Many soldiers are haunted by the lives they have taken. Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history, was not one of them. Three years ago I interviewed the tobacco-chewing former cowboy about his tally of 160 confirmed kills in Iraq — he estimated the true number was 255 — and asked whether he regretted any one of them.
“No, sir, not at all,” he replied, in his characteristic soft Texas drawl. He then chuckled. “To be honest with you, I wish I’d killed more because every kill saved American lives and that was what I was out there for.”
A US Navy SEAL who served four tours in Iraq, was wounded twice and earned two Silver Stars for gallantry, he was the son of a church deacon and had grown up hunting deer, turkey and quail. He was a committed Republican who espoused the American heartland values of “God, country and family”. He was as far from the attitudes of the urban sophisticates of New York and Los Angeles as it was possible to be. As one writer dubbed him, he was “a true American badass”.
Kyle was delighted by the runaway success of his book, which had triggered a “huge fascination” with the art of delivering death through a telescopic sight.
“It’s been taboo for so long, I’m glad that people are actually looking at it with an interest and saying these guys are actually something we need,” he told me. “Before, it was looking back to Vietnam and everybody was looking at it as if it was black ops and it wasn’t a fair fight.”
Less than a year after we spoke, Kyle was killed on a remote Texas shooting range by a mentally disturbed veteran he was helping. He was shot in the back at close quarters. Kyle would doubtless have been delighted by the success of American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, whose role in Dirty Harry established him as the ultimate Hollywood tough guy, a forerunner of Kyle himself. He might also have been gratified by the way it exposed the divide he had spoken of to me, between those who believe he is a hero and those who view him as a serial killer.
In taking $107m (£71m) at the box office over the long weekend to mark the birthday of the civil rights icon Martin Luther King, American Sniper broke all records for a January opening. Days earlier, it had received six Oscar nominations, including best actor for Bradley Cooper, who put on nearly three stone to portray the burly, bearded Kyle. By contrast Selma, about a pivotal 1965 anti-segregation march led by King, took just $11.2m on its opening weekend. It attracted only two Oscar nominations despite a private showing at the White House and widespread publicity linking it to recent racial controversies in Ferguson and New York.
Selma has been slathered with critical acclaim while reviews of American Sniper have been mixed. The New York Times sniffed that although George W Bush’s name is never invoked, the movie “can be seen as an expression of nostalgia for his Manichaean approach to foreign policy”.
The Washington Post lamented that Eastwood, who was mocked and reviled by liberals for portraying President Barack Obama as an empty chair at the 2012 Republican convention, was less interested in pursuing “questions of moral and psychological nuance than in telling a good war story”. A hoarding in Los Angeles was daubed with “Murder!” in red paint.
But it quickly became clear that American Sniper was being most fervently embraced by people in the so-called red — Republican — states far away from the coastal elites who take their cue from these newspapers. Facebook data showed the film sparked the most lively debates in states such as Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Wyoming, which all rejected Obama just over two years ago.
Some believe the bitterly divided reaction to the film, with some hailing it as a moving homage to selfless patriotism, others condemning it as a monument to jingoistic murder, marks a reignition of the culture wars in America.
During the Vietnam war, much of the anti-war movement in the United States, vilified American troops, many of them draftees, who returned to be spat on and branded baby killers. In the main, even radical leftists have avoid this, publicly at least, since the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Those protesting against the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions have insisted they support the troops but oppose the wars they have been sent to fight in.
A combination of the length of time without a large-scale terrorist strike on American soil and the colossal death toll of Kyle, who on occasion seemed to glory in the scale of his killing and regarded the enemy as “savages”, appears to have shattered the unspoken agreement to avoid direct criticism of US soldiers.
The director Michael Moore took to Twitter to state: “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes.” Others compared Kyle to James Earl Ray, the gunman who murdered King in 1968.
Actor Seth Rogen tweeted that “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglourious Basterds” — a reference to a Nazi propaganda movie that appears at the end of Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film.
