As Chris Kyle, author of the book “American Sniper,” was laid to rest last week, the sad glow of a lost hero’s aura surrounded his passing. In light of his generous effort to help a deranged fellow veteran who is now accused of murdering him, the burial honors seemed especially fitting. And yet the obituaries and remembrances were universally striking for the way they avoided what had made him famous. As a Navy SEAL, Kyle had been a professional killer, described in the subtitle of his autobiography as the “most lethal sniper in US military history.”
In four combat deployments to Iraq, Kyle killed a confirmed 160 people; by his reckoning, there were nearly 100 more. In sniper fashion, he shot them from secure positions across various distances; he killed one of his victims, he said, from more than a mile away. Such long-distance shooters occupy a special place in military culture. They can be lionized for their exceptional marksmanship and steely nerves. But it’s more complicated than that.
Everything about war occurs on conflicted ethical terrain, yet the moral dissonance is particularly acute for the shooter who blows away enemy individuals without warning, and without any immediate physical danger to himself. The bomber pilot or artillery gunner can maintain a level of detachment that is impossible for the sniper, whose killing technique requires a hyper-personal act of sighting and firing.
Every trooper has to qualify on the firing range, and very few rank as sharpshooters. Snipers can thus be respected for their skill, even while they are quietly regarded by their comrades much as executioners are regarded in civil society — professionals whose work, while deemed necessary, nevertheless generates unease, or even unspoken disapproval.
Indeed, snipers evoke a special unease among their fellow soldiers — who, far better than civilians, know the dread of a wholly unexpected death against which there can be no defense. Enemy snipers and friendly snipers are alike in their merciless trafficking in such death. To be shot unawares from out of nowhere, or to witness such a fate befalling a buddy nearby, is confirmation of an ancient human fear — that the gods are capricious. Malevolence rules. The only response to such cosmic indifference is grim fatalism, which, for the combat survivor, is both a psychological defense and a crippling hard-heartedness.
Kyle described himself as not regretting his kills, but he offered hints of being aware of the moral dilemma attached to his expertise. “I feel pretty good because I am not just killing someone; I am also saving people,” he told a Texas newspaper. “What keeps me up at night is not the people that I have killed, it’s the people I wasn’t able to save.”
The larger point here is that Kyle was up at night. His deflection away from the deaths he inflicted is a normal way of taking refuge in the base calculation of war: If the ends don’t justify the means, nothing does. In his poignant account, the first person whom he shot at long range was a woman. Once he had her in his sights, he hesitated. A child was with her. But he saw that she had a grenade, and US Marines were approaching. He fired. “Her intention was to kill herself and blow up Marines . . . Either way she was going to die.”
If there were other women among his kills, and if any of them turned out not to have been armed, Kyle did not say. Such an outcome is not just an experienced sniper’s nightmare, but his tragedy. When he shoots at such a distance, he hopes not just for the luck of the wind, but for the moral luck of a target who is, in fact, the enemy.
Now the United States military, along with its CIA paramilitary, is moving into the age of the automated sniper — the armed drone. The public reticence that inhibited discussion of the actual meaning of Kyle’s history pales beside the silence with which the nation — government, media, citizenry — treats the moral threshold of assassination by drone. Death out of nowhere, inflicted by unthreatened operators, upon designated enemies, who may or may not pose lethal threats, and who may or may not be as guilty as the joystick judges decide. America has become a sniper nation.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.