single professional in any field who makes over 160 attempts at any task without error. One hundred and sixty perfect kills would make Kyle not only the most successful sniper in history but quite possibly the most successful single person in history. A successful harbinger of death, without a glint of remorse. The perfect killing machine…By his own account. Yet based on Kyle’s not so honest accounts of later exploits, like knocking out Jesse Ventura, controlling looters in New Orleans, etc, it is hard to accept the complete validity of his memoir.
This is yet another indicator of sociopathy.
The question then becomes, was Kyle a sociopath before becoming a Navy Seal, or after?
If before, then he was a useful sociopath, one with an authoritarian personality, willing to kill “the savages” for his country without remorse. In this case, we might be lucky that he found his outlet in the psychopathy of state militarism. He most certainly should not have been entrusted with deadly skills. The argument could be made that this particular form of sociopathy was an invaluable tool in the cauldron of combat. After all, how many lives did he save if one of the women he blew away really was holding a grenade intent on killing American soldiers? And I would posit that Chris Kyle did, indeed, save American lives.
This level of debate, however, precludes the question, ‘why were American soldiers in a foreign nation, one that was no threat to the US, to begin with? Instead, we are stuck debating a grotesque and racist calculus of American blood weighed against Iraqi lives. An assessment of Kyle’s heroism should not be divorced from the criminal context of the Iraq War, or from war itself.
From what I’ve read, Eastwood does just that in this film. If true, then American Sniper is a profound underachievement for a master storyteller.
The second option for the above question is that Kyle became a sociopath as a result of his combat training and/or experience. Regardless of the dominant paradigm about man’s inherently warlike nature, human beings, under normal circumstances, are not prone to violence let alone the mass slaughter of war. If humans were warlike those in power would not have to lie and create outrageous myths and incentives to convince us to fight. A normal human being will become violent under certain desperate circumstances, usually premised in fear. This desperation may take the form of an abstract existentialist threat such as “terrorism” or the mushroom cloud. That’s why every war conjured by the powerful involves the invention of some threat arising from the flames–an uncompromising evil that can only be met with force. Kyle’s stories suggest that such a frame was how he saw Iraqis and Muslims in general.
Human beings are also more prone to violence when such acts are condoned by some transcendent value, a cause higher than oneself. Again, this is characteristic of all wars going back to ancient times. Kyle understood his mission in terms of patriotism, God, and family. It’s delusional. But how else can one justify looking through a scope and gunning someone down in her own back yard if not in terms of some higher calling of which we are only servants?
Finally, people are more prone to violence if they believe that the object of their anger is not human. Wartime propaganda always presents the enemy as some form of subhuman, a beast. Kyle demonstrates this mindset by referencing Iraqis as savages. These were not human beings falling by his hand, but blood-thirsty animals living only to kill Americans. Let’s face it, when confronting an ever-present fear of attack, IED, women and children with grenades, there’s plenty of real-life experience confirming this bias. That one is a soldier in someone else’s land is nothing more than academic when real people are trying to kill you and your friends. Ultimately, whether my cause is just or not, my goal is to get home to my loved ones. Regardless of context, from my point of view, those who might kill me–those savages–really are monsters.
All of the characteristics noted above are integral to war as a human activity. They are also characteristic of sociopathy. War is a sociopathic endeavor from the start, requiring a sociopathic response to survive let alone adequately interpret and adjust to life in a war zone. Now imagine a man like Chris Kyle, who at least 160 times was a witness to his own sociopathic response to psychotic environs, magnified close-up through his sniper’s lens. How does one deal with that, righteous or not, without some kind of dissociation from reality? Without surrender to the very soulless hell that has become an ingrained part of life? That process might have been a story more worthy of Eastwood than the militarist propaganda that American Sniper is reported to be.
Look. The point of this post is not to smear Chris Kyle’s name. Whatever his story, he did the deadly job that he was trained to do. He served his country in the self-sacrificing way that we have all been socialized to accept as right, that fighting and killing and sacrificing our health and sanity and even our lives for our country is a noble cause. My goal is to raise questions about the assumptions underlying the sociopathy of state militarism and violence. I hope to place under a critical lens the psychotic propositions by which we define slaughter and assassination in the name of our country as transcendent and the schizophrenic values by which those who most effectively slaughter and assassinate are glorified as heroes.
Chris Kyle may have been guilty of using this paradigm for self-promotion–Hell, successful marketing is almost as American as militarism–but he didn’t invent the rules of the game. He simply played his part. At best, Chris Kyle’s lack of affect and empathy for the other was used by the state as an effective weapon. No more marketable quality than that exists in a militaristic state. The same form of heartless sociopathy is expected of us, the citizens who silently stand back while our government kills in our name.
At worst, Kyle was turned into a sociopath, another victim of state violence, hushed and silenced by blind, fawning hero worship. In this latter case, Kyle should be understood as the damaged individual he was. As another victim of American militarism–no less a victim than those he killed. Instead of seeing Kyle as some heroic decoration used to shroud a meaningless, criminal war in false glory, we should see in his bloody, remorseless record, the kind of inhuman travesty that war really is.
That we become so invested in the myth of the military hero suggests that Kyle was not alone in this particular form of psychosis.