Chris Kyle was the most deadly and celebrated sniper in US history. Over the course of four tours of duty in Iraq he recorded 160 confirmed sniper kills as a member of the Navy SEALs. By his own estimate and that of others, his actual number of kills is more than 225. So astounding were his exploits that his teammates began referring to him as “The Legend” while his enemies dubbed him “The Devil” and placed an $80,000 bounty on his head. By all accounts Kyle was a dedicated, selfless, and loyal human being who believed that the work he did was necessary in order to protect his “brothers” on the battlefield and the freedoms of US citizens at home.
After ending his military career and returning to his home in Texas, Kyle continued his efforts to support his fellow veterans. He wrote a best-selling book about his time in Iraq and donated the more than $1.5 million in sales revenue to families of fallen teammates and veteran’s services. He met with wounded veterans returning home and generously offered his time to them. On February 2, 2013, Kyle took Eddie Ray Routh, a returned veteran struggling with post traumatic stress disorder, to a Texas shooting range in hopes of helping him work through his ailment. Though exact details regarding what took place at the shooting range remain unclear, what is known is that Routh shot and killed Kyle at close range before fleeing and ultimately being arrested.
Kyle’s funeral was held at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas where more than 7,000 people came to pay their respects. It was reported that many people skipped work and took their kids out of school because it was “important” for them to attend. Others drove as many as three states and waited in a nearly 200 mile procession to pay their respects. The story made national headlines and Kyle was praised and celebrated by military veterans, politicians, pundits, and citizens all over the country. In his eulogy, one of Kyle’s former commanding officers drew cheers from the mourning crowd, assuring them that Kyle “is forever embodied in the strength and tenacity of the SEAL…as [they] continue to ruthlessly hunt down and destroy America’s enemies.”
What is interesting, and important, to try and unpack amidst all of this reverie and hero worship is the true source of this urge to exalt and extol. What exactly is being celebrated and why? How are “our” killers distinguished from “theirs?” What do the answers to these questions say about our culture and the purpose of the wars we wage? On a surface level the tendency seems to be to suggest that someone like Kyle is to be celebrated for their individual character; their valor, sacrifice, and dedication. All of these are highly favorable qualities that are worthy of high praise in any society. However, couldn’t these same attributes just as easily be ascribed to those whom Kyle spent so much energy fighting against? Individual soldiers who left their own loved ones and often traveled great distances to place themselves in harm’s way for a cause that they believed in? These individuals were no less likely to die from bullet wounds, no less bonded to those they left behind to fight, and seemingly no less committed to their purpose.
So, if these individual characteristics are indistinguishable in a vacuum, what about the cause for which the individual fights? Is this what makes “our” killers commendable and “theirs” deplorable? Is there an inherent righteousness within “our” cause? How do we even begin to define and identify this righteousness? Though few should be sad to see Saddam Hussein removed from power, what is righteous and wise about responding to 3,000 American deaths in 9/11 by incurring 4,000 more and an additional 115,000 Iraqi civilian deaths through the waging of an unjustified war? The US invasion of Iraq has resulted in more innocent Iraqi deaths than Hussein’s Kurdish genocide; an act often identified as justification for US intervention in the first place. Furthermore, this kind of folly is hardly a rare American exception to the rule. Among other things, the United States has been destabilizing nations and elected leaders while supporting brutal and unjust dictatorships for its own gain all over the world for two centuries; Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and on and on. Whether by suicide bomber or as collateral damage, the dead are no less dead.
Despite the character connections between soldiers of opposing forces that would suggest that they are more alike than different and a lack of righteous cause on both sides, our culture continues to demand an adherence to exceptionalism. It is this kind of thinking that places soldiers, and ultimately the world at large, in perpetual chaos. This system takes the admirable qualities of extraordinary individuals and wraps them in half-truths and grand false mythologies in order to justify the sacrifice of immense human resources for ultimately dubious causes (imperialism/jihad). It is for this reason that we must think critically about the structures that shape our lives and resist the urge to submit to social machines that divide us on a false and superficial basis and lend themselves to the degradation of others. Individuals and non-government groups can work together and refuse to participate in a process that thrives on exploitation. We must cease to see ourselves as exceptional and recognize that human dignity is not subject to the circumstances of our birth. In an ever-shrinking globalized world, our actions, and those done on our behalf, have very real consequences for ourselves and others. We may rightfully celebrate the extraordinary humanity of someone like Chris Kyle but let us not glorify his having been sucked into and spit out of a machine that runs on death and suffering without redemption. Let us consider it a shame that his gifts were not put to better use and work to prevent such wastefulness in the future. When we begin to embrace these notions and live accordingly, we can make better decisions about our interactions with the world around us and perhaps avoid the suffering we now find ourselves enduring and inflicting.
Memorial Day 2013