Is it just me, or is there is something profoundly uncomfortable and unsettling about this interview?
I am a bit of a grognard. In my teens, I was more interested in weapons, machines, and things that go boom. With age, I have gravitated more towards military strategy, and am increasingly fascinated by soldiers' individual accounts of combat.
When I was 12 years old I would have found former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's account exciting. I would have taken his deeds in Iraq (where he killed at least 160 people), as some great display of "manhood." Some years later, now knowing several former and active duty military personnel, I possess a different type of respect for their service.
To the one, all of them have upset the stereotypes of soldiers as video game, heroic warriors, worshiped as two dimensional cartoon characters by many in the American public. Almost all of these veterans, especially those back from Afghanistan and Iraq, are critical of the policies which put them and their comrades in harm's way on imperial misadventures.
Chris Kyle was feted by Bill O'Reilly last week: his deeds were recounted, and killing admired by the Fox News faithful. There is an odd homoeroticism (or is it homosocial worship?) in this interview, where O'Reilly as an archconservative is channeling a deep fascination with the "how" of death, and a type of hyper-masculinity that is the bleeding heart of Right-wing authoritarianism. Here, O'Reilly reminds the viewer of why straight men enjoy watching the freakishly large penises that dominate much of American pornography. Hero worship, with no small amount of projection, is, and remains, the thing--it is the means for a visceral thrill.
I have read many accounts of the personal killing that is done by snipers. They hunt people. The most dangerous prey is their quarry.
“After the first kill, the others come easy. I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything mentally — I look through the scope, get the target in the cross hairs and kill my enemy before he kills one of my people,” Kyle writes in his new autobiography, “American Sniper.”I wonder what the intimacy of death experienced by Chris Kyle has done to his soul. While many would not frame killing during combat in these terms, soldiers who have to take a life are often damaged by the deed. They become "victims" of a sort. To my eye, it is curious thing that Bill O'Reilly does not ask such an obvious question about his guest's interior life.
As Dave Grossman and others have painstakingly documented, killing is an unnatural act. Moreover, most soldiers are highly resistant to killing, and thus increasingly sophisticated training techniques have been developed to overcome their aversion. In fact, historically, a relatively small number of soldiers have accounted for a disproportionate percentage of kills on the battlefield. These people are "natural" warriors; they exhibit sociopathological tendencies such as low affect, low levels of empathy, and an ability to distance themselves from the act of taking another life. Predictably, these natural killers gravitate to the most elite military units where their particular "gifts" will be of most use--and they will be more likely to get a chance to ply their craft.
This is not a claim that elite soldiers such as the Navy Seals, the unit which Chris Kyle was a member of, are "crazy," sociopaths, or are especially prone to violence outside of a combat situation. It is however, an acknowledgement that there are bad and dangerous men who are born that way. The training sharpens the edge.
The son of a Sunday-school teacher and a church deacon, Kyle credits a higher authority for his longest kill.
From 2,100 yards away from a village just outside of Sadr City in 2008, he spied a man aiming a rocket launcher at an Army convoy and squeezed off one shot from his .338 Lapua Magnum rifle. Dead. From more than a mile away.
“God blew that bullet and hit him,” he said.
For Kyle, the enemy is a “savage” — there’s no room for gray, only black or white.America is a militiarized society. Warfare and martial culture are at the heart of the country's economy and entertainment. Militarism is also central to America's political culture as well. For example, onservatives such as Gingrich, Romney, Bush, Santorum, Perry, and others play the tough guy as chicken hawks who swagger in a phallocentric game and performance which titillates their populist base, even as the irony that all either avoided military service (or exaggerated their responsibilities) remains uncommented upon.
Much the same can be said of the flag wavers in Red State, Right-wing America, a group of people who love to talk tough about foreign intervention, but in a society where a relatively small number of people have gone to war, are likely to have never been in combat.
We also cannot forget that President Obama presides over a killing machine that is almost industrial in its efficiency. While his Tea Party GOP detractors paint him as anything but "aggressive," "manly," "strong," or "brave" on foreign affairs, as Commander in Chief, Barack Obama has stacked up "terrorist" bodies as if they were cord wood. He shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
In total, America is a violent society. We lack the maturity to discuss this fact in honest terms. Likewise, many avoid a mature reflection on what the consequences--psychological, emotional, material, financial, and spiritual--are for those young men and women who are sent off to maintain and expand the empire.
And then we have men like Chris Kyle, an example of martial skill, who killed by the hundreds while wearing the insignia of his favorite Marvel comic book character.
His Charlie platoon even adopted the insignia of the comic-book vigilante The Punisher, spray-painting skulls on their body armor, vehicles, helmets and guns. “You see us? We’re the people kicking your ass. Fear us, because we will kill you, motherf--ker,” he writes.Maybe I have gotten old. Chris Kyle and his tribe should be respected, they should be given a pat on the back, and welcomed home as best we can. But, their skill at killing should not be celebrated. That is a minor distinction; it is also an important one.
A country needs its heroes, and who it chooses to elevate as exemplars of martial prowess says much about its national character in a given moment. World War One brought us Alvin York. World War Two gave us Audie Murphy, Robert Leckie, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Vietnam had Carlos Hathcock. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought us Leroy Arthur Petry and Chris Kyle.
Where do we go from here? And what do heroes such as Chris Kyle--dangerous men with kill streaks in the hundreds--tell us about ourselves and the country's future at the nadir of American empire?