‘It was my duty to shoot the enemy, and I don’t regret it. My regrets are for the people I couldn’t save: Marines, soldiers, buddies. I’m not naive, and I don’t romanticize war. The worst moments of my life have come as a SEAL. But I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job’ – Chris Kyle
A great deal of controversy has arisen as a result of the release of American Sniper, and the behavior of Ex-Navy SEAL and sniper Chris Kyle, whose service in Iraq is portrayed in the film. Here, Clint Eastwood portrays Kyle as a hero in a heroic cause in a film that might come straight out of the Fox News echo chamber.
It is certainly rousing propaganda, putting white and black hats on the adversaries in what was, in truth, a rather murky affair on moral grounds. For Kyle, and thus, for the audience, the Iraqis are bad guys and the Americans are good guys. Kyle doesn’t seem to have thought much beyond this, nor Eastwood. Inexplicably, though Kyle killed, he bragged, some 250 Iraqis, Kyle is the victim.
It seems never to have occurred to Kyle – and probably not to Eastwood – that Kyle was, being the invader who killed indiscriminately, the bad guy in this particular moral tale. It has occurred to others, however, and for conservatives, who as a matter of course seem to embrace that black/white dichotomy, to attack the film is to attack the essence of America itself.
Their response can be violent. Rania Khalek relates for Alternet her own horror story and that of Max Blumenthal for criticizing Chris Kyle, including some truly despicable rape and murder fantasies. Which only serves to bolster the point that murdering people is not particularly heroic.
It is certainly problematic that though International law forbids torture and ethnic cleansing, the Bible not only condones torture but promotes ethnic cleansing. The worst of American behavior during the Iraq War is thus perfectly permissible on a biblical basis but reprehensible according to international law to which the United States is signatory. This includes goings on at Abu Ghraib, Gitmo – and at Fallujah by men like Chris Kyle.
Kyle wrote in his memoir, American Sniper,
Our ROEs [Rules of Engagement] when the [Iraq War] kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kill every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.
So Kyle was ordered, he says, to systematically execute every male between 16 and 65. It happens, as historian Christian Ingrao tells us in his study of intellectuals in the Waffen SS, the German soldiers of the Einsatzgruppen (death squads) also “systematically shot” all “male adult Jews between fifteen and sixty” during the first eight weeks of Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of Russia in 1941.
It is worthwhile noting that the reasons for these shootings are also similar: “the conviction,” Ingrao relates, that these men “played a role in the violence and insecurity encountered by the groups [Germans] on their arrival in town, the execution…seen as way of keeping order.”
The Germans were shooting potential insurgents. We read in Philly.com for April 29, 2004, that “sniper teams…target anyone suspected of being an insurgent.”
In the last three weeks, two sniper teams attached to the First Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment, have shot down 90 people who have strayed into their sights. The two teams are part of the 100 Marine sharpshooters deployed by three battalions around the city. One sniper secreted away in another corner of Fallujah has “26 confirmed kills,” military officers here report.
It is certainly a disturbing thought that the security discourse of the American occupiers should so closely resemble that of the Nazi Gestapo and SD (Sicherheitsdienst, or SS Security Service). Men held to be war criminals then and later.
Like some SS men whose accounts have been noted by historians, Chris Kyle admitted to taking great joy in gunning these people down. He said he “loved” it and, and like those SS men, he said felt that his victims were “savages.”
If we step away from Kyle’s scope sight we find his “God and country” sense of morality to be less straightforward, and just how broadly the orders he was given were being interpreted.
The Australian Associated Press reported on April 16, 2004 that,
But the worst form of attack was the US snipers hiding on rooftops who kill hundreds of civilians as they tried to move about the city.
Hundreds. Of civilians.
Not combatants, though there were those too, as the photographic (and other) testimony demonstrates. Fallujah was a battle zone, after all. But civilians. Innocent people who were doing their best to survive under very terrible circumstances, people seeking access to water, to medical care, were killed.
