“American Sniper,” Truthiness, and Repentance

I’m not much for war movies these days, so it was unusual that I found myself in a crowded theater this week to see American Sniper. That I was seeing a war film wasn’t the strangest part, either. The minuscule cinema in our rural town of about 7,000 is normally empty. On Tuesday afternoon at 3:35, it was packed with the elderly and children. American Sniper: the perfect family film.

By the time I saw the movie, I was halfway through Chris Kyle’s memoir, from which the film takes its name and, supposedly, facts. I briefly wondered how they’d made a film from Kyle’s disjointed, meandering book and how they’d deal with Kyle's repeated admission that he enjoyed killing.

The answer to the first question is that, in typical Hollywood style, they started with some true details and then made everything else up. In his role as a SEAL sniper, Kyle did many, many story-worthy things. I’d actually hoped to see some specific battles Kyle describes in his memoir revisited on screen. The truth didn’t make the cut. (The answer to the second question, by the way, is shorter: they didn't.)

The first act of the film (and source of much internet controversy), revolves around Kyle’s first sniper kill: an Iraqi child. That part is entirely fiction. For his first kill, Kyle was ordered by a superior looking over his shoulder to shoot a woman about to launch a grenade attack, but there was no child. In fact, in his memoirs, he writes of a child who picked up an RPG, “I wasn’t going to kill a kid, innocent or not.” Some have argued in defense of Fictional Kyle that sometimes killing children is necessary. It seems the Actual Kyle, as much as he enjoyed battle, might have disagreed on that point.

The deliberate killing of children is something that comes up from time to time in Actual Military, though.

Non-infantry Marines, POGs (persons other than grunts), are sent to a three week course after bootcamp called Marine Combat Training. Or Marine Camping Trip, if you’re a grunt. The intent is to ensure all Marines have rudimentary combat skills in case they’re yanked for duty beyond the wire. “Every Marine a rifleman,” as they say. MOUT (military operations in urban terrain) and IED training are big parts of it. There’s also land navigation, combat marksmanship, introduction to weapons beyond the standard-issue M16 (do they still issue those?), and lots of marching up and down hills. As with most things in the military, though, it was the people that made it memorable. We had a variety of characters in both the trainees and instructors, including a three-fingered Marine and a guy who claimed to have hung out with Sublime in the 90s.

One of our instructors was a decorated combat veteran. The junior Marines begged him for stories, which he sometimes obliged. He told us with relish the partial story of why Jessica Lynch (the U.S. soldier captured early in the war) was a poster child for idiocy. He promised to tell us the story of his Bronze Star if we behaved (we didn't, so we never heard it). Another time he told us that before going out on a convoy, he’d been briefed that Iraqi insurgents would send children into the middle of the road to stop the convoy for an ambush.

“And so we were going down the road, and this kid wanders in front of us...”

“Did you run him over?” asked one of the Marines.

The instructor shrugged. “There was a bump, and we kept going.”

Another time, later in my enlistment, a coworker said he thought we should also bomb the families of terrorists. He didn’t want his children to live through another 9/11, and his solution was to simply wipe out all terrorists, real and potential. Given that's basically our drone strategy in Pakistan, I don't think he's alone in that line of thinking.

Back to the story: Chris Kyle wrote that the woman he shot was “blinded by evil,” and that U.S. lives were “worth more than her twisted soul.” The first statement is possibly true. It’s also possible the woman had been coerced by insurgents. It’s also possible she saw a binary world the same as Kyle: Our side is good, their side is bad, and we will kill them until they stop coming. I don’t know which of these, if any, is true. Neither did Kyle, unless that scope allowed him to see as God sees. The second statement is even more difficult. By what calculus do we determine the value of lives, souls, and their relative value to one another?

Kyle’s math is simple. America is good. Anything opposed is evil. Insurgents aren’t merely opponents: they are “bad guys” and “savages,” to use a term Kyle repeats a dozen times in his memoir. Good and evil is not a philosophical or theological question: it is a national one. Perhaps this is why the topics of good, evil, and faith only get a couple sentences each in his 400-page autobiography. There is no real question, because the answer is assumed. God is good, God is for America, and America is for God. The mission of church and state is the same.

Let's be frank: Nationalism is a disease of the church’s soul. Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave his life to prevent German nationalism from warping the Gospel. In an ironic twist, today the conservative right idolizes Bonhoeffer while worshiping the military without question or reflection. This is a threat both democracy and the church. Where no criticism or even dialogue is allowed, no democracy can flourish. When good and evil is determined by who waves what flag, the Gospel suffers.

Also, the worship is embarrassing. We don't want your praise. Just...you know...pay better attention to foreign policy, maybe.

Anyway. A phrase continuously ran through my mind while reading the memoir: “military fan-fiction.” It’s not just the textureless, rambling prose of an amateur, like a teenager trying his hand at a war story, that earns American Sniper that description. It’s the story that Kyle tells about himself and about war. He plays the rogue enlisted man, fighting both the Devil and his superiors with one hand tied behind his back. While the events of his memoir are presumably true (though Kyle has landed in legal trouble for fabricating stories), they are all cast in a fictive light, an epic tale of an everyday, aw-shucks hero fighting endless evil and endless administrative incompetence.

