AMERICAN SNIPER: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF THE MOST LETHAL SNIPER IN U.S. MILITARY HISTORY. Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice. New York: William Morrow, HarperCollins Publisher. 2012. 381 pp. $26.99 hard cover.
“Fallujah was bad. Ramadi was worse. Sadr City was the worst.”
— Chris Kyle
There is something of strange beauty in watching a person at the top of a field using a strong skill set to achieve objectives-and enjoying the work. This is still true in reading of the work of a military sniper.
Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) wrote “American Sniper,” which chronicles his four tours of duty in Iraq and his achieving the notoriety of having the most confirmed “kills” of any sniper in US military history.
Growing up as a boy in north-central Texas, Kyle was rambunctious and tussled with his brother and got into various fights. His father worked for a telecommunications company, and his mother worked as a counselor.
His priorities were “God, Country, Family,” in that order. (His paternal grandfather was a Kansas farmer.) He competed in rodeos growing up. He graduated high school in 1992 and went to college at Tarleton State University (part of the Texas A&M system). An accident on the rodeo circuit left him with “pins in my wrists, a dislocated shoulder, broken ribs, and a bruised lung and kidney,” he writes.
After his recovery, he went into ranching work and broke broncos. He worked a stint as a delivery person for a lumber yard. He had a light interest in possibly joining the military and went to a military recruiting station at the local mall. A recruiter described the Basic Underwater Demolition / Scuba (BUDS) training there, and Kyle expressed interest. However, the pins he had in his arm meant that he was disqualified. He thought that that path was closed except that he got a call back in 1998. His government needed his services.
He spent the early part of his SEAL training just trying to avoid attention. He was awkward with his swimming early on, but with plenty of practice, he became proficient and one of the top swimmers in his group. “To qualify, you have to swim a thousand yards in the ocean. By the time you’re done with BUD/S, a thousand yards is nothing. You swim all the time. Two-mile swims were routine. And then there was the time when we were taken out in boats and dropped off seven nautical miles from the beach,” he writes.
With the Navy training dolphins for harbor defense, the SEAL cadets were used as targets, sometimes without warning. The dolphins “were trained to hit in the sides, and they could crack ribs. And if you hadn’t been warned in advance of the exercise, you didn’t know what was going on-your first reaction, or at least mine, was to think you were being attacked by sharks.” Another time, a shark chewed on his fin. Once when he went under the piers to avoid the dolphins, he was bitten by a sea lion being trained to guard the piers.
Before the infamous Hell Week, he fractured some bones in his foot during a training but kept silent, so he wouldn’t be held back. He survived that period of physical exhaustion, physical discomfort, psychological pressure, and sleep deprivation by going from meal-to-meal (“Salvation was always no further than five hours and fifty-nine minutes away”). During one of his training dives using a diving bell, he failed to equalize the pressure in his inner and outer ears and perforated an eardrum.
At a bar, he met Taya, the woman who would become his wife. While he was convinced he had found his equal early on, he was not sufficiently sure if she liked him-because she would not initiate contact herself and would not even pick up the phone when he called occasionally. She started out with the stereotype of SEALS as “arrogant, self-centered, and glory-seeking” but changed her mind. (She has a few brief sections in the text where she explains her side.)
Those new to the SEAL Teams get hazed mercilessly-by being given unwanted jobs, by being choked out, and engaging in van wars where the newbie ended up with bruised ribs and black eyes. They had to prove their mettle. Further, the hazing reminded everywhere who could be trusted: “Hazing helps remind everybody where the experience lies-and who you better look to when the (expletive) hits the fan. It also shows the people who have been around a little bit what to expect from the new guys. Compare and contrast: who do you want on your back, the guy who ran in to save his buddy or the officer who shed tears because he was being mistreated by some dirty enlisted men?”
He describes the work of boarding of an oil tanker in a “Visit, Board, Search, Seize” (VBSS). He worked alongside the Polish GROM (“Special Military Formation GROM of the Dark and Silent Parachutists of the Polish Army”) or “Special Forces.” He also was part of a team that stopped a ship from North Korea that was smuggling Scud missiles headed for Syria.
His years of intense training combined with Kyle’s inherent aggressiveness paid off on the battlefield. He described his first confirmed “kill” — and the only one of a woman who had pulled out a grenade to attack US Marines-with some hesitancy, but thereafter seemed to have no second thoughts. “I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything special mentally-I look through the scope, get my target in the crosshairs, and kill my enemy before he kills one of my people,” he writes.