The US has snipers around the city from the West into the center, in houses all around the main streets and are picking off people on the streets, cars and ambulances.
Needless to say, medical personnel – and enemy soldiers – are noncombatants and according to page 5 of Your Conduct in Combat under the Law of War, Pub. No. FM 27-2, published by Headquarters of the Department of the Army (1984), are not to be attacked.
Iraqi’s who lived through the terror testified that “There were so many snipers, anyone leaving their house was killed.”
The Associated Press reported that, “Iraqis said it seemed that just stepping outside or looking out a window at the wrong time could draw sniper fire.”
Chris Kyle bragged about it. Kyle was in accord with Philly.com, which told readers that “There’s no shortage of targets.”
Here is the essential calculus:
Clint Eastwood made a movie about Kyle, celebrating him as both hero and victim.
We hanged the Germans who did what Kyle did. We hanged their superiors too.
And these actions are not excused by claims to have been following orders.
For example, ARTICLE 8 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal, August 8, 1945, unequivocally states:
The fact that the defendant acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior shall not free him from responsibility, but may be considered in mitigation of punishment if the Tribunal determine that justice so requires.
The indictment of the defendants at Military Tribunal II – Case 9, dealing with the Einsatzgruppen, in Nuremberg on 8 April 1948, states:
The acts charged in Counts I and II of the Indictment are identical in character, but the indictment draws the distinction between acts consisting of offenses against civilian populations including German nationals and nationals of other countries, and the same acts committed as violations of the laws and customs of war involving murder and ill-treatment of prisoners of war and civilian populations of countries under the occupation of Germany.
The Opinion and Judgment tells us that “‘Asiatic inferiors’ was another category destined for liquidation.” Of course, this reminds one of Chris Kyle’s reference to Iraqi civilians as “savages” who he “loved” killing.
We are also informed that, “Although engaged in an ideological enterprise, supposedly undertaken on the highest ethnic and cultural level, executants of the program were not above the most petty and loathsome thievery.”
I mention this because Chris Kyle bragged about looting Iraqi apartments in Fallujah:
“To me, the home I was in was just another part of the battlefield. The apartments and everything in them were just things to be used to accomplish our goal—clearing the city.” He even put a baby crib “to good use” as a rifle platform. Then he started “rummaging through the complex to see if I could find any cool shit—money, guns, explosives. The only thing I found worth acquisitioning was a handheld Tiger Woods game.”
We are fighting a war on behalf of the Iraqi people and he is stealing their “cool shit.” “Acquisitioning,” he calls it. The law calls it stealing. So, as it happens, does the military.
The US Soldier’s Manual (1984) cited above, for example, states, on page 23:
When searching dwellings in enemy towns or villages, do not take nonmilitary items. Theft is a violation of the laws of war and US law. Stealing private property will make civilians more likely to fight you or to support the enemy forces. You do not want to have to fight both the enemy armed forces and civilians.
Oh the irony…
It is important to note here that Einsatzgruppe C also proudly reported on its accomplishments [plundering] in Korowo in September of 1941.
The verdict of the Nuremberg tribunal is clear:
“It was plain banditry and highway robbery.”
Certainly, nobody is naïve enough to think that things like this do not take place in every war. American soldiers during WWII were also guilty of atrocities, including gunning down prisoners of war, murder and rape of civilians, plundering and looting, and so forth.
Just as importantly, that does not make it right on either a moral or a legal basis.
Bad enough that in the wake of Iraq war torture revelations, we are afflicted with what is, in essence, a Bush-era propaganda film by the guy who talks to empty chairs as though evidence of his own mental instability calls President Obama’s competence into question.
But there is sad irony in the fact that critics of Chris Kyle are threatened with acts of unspeakable violence because they accused Chris Kyle of acts of unspeakable violence, as though we as American should be proud of the atrocities committed in our name.
Christian Ingrao, Believe & Destroy: Intellectuals in the SS War Machine. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.