A number of critics drew attention to Kyle’s penchant for tall tales. He told a number of people that in 2009, shortly after he retired from the SEALs, he shot dead two thugs who tried to steal his truck at a petrol station near Dallas. Exhaustive inquiries from several journalists have yielded no evidence of this and police say they can find no records.
Even less believable was the story, told after a drinking session in San Diego, that in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 Kyle and a friend went down to New Orleans and killed 30 thugs and criminals exploiting the chaos after the storm hit.
Jesse “the Body” Ventura, a former Minnesota governor and wrestler, won $1.8m in damages from Kyle’s estate. Kyle had claimed that in 2006 he had punched Ventura for criticising the Iraq war and saying the SEALs deserved “to lose a few”. Ventura insisted no such incident had happened and a jury agreed with him.
American Sniper does not address these instances of Kyle’s braggadocio but they have been used to try to discredit the film.
My sense is that Kyle came to see himself as an embodiment of all SEALs and even snipers. In many respects he was humble. He’d refer to himself as a “monkey on a gun”, point out that he’d nearly failed his sniper course and put down his tally of 160 to luck.
The tale about the petrol station has echoes of an incident in which Marcus Luttrell, a SEAL who was portrayed in the Afghanistan movie Lone Survivor, another hit in the American heartland, grabbed a pistol and pursued two men who shot his dog. An incident in Kyle’s book, published in 2012, in which he shot two insurgents dead with one bullet as they rode on a moped had close similarities to a “one shot, two kills” round fired by a British sniper in Helmand in 2009 that became public two years later.
In Iraq, Kyle was given the sobriquet “the Devil of Ramadi” by insurgents, who put a bounty of $20,000 on his head. Fellow SEALs jokingly called him “the legend” and in a scene in the film one wonders whether he has a “saviour complex”. But in our interview Kyle suggested that many people could have done what he did. “If people had the training we had, they’d be shocked at what they could do,” he said.
Some of the distaste the film’s critics feel for Kyle could be rooted in the fear that all humans possess the potential for extreme violence and a horror that this can be celebrated. At one point in the American television series Dexter, a serial killer yells at the protagonist, who is also a serial killer but one who targets only murderers: “You can’t be a hero and a killer. It doesn’t work that way.”
American Sniper has been a box office hit far beyond rural Republican states. In part that’s because Kyle, for all his exploits, is portrayed as an ordinary man rather than a superhero.
The effects of the war on him paint him as all too human. The film is the first post-9/11 movie to confront in depth the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Some of the most affecting scenes are those in which he becomes alienated from his wife, Taya, played by Sienna Miller, though one is ruined by the use of a doll instead of a baby.
Kyle’s hyper-vigilance even when back in the US — scanning Texas rooftops for the enemy and local roads for improvised explosive devices — his withdrawal and angry outbursts are bitingly realistic. So, too, are the recreations of Iraqi streets and cityscapes, which were filmed mainly in Rabat, Morocco. I spent many months in Ramadi, Fallujah and Sadr City around the same time as Kyle was there and American Sniper brought back the sounds, sights and almost the smells.
American Sniper portrays war as it is — dirty, chaotic and harrowing. While staying faithful to Kyle’s gruff bravado, Cooper also manages to hint at his inner turmoil and the damage war did to him. After the wave of outrage in reaction to their pronouncements about American Sniper, both Moore and Rogen all but recanted their statements, even offering praise for the film.
They seemed to realise that they had been perceived, as Brandon Webb, one of Kyle’s fellow SEAL snipers put it, as “going after the fabric of America” rather than aiming just at right-wing rednecks. American Sniper has become the catalyst for an overdue debate about just what the US has asked a small segment of its population to do in its name over the past 13 years.
Back in 2012, Kyle told me that he had “created a firestorm” about what the reality of war meant. It wasn’t something he’d intended to do, he said, but “that’s fine with me”.