While he advocates against the rules of engagement (ROEs) in assessing and responding to threats, he had to essentially make sure that the people he shot were of imminent threat to American troops (e.g. they had arms and were heading towards American positions or had placed an IED).
For every individual shot, Kyle would need to have witnesses who could verify the presence of an actual threat, and he would need plenty of documentation. Several of his shootings were investigated.
Civilians who accidentally walked into a gunfight were left alone. A child who was sent out to retrieve a rocket for the insurgents was spared. Those who were engaged in macho posturing with a weapon but were not aware of the watching American troops were left alone.
He was not beyond using a so-called “Grass Widow,” a kind of waiting ambush. Once he hung up a US flag to motivate insurgents to step forward and take shots. Another time, he set up a helmet to make it look like an American soldier as agent provocateur.
What riled Kyle was not taking the fight to the enemy when they had opportunities to do so. He did not care so much about the political ins-and-outs but about winning the fight at hand.
He advocated for sniper teams to go in ahead of the Marines to soften the battle environment. He would go in with Marine teams flushing out insurgents from houses.
Once, when an RPG crumbled a wall onto his knees, he wouldn’t reveal his injuries to higher-ups because he wanted to keep fighting.
Back home between deployments, when he was having a cyst removed from his neck, he passed out briefly-and asked the doctor to hide that information, so he would not be medically disqualified.
His passion for staying in the fight brought pressures on his marriage.
A sub-theme in “American Sniper” involves the weaponry and vehicles used in battle and a little of the technicalities behind sniping.
The war landscape is dehumanizing and dark. Once, a group went to a home which was reputed to be a place with US prisoners and dug up their bodies instead, still in their uniforms. Another group stumbled across barrels of (unspecified) chemicals for possible use as biochemical weapons. Kyle leaves open the possibility that some of his WMD arsenal may also have been buried to be found in the future. Another time, they dug up buried aircraft in the desert where Saddam had thought to hide them. There were torture sites that the troops came across.
Once Kyle broke into a house and found “a whole bunch of guys standing there in desert camouflage-the old brown chocolate-chip stuff from Desert Storm, the First Gulf War. They were all wearing gear. They were all Caucasian, including one or two with blond hair, obviously not Iraqis or Arabs…A half-second’s more hesitation, and I would have been the one bleeding out on the floor. They turned out to be Chechens, Muslims apparently recruited for a holy war against the West. (We found their passports after searching the house.)”
There were hair-raising fights, with the American positions nearly run over by enemy forces. Another time, his position was attack-dived by an Apache helicopter before the pilots realized that these were friendly forces on a building’s roof. This book contains some heart-wrenching descriptions.
One mortally wounded young American fighter tells Kyle, “Please don’t tell my momma I died in pain.”
At other times, the descriptions are simultaneously morbid and tragicomic. Once a group of fully-armed Tunisian fighters were trying to cross the river to fight the Americans by floating across the river on four giant beach balls.
The snipers and fighters got creative with their work as they continued in the fight. “We’d use different weapons for the experience, to learn the weapon’s capabilities in combat. But at times it was a game-when you’re in a firefight every day, you start looking for a little variety. No matter what, there were plenty of insurgents, and plenty of firefights,” Kyle writes.
On the home front, Taya also became tougher as time wore on, with her own survival mechanisms engaging. She needed a place of priority in Kyle’s life in order to be able to risk loving with “reckless abandon”.
Chris Kyle had a bounty put on his head. Some of the local Iraqis who worked with the Americans apparently described him for the insurgents, down to a telltale tattoo. He was known as “the Devil of Ramadi.” Another sniper in the platoon had an even higher bounty on his head, and there were posters made of the two men.
This American sniper earned two Silver Stars and five Bronze Medals, all for valor. His longest documented shot was over a mile away at 2100 yards.
He has the distinction of the highest number of confirmed kills.
He is credited with having more kills as a sniper than any other American service member past or present: “One week, it’s 160 (the ‘official’ number as of this writing, for what that’s worth), then it’s way higher, then it’s somewhere in between. If you want a number, ask the Navy-you may even get the truth if you catch them on the right day.”
Kyle, by his own account, has moved beyond his passionate identity as a Navy SEAL sniper. He runs Craft International which provides sniper training (to military and law enforcement personnel) and private security and training.
Shalin Hai-Jew is a Manhattan resident.