Chris Kyle is to date the US military’s most prolific sniper who wrote bestselling memoir on his four tours in Iraq in 2003. In his memoir American Sniper Kyle reportedly described killing as fun or something he loved. Why are we so mesmerised by this type of soldiers’ battlefield accounts? American Sniper is not an impartial description of the daily life on a battlefield but a disturbing one with tangible political effects. It is a glorification of military violence as an agonistic struggle for life where war is nothing but an orderly and time-worn reality. A longer version of this piece appeared in Critical Military Studies in 2016.
In the context of the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western popular culture has become growingly interested in the battlefield environment. A certain popular fascination crystallized around the idea of following as closely as possible the “daily reality” of life and combats on frontline. A significant number of military memoirs signed by American and British soldiers deployed on these theatres have been published during the last decade. Some stories are famous, such as Marcus Luttrell’s one. In his autobiography, Lone Survivor (2007), Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL, explains how he survived with three other comrades an ambush in Afghanistan. Cinema also became an important vehicle for rendering visible soldiers’ experience in Iraq and Afghanistan (e.g. Hurt Locker; Zero Dark Thirty; Ground Truth; Armadillo; Korengal). Web platforms, such as YouTube or Dailymotion, started to be used by soldiers for sharing videos of their combats. Online channels have been explicitly created for that purpose (Funker350, War clashes or US Military Photos & Videos). The growing number of movies, memoirs and online videos proves a strong public interest in a certain way of telling the war and, more specifically, in its violence.
Among the “lived” stories that were told around the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, one is particularly appealing: American Sniper. It is built around Chris Kyle (1974–2013), known as ‘the most lethal sniper in US military history’. Kyle was a Navy SEAL sniper deployed four times in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and officially accredited with 160 ‘confirmed kills’. He became publicly known after the publication of his bestselling autobiography, American Sniper, in 2012. In the book, Kyle describes his military experience in Iraq and confesses his addiction to military violence. After the publication of his memoirs, Kyle’s story rapidly gained notoriety up to the point that he was called ‘The Legend’. Clint Eastwood produced a cinematographic adaptation of Kyle’s autobiography, American Sniper (2014), which rapidly became a blockbuster. Beyond its sound success, what makes American Sniper an intriguing case is its relation with violence. In his autobiography, Chris Kyle imagines himself as part of a ‘hunting-sort’ of war, where a strongly equipped and trained soldier kills from a safe distance an enemy with a low level of protection and unaware of being a target.
American Sniper is not an “objective” story of a soldier, but a discourse on war with concrete political effects. This legend contributes to the production of two extremely violent representations of war that encourage its legitimation. Firstly, Kyle’s legend draws on a glorification of violence. It celebrates fire fights, cries, blood, injuries, and death. War is framed as an agonistic confrontation where killing is the first survival condition for soldiers. American sniper is at the same time anchored into an emotional framing. The compassion developed around Kyle’s story banalizes violence and transforms him into a ‘legendary ordinary human’. The filtration of war through soldiers’ feelings leads to a process of humanization that reduces the entire apparatus of war to the ‘ordinary’ character and the good intentions of the soldier.
Making Iraq a “target rich environment”
The weapons and operational details play a specific role in the glorification of violence inherent to American sniper. For instance, Kyle explains in his autobiography the pleasure he took in using different types of weapons for fighting insurgents:
“When you’re in a profession where your job is to kill people, you start getting creative about doing it. You think about getting the most firepower you possibly can into battle. And you start to think of new and inventive ways to eliminate your enemy. We had so many targets out in Viet Ram [the nickname they give to Ramadi city] we started asking ourselves, what weapons have we not used to kill them? No pistol kill yet? You have to get at least one. We’d use different weapons for the experience, to learn the weapon’s capabilities in combat. But at times it was a game […]. We loved it”
Techno-military details highlight the violence by transforming the ‘enemy’ into quantitative data and technical ‘targets’. Kyle speaks about ‘pop shots’ when describing a situation of a ‘steady stream of opportunity’ for shooting insurgents. He qualifies a battlefield zone with a high number of insurgents as a ‘target rich environment’. Kyle develops a similar perspective when he evokes the combat in Sadr city: ‘I got to the point that where I had so many kills that I stepped back to let the other guys have a few. I started giving them the best spots in the buildings we took over. Even so, I had a plenty of chances to shoot’. The use of weapons is also a topic for satiric humour that transforms the act of killing into an intriguing and fascinating reality. This is especially the case during the interview of Kyle on the popular TV talk show Conan on TBS, hosted by Conan O’Brien:
CO’B – But I mean, this is something where you’re in battle and the technology behind it first of all, the weapons themselves are incredible but there are a lot of calculating wind, there are actually computers involved…
CK – Oh there are! […] I used a ballistic computer that tells me everything to do so I’m just a monkey on the gun (smiling)
CO’B – Ok… I wouldn’t go that far but… (laughs).
