In March 2003, from a rooftop in Nasiriya, Iraq, U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle scanned the surrounding streets through the scope of a sniper rifle as US Marines advanced through the town in the course of their overthrow of Saddam Hussein. As the Marines neared, a woman opened the door of a small house in the near distance and entered the street, accompanied by her child. Kyle, providing overwatch – support of friendly units by observing the terrain ahead in order to identify and suppress the enemy and prevent ambush – continued to monitor the woman as the troops pulled up and ten young Marines emerged from their vehicles to gather for a foot patrol. Still watching her, Kyle saw as she pulled something from beneath her clothes and yanked at it.
“She’s got a grenade,” Kyle’s chief said, “that’s a Chinese grenade.”
Kyle swore, hesitating, as the armed woman continued to advance with her child toward the Marines.”
“Take a shot.” The chief instructed.
“Shoot. Get the grenade. The Marines…”
Someone was trying to get the Marines on the radio but couldn’t reach them – they were now on the move, toward the woman, the distance between them and the grenade rapidly diminishing.
“Shoot!” ordered the chief.
The bullet leapt from Kyle’s gun and both the woman and the grenade dropped. He fired again as the device exploded.
This event, drawn from the opening pages of Kyle’s combat memoir, American Sniper, is depicted as well in Clint Eastwood’s film of the same name, though in the screen adaptation the scene is reworked so that both the woman and child have the grenade at different points and both are sequentially gunned down by Kyle as they do. Presumably the alterations were done to amp up the dramatic tension. It wasn’t necessary. All on its own, the unmodified scene in the book is almost indescribably painful, save to say that it is raw, unyielding, full of anguish, horrifying, and astonishingly tragic. It is also, by Kyle’s view, correct in my judgment, unconscionably evil.
“It was my duty to shoot,” Kyle writes, “and I don’t regret it. The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.” While the appeal to duty, pragmatic realism, and protection is appropriate it does not capture, nor should, the extent of his motive. “Savage, despicable evil,” he continues, “That’s what we were fighting in Iraq.” Reflecting further on the woman, Kyle recognizes that not only did she want to kill Marines but that she did not care about anybody else in the blast radius, including her own child, who likely would have been maimed or killed by either the grenade or the subsequent firefight. “That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy “savages.” There really was no other word to describe what we encountered there.” Because of this, Kyle asserts that he can stand before God with a clear conscience.
There are those who would demur. Laura Miller wrote in Salon, “In Kyle’s version of the Iraq war, the parties consisted of Americans, who are good by virtue of being American, and fanatic Muslims whose ‘savage, despicable evil’ led to kill Americans simply because they are Christians.” Similarly, Lindy West’s headline at the Guardian’s website reads, “The Real American Sniper Was a Hate-filled Killer” and she opines that Kyle was “bare minimum…a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.” University film societies across the nation have been challenged by uncomfortable students afraid that the mere screening of the film renders the campus unsafe space. There is, it is clear, little regard for unapologetic warfighters who unabashedly serve their country and declare aloud that they are fighting evil. Nevertheless, it seems to me self-evident that the claims that Chris Kyle was a racist are only able to be said either by those who haven’t read the book, or didn’t comprehend what they read, or who simply refuse to honestly assess what they read. There is much to say against all this but I want to touch on two concerns.
The first addresses the claim that Kyle was a dehumanizing racist, centered largely on his repeated reference to those he fought as savages. I want to complicate the charge by both affirming, though with important qualifications, the idea that Kyle dehumanized but also, because of these qualifications, to distance Kyle from the charge. To make a start, it’s important to acknowledge that people across a wide spectrum of vocations find it necessary to create distance between themselves as moral agents and the object against whom they are acting. Unsurprisingly, euphemisms, including pejoratives, represent one such common technique. Such are done for a variety of reasons. The accusation against Kyle is that he utilized distancing techniques as a kind of psychological mechanism by which he could overcome the moral conditioning against the committing of atrocities – in this case mass murder. In this way dehumanization draws on other defence mechanisms including denial, depersonalization, and compartmentalization. Such mechanisms allow the perpetrator to manifest his hatred and anger through atrocious actions as if such actions were simply a part of every day life. Such malevolent mental reconditioning is certainly possible but it’s crucial to recognize that dehumanization, while always dangerous, needn’t be malignant. At its benign core, dehumanization is simply a defence mechanism allowing moral actors to avoid fully processing troubling events. Such adaptive techniques regularly work to the welfare of the otherwise dehumanized person; for example, in a crisis, dehumanization of the injured or sick allows for efficient rescue. Because of this, many occupations intentionally teach selective dehumanization, including law enforcement, the military, and medical professions.
To acknowledge this ought to render plausible the suggestion that the casual assumption that distancing or dehumanization is morally reprehensible needs to be revised. The surgeon, like the warfighter, knows that on occasion a hard thing has to be done to prevent the advent of an even harder thing. The surgeon also knows, as a just warfighter also knows, that a hard thing that is not only necessary but also morally right is therefore morally obligatory. It is clear, it seems, to medical professionals that they are not performing “lesser evils” but rather the greatest possible good. In just this way, military professionals might employ essentially the same techniques to morally insulate themselves to do the hard but morally necessary thing. From this we might draw a pair of important conclusions.
