Monday, January 9, 2012

Uncomfortable Worshipfulness Towards a Killer? Fox News Interviews Chris Kyle, Navy Seal Sniper With 160 Kills

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?


nomad said...

One man kills directly by 10s (almost 100s). Another kills by decree 10s of thousands. From a distance.
"Hero worship, with no small amount of projection, is, and remains, the thing--it is the means for a visceral thrill."

"Barack Obama has stacked up "terrorist" bodies as if they were cord wood."

Do I detect a bit of hero worship here?

Why be unsettled by the first form of hero worship but comfortable with the latter?

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. You are caught in a processing loop. Your anti-Obama zeal has got you. My phrasing continues, "He shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

In all, America is a violent society."

I did exactly that, i.e. wanted to caution folks that Obama is yes, a killer too. Just differently. There was no worshipfulness to the observation.

Brotha Wolf said...

I don't support killing whether it's in a foreign land, in the streets, or in prisons. I was entertained by the notion of violence, real or fantasy, and I still am to a certain extent. In a way I'm part of a social paradox.

While taking another human life is considered wrong in this country, this nation was spawned from bloodshed and lives through military might. We use that might to slaughter our enemies whether they are soldiers or civilians because we don't see them as worthy of possessing life.

So, I think the notion to kill on the battlefield coincides with this nation's inability to value life beyond our borders or within a non-European shell.

nomad said...

"He shows no signs of stopping any time soon."

That's just an amplification of what seems to be praise. Besides, I'm an Obama supporter now. Thanks for the clarification. I thought you were divorcing the killer from his right hand. "I did exactly that, i.e. wanted to caution folks that Obama is yes, a killer too."

nomad said...

I'm pro-Obama. But he presides over a new way of waging war that has too much "collateral damage". Drones. It's one thing to kill the enemy. Quite another to kill children and innocent people. Conscionable. But barely.

fred c said...

I'm with Nomad about the collateral damage thing, and with Wolf too about the whole killing thing, but what about that hero/killing thing . . .

When I was twelve, one of my heroes was Hans Rudel, a German Stuka pilot, the greatest ground attack pilot in history. What a pilot, just to survive the whole thing was a great feat. He even got 10 or 20 air victories towards the end, flying Focke-Wolfes with one leg. Turns out he was an ardent, unrepentant Nazi who lived out a happy life in South America, barbequing steaks and rhapsodizing about the old days. Not a nice man, and his deeds were bloody big time, I backed up the "hero" part, but I still respect his accomplishments.

Reminds me of a comment from somebody about whether it was proper to put guys in the Baseball Hall of Fame when everyone knew that they were cruel, racist assholes. The comment was something like: heaven is for good people; the Hall of Fame is for good baseball players.

I like boxing too, although in general I do not approve of men beating each other bloody. Boxers show us what men are capable of, physically, and that's good to know.

I wasn't aware of Kyle, but I suppose that I respect his accomplishments too. He seems okay with it, and it was certainly legal, so maybe we can respect him (with reservations).

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. Change out your duotronic converter. It is broken.

@brotha wolf. valuing life? who?

@fred. and what do we do with the waffen ss or the death's head units? the latter being fierce warriors and unrepentant killers?

fred c said...

What about them SS boys? I suppose it's a fair question, I'm the one who brought up the "N" word.

I'd leave Kyle and Rudel in the circle of vaguely respectableness, Rudel's party membership and enthusiasm notwithstanding; any units that engaged in special operations of a more political nature, euphemistically speaking, would be out.

nomad said...

@ CD
"your duotronic converter... is broken." Well d'uh. I am nomad. That's how I roll.

This nation worships killers. From cowboys to spies. Why should display of this bloody appetite make us uncomfortable? How many people were slaughtered in the last action movie you saw? Didn't you enjoy it?

Glennis said...

During the Bosnian conflict of the '90s, teenage girls were trained to be snipers, at least accounted in a novel by journalist Scott Simon, Pretty Birds, which explores how the trauma of war makes this possible. The girls were thought to be more disciplined and accurate than men.

The capacity for suspending one's humanity, and being able to view other people as "objects" seems to be depressingly easy.

Anonymous said...

I like how in America Christianity, militarism, and homicide are conflated.

Also, re the quotes of Mr. Kyle mentioned in the piece: While to certain American eyes they are the words of a God-inspired True Patriot, in the view of other peoples in the world they would no doubt be taken as evidence of sheer barbarism.

Yes, one wonders sometimes if the real barbarians in these times aren't us Americans, but we don't know it--or won't admit it.

chaunceydevega said...

@Fred. Real life is complicated. It is easy to judge from where we sit too. I agree those involved with genocide and race cleansing would be out in my book.

@Nomad. I did love the Expendables.

@Aunt Snow. Dr. Ruth was a sniper for the Israelis. One of the most note worthy snipers of WW2 was a Russian woman.

@Anon. Imagine if we flipped the script and he was a muslim talking about how he killed with his God's blessing. Hypocrisy.

Bill the Lizard said...

@ Fred C – "I'd leave Kyle and Rudel in the circle of vaguely respectableness, Rudel's party membership and enthusiasm notwithstanding; any units that engaged in special operations of a more political nature, euphemistically speaking, would be out."

Rudel and his legacy troubles me greatly. On one hand, I’m amazed by his skill, his combat record and the victory tallies attached to those things. His ability to survive against all odds and thrive despite it, is simply amazing. The stuff of movies.

However, the man was a piece of sh… And can easily be called one of the most despicable people ever to be associated with the German Air Service.

Yet, when Fairchild Republic was developing the A-10 Thunderbolt II, Pierre Sprey (the consulting weapons analyst and engineer on the project) required that all people associated with the design read Rudel’s biography. Rudel was even consulted when the A-10 design team had specific questions on how to make the aircraft even more effective in the realm of close air support and attack.
Just chalk it up to more morally ambiguous decisions made by the US military establishment on our behalf in the greater interest of winning the Cold War (see Operation Paperclip etc.)

@ Aunt Snow – “During the Bosnian conflict of the '90s, teenage girls were trained to be snipers.”

There is actually a very long history of female snipers. The most successful female sniper of all time was Lyudmila Pavlichenko. During the Second World War, she was credited with 309 confirmed sniper kills.

The most successful sniper of all time, however, was Simo Häyhä. Nicknamed “Valkoinen Kuolema", which means “White Death”, he is credited with 505 confirmed sniper kills, in addition to another 200 kills he achieved with a submachine gun.

Re: Dr. Ruth, Chauncey beat me to it. LOL Was just about to post that.

Dr. Ruth fought during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. She saw combat and was seriously wounded due to a bomb explosion.

nomad said...

"@Nomad. I did love the Expendables."

Ewww..Stallone! Haven't enjoyed the expendables yet, but I am impressed with Stallone's graphic depictions of bodies being blown apart.

Batocchio said...

Thoughtful piece, Chauncey. I read Grossman's book On Killing when it first came out, and it gave useful information on the dehumanization (and PTSD) that has always accompanied war. War always has a cost, even for the "victors."

R Kap said...

This author is a huge pussy. Do you even have a penis? What a douche bag.