The central presence of weapons and operational details in Kyle’s legend correlates with the celebration of war as a pure moment of violence and not as a limited confrontation: war means killing, and weapons are the tools that assure an unlimited number of eliminations. American Sniper’s techno-fetishism serves the act of killing which is seen as the final objective of war. American Sniper does not exclusively describe enemies and insurgents through techno-military details, but also does so through violent ideological terms. ‘Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die’. Interrogated by his Army colonel when he was suspected of an illegal shot, he gave the following answer:
‘I don’t shoot people with Korans – I’d like to but I don’t’.
The enemy is seen as immanently violent. He is no more than the incarnation of violence. Therefore, the only way to resist or defeat the enemy is to eliminate him. Chris Kyle’s interview on the sensational O’Reilly Factor TV talk show on Fox News. When Bill O’Reilly asks Kyle if civilians know what war is about, he answers:
War is hell. Hollywood fantasizes it, makes it looks good, but war sucks. […] You have to get into the mentality and you have to think of them [enemies] not as human being[s]. You have to portray them as savages definitely’.
Compassion for the “human” hunter
Kyle’s legend is simultaneously anchored into an emotional framing. The symbol of family plays a key role in this dynamic. Clint Eastwood’s movie is central from that perspective. As the producer explained in an interview on Today’s Stars, a people programme on NBC News:
‘It was not just a war movie. […] This is mostly about the dilemma of leaving family and then where do you go from here’.
Indeed, the core plot of the film is Kyle’s familial sacrifice and the tension he faced when he was deployed in Iraq. The movie deals with this dimension from a subjective perspective by systematically evoking the evolution of Kyle’s personality and relationship with his wife (played by Sienna Miller). Interestingly, family tensions inherent to Kyle’s four deployments are framed into the transformational impact of war on human subjectivities. The film stages the complexity of Kyle’s personal transformation. While at the beginning of the movie Kyle is presented as a loving husband and father, his successive experiences in Iraq progressively generate conflicts between his feelings and the dehumanization process inherent to war. Kyle’s subjective transformation is not presented as a mechanical change that would transform him into a dehumanized war soldier. He appears as a victim of a conflict between his human nature and the dehumanized dynamics to which he is submitted. His human nature is not defeated but in constant combat against a dehumanization process. Taya Kyle was often invited to press conferences and movie projections with Clint Eastwood and the actors of the film. Kyle’s legend is captured in the Hollywood universe, making his familial history an even more fascinating and attractive one.
After Kyle’s death, a memorial edition of his autobiography has been published by the editor HarperCollins. The difference with the first edition is that testimonies and pictures of Kyle’s friends and family members have been added to the volume. Here are the comments of his children reproduced in the new version of the book:
The innocence of children’ messages replaces the brutality of Kyle’s history. It makes it disappear, up to point that the re-edited book is the symbol of the double representational track that constitutes the American sniper legend: the volume recounts both a glorification of military violence and its humanization. Kyle’s legend is emotionalized, to the point of making from Kyle not only a military legend but also as a ‘legendary everyday family man’. Reinforcing Kyle’s identity as a loving family man before being a warrior implies that violence is the basic point from which this humanizing portrait is built: violence is banally encapsulated in the ‘normal’ feelings of a man who experienced the terrible environment of war.
Killing as synonymous with humanity
While American Sniper celebrates an apologetic violent representation of war as an agonistic struggle for life, it also makes of war a banal reality. While this discourse can appear critical (as we visually witness the brutality of war), it paradoxically neutralizes any critical sense as it de-contextualizes the violence of war. The social, political and organizational machinery of war is reduced to one man’s emotions. Human intelligibility of war realities is blurred by the good intentions of the man at combat. This emotional compartmentalization of war works as a transformational filter, which metamorphoses a warrior into an ordinary human being. In the American Sniper legend, the reversal is intense. Kyle is a legend because he is like any other man, or, more precisely, because he killed like any other man – that is, in a ‘human’ way. American sniper is a visible example among numerous memoirs, movies, and videos pretending to transcribe the reality of the battlefield. As such, it shows that popular culture ensures the legitimation of war through a reconfiguration of the link between military violence and emotions. Killing with emotions appears a sufficient condition to benefit from the aura of the human condition.
 Pomarède, J. Normalizing violence through front-line stories: the case of American Sniper, Critical Military Studies, 2016.
 Kyle, C., American Sniper: The autobiography of the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, Harper Collins, New York, 2013, pp. 271-273.
 Ibid., pp. 389-390.
 Conan, Sniper Chris Kyle interview. TBS TV, 1 February 2012. http://teamcoco.com/video/chriskyle-sniper.
 Kyle, C., op .cit., p. 227.
 The O’Reilly Factor, Fox news TV, 2 October 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tDyAT1TVQ9Q.
 NBC News. Sniper’s major star power: Eastwood and Cooper on bringing story to big screen. Today’s Stars, 22 December 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4JzX_zLQoU.
 Kyle, C., American Sniper: The autobiography of the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, Memorial Edition, HarperCollins, New York, 2013, pp. 396-397.