First, it is wrong to refer to dehumanization strictly in condemnation. Clearly, distancing oneself from the object of one’s action does not therefore mean the object is not loved, cared for, or respected. In fact, the very need to dehumanize strongly suggests that the object is perceived precisely as a human being of some value – otherwise the dehumanization would not be necessary. Unsurprisingly then, this is precisely what we see in a fascinating paper by a pair Jewish anthropologists analyzing Israeli military snipers who served during the Second, or Al-Aqsa, Intifada (2000-2005). The paper examines, and ultimately overturns, the prevalent assumption that in order to go about the business of sniping other human beings one has to somehow objectify or demonize their enemies. Like, say, their medical professional counterparts, the Israeli snipers do indeed employ certain linguistic technologies to cultivate distance between themselves and their targets. They might blur the clarity of what they are doing by referring to killing as “neutralizing”, ‘cleaning up’, ‘surgical action’, or ‘focused assassination’. Nevertheless, the snipers are cognizant of the linguistic ploy for they equally refer to their targets with the designation ben-adam, literally ‘son of Adam’ – that is, a human being. Similarly, Kyle sometimes utilized distancing euphemisms like ‘hit’, ‘took out’, or ‘dropped’, to describe taking a shot but a word count of his book shows he far more often simply wrote, ‘kill.’ Moreover, Kyle, just as with surgeons, demonstrated that one can subject their target to a degree of dehumanization without, finally, truly denying their due humanity. On numerous occasions in the movie, and more in the book, Kyle is shown to hesitate in pulling the trigger even when cleared to do so. In one instance, he actually lets a child get away with a RPG launcher retrieved from a dead insurgent after finding himself simply unable to gun him down – despite knowing the weapon would be reenlisted in the fight against American troops. Just as the surgeon knows that “the patient” or “the bowel resection” is really a human being, so too does Kyle’s narrative demonstrate that warfighters understand, all objectification and obfuscation aside, that captured within their crosshairs is an adversary who while every bit the enemy is a human being as well.
Nevertheless, even as what it means to dehumanize the enemy is qualified we mustn’t occlude something that needs to remain clear: even while recognizing the savages’ humanity, Kyle without question also believed the humans were savages. But it’s crucial to understand he reserves the term for enemy insurgents and never used it for the Iraqi people as a whole. As he saw it, the insurgents had aligned their will to a perversion, a totalizing ideology that sought to dominate and murder and to then hide from justice by shielding themselves with the bodies of children.
And here we are come to my second concern: those who believe Kyle’s willingness to kill his enemies makes him a murderer, I expect, fall into the error of collapsing into one thing the very separate concepts of vengeance and retribution. We ought not to do this. That we mustn’t might need some explanation as I fear many contemporary Christians think that because we must love the wrongdoer we must exorcise any hostile feelings or intentions toward him. Well, St Paul did not think so; as is proved when he admonished the Ephesian Christians to “be angry, but do not sin” (Eph. 4:6) or when Jesus harshly rebuked the ‘the scribes and Pharisees.’ To not resent a wrongdoing is to hold in contempt the good that has been violated, to have no concern for justice and to fail in our divine mandate to care for those things deserving of care. If resentment is a morally appropriate response to injustice, then so too is retribution. Oxford ethicist Nigel Biggar calls resentment the “opprobrium for the wrongdoing and against the wrongdoer that naturally expresses itself in retributive punishment.” This is not vengeance, which tends to aim only at seeing the wrongdoer suffer, most often in disproportionately vindictive ways that only serve to create new expressions of injustice. Retribution, however, is a ‘giving back’ – a disciplined reaction to a wrongdoer in accordance with a wrong already done. Retribution is also a kind of “responsible communication” to the wrongdoer that recognizes his dignity as a moral agent capable of making consequential choices that deserve fitting response. The end of retribution is not the suffering of the wrongdoer but rather his repentance. If this is achieved, the ground is properly prepared the taking root of reconciliation.
Because the classic just war tradition is appropriately retributive so too is the just warrior, as retributive agent, appropriately indignant in the face of those injustices that prompt retribution. The just warrior ideal retains the idea that “A deserves B for doing C”; and while the claim is not absolute neither is it meaningless. So the aspect of the more viscous image of the enemy that I do not want to drop out is that of moral indignation, even rage when the occasion warrants. This is not, naturally, a misplaced, random rage but one that avoids the wish to harm, the desire for revenge, a fundamental and uncontrollable animosity, rebellious rage, a lusting to dominate – all those evils that exemplify wrong intent in warring; replacing them instead with the use of force based in right intentions: defense, restoring goods and values wrongly taken away, punishing the evildoers, and the desire for remedy against evil through restoring justice, order, and peace to life in society. Kyle expressed precisely this intention when he reflected on pacification of Ramadi. After all the killing and all the dying, the area tribal leaders finally began to band together to both govern and restore order but also to drive the insurgents out. “It took force,” Kyle notes, “it took violence of action, to create a situation where there could be peace.”
In the end, it seems to me that to read Kyle’s book is to reveal an American warfighter who is just as human as the rest of us – with all the flaws but likely with a good many more virtues than most of us possess. He was driven by anger at injustice, by a desire to protect from on high those in his care, and to exercise satisfaction not just at a job well done but at being good at the job he had to do. While perhaps it is an essay for another time whether sniping can be an expression of God’s vocational gifting, it is clear that Kyle’s detractors spend much more time concerned about his reputation as a killer than he was. In an interview with Belinda Luscombe of Time, Kyle is asked about his fears that in his post-military life, as his vocational focus shifts to business opportunities and the care of wounded veterans, he might discover being a killer is the thing that he was best at in life. What would he do then? But Kyle dismisses the question out-of-hand, asserting that he already knows the proposition is not true – “I’m a better husband and a father than I was a killer,” he says, with far more zeal than he ever showed over body count.