It’s a made-for-Hollywood tale, which begs the question of why the film is mostly fiction. Any number of Kyle’s real stories could have made a film that achieved Eastwood’s goals, yet truth wasn’t quite enough. The child Kyle shot? Fiction. The two Iraqi super villains he fights? Fiction. The climactic sandstorm battle and desperate last call home? Fiction. There’s a scene where Bradley Cooper urges Sienna Miller to remarry if he dies. This conversation happened, but it was after a doctor told Chris Kyle he might have tuberculosis. The film is so fictionalized that it’s almost worthless as a study of Chris Kyle as a human being. I suppose it might work as a study of wartime ethics, though as seen above, Kyle’s defenders might not even be aware of Kyle’s own philosophy.

It's a strange situation. The film rewrites history to tell a moral. Kyle rewrites morals to tell a history. Neither are comforting.

Kyle enjoyed what he did. He liked killing. I repeat this because it is repeated in his memoir many, many times. I am not misconstruing him. He says it every few pages. ‘“Man, this is going to be cool,’ I thought. ‘We are going to kill massive amounts of bad guys.’” “I wanted a target. I wanted to shoot someone.” “I was certainly enjoying it.” “I loved killing bad guys.” “Sometimes it seemed like God was holding them back until I got the gun.”

To be a soldier, to do one’s duty, is one thing. To take pleasure in the death of another is quite another. It’s not that I am without empathy for Kyle: I understand the thrill. I understand the burning desire to see “massive amounts of bad guys” killed. In the military, I was assigned to an NSA branch, and I desperately wanted to join one of the UAV-driven counterterrorist missions. I wanted it bad. They got to watch the bombs drop in real time. I’d only seen recorded footage of drone strikes, which I admired. My coworkers helped track down an Afghan terrorist for forward forces, and the team on the ground sent back photographs of his bullet-ridden body. I was jealous. I worked intelligence against multiple individuals I wanted to see die in a spectacular fashion. It wasn’t a moral conviction. It was the thrill that came with the job. I was a Marine, and I wanted to fucking kill people. It's crass, but it's who I was.

So I genuinely understand Chris Kyle’s enjoyment of war. I do. I shared it. It’s also one of my biggest regrets, and I repent of it. For Kyle, though, this was not a sin. It was a perk of the job.

This whole thing brings us to the question of "Christian" means. To say that you are a Christian is not the same as worshipping Christ. As the Lord said, “"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Kyle wrote that he was raised a Christian and kept the faith, but by his own admission seemed to have barely a passing familiarity with scripture. I was similar: I accepted Christ at 18, months before my enlistment, but made no genuine effort to really absorb the faith afterwards. I knew little except that I should probably know more. I didn’t bother. I remained an infant in spirit during my enlistment. Evidence points to Kyle being the same. Again, this is not the judgment of an outsider. I've been there. I do find it a little weird that a much older man raised in a Christian family would have the same spiritual maturity as a recent convert from atheism, but let's move on.

Nobody in their right mind would consider the young man I was as a paragon of Christian virtue. It boggles the mind that some would consider Kyle as one.

My views didn’t change much until one day, reading the Bible before a college class, Romans 12 hit me like a truck.

'...Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.'

Make no mistake; I am not a pacifist. Sometimes war must be fought. However, that does not mean it should be fought without questioning conduct, as Kyle strangely believed.* When Christians go to war, it must be waged in respect to the virtues enumerated in scripture. The cause must be just and conduct must be disciplined. Christians must cultivate fruit of the Spirit. Drunkenness, sexual licentiousness, and love of violence are honest-to-goodness virtues in the American military. Nobody denies that. Nobody questions it, either. Either we admit that the military is special zone where the Lord’s commands do not apply to Christians, or we must seriously rethink our unquestioning reverence for the military.

Beyond his enjoyment of killing, Kyle also boasts of numerous bar fights and hazing rituals. He briefly describes his trouble with alcoholism, but far more space is dedicated to drunken exploits. He also admits to killing time with porn and video games. I don’t list these things to prove how much of a sinner Kyle was. Casting stones and all that. I mention them because Kyle has been held up as such a virtuous character that people (in Sarah Palin’s words) are unworthy to even clean his combat boots. Jesus and the Bible present us with an entirely different sort of role model, however.

Christians in America have a choice in where they lay their crowns. From what I’ve seen, crowns are piling up near a pair of combat boots, while the care-worn feet of the Man of Sorrows are ignored. More troubling than that, perhaps, is that many aren’t aware those are mutually exclusive.

 

*Chris Kyle argued that once the decision was made to go to war, only the military should have a say in how it was fought. The democracy, once its vote was cast, lost its voice. He seemed to despise ethical standards, even though those standards are what differentiated him and insurgents. It’s also somewhat strange he thought the military should make such decision when he constantly derided military decision-making. Consistency in logic wasn’t his strong suit.