If the guys are tired of talking football at a bar near a military post where enlisted men from elite military units do their drinking on a Saturday night, you might get an argument going with a different sort of question, like what, exactly, was the greatest single rifle shot ever made by an American marksman in combat? The celebrated American sniper Chris Kyle was not history-minded but he was born and died in Texas and I imagine that Texas pride and his own modesty might have prompted him to say: Why, there’s no room for doubt about that—it was Billy Dixon at Adobe Walls on the Canadian River in Texas in 1874 when he shot a Comanche warrior off his horse at a distance of just under a mile using a fifty-caliber Sharps buffalo rifle firing a bullet one-half inch in diameter from a brass cartridge loaded with 110 grains of powder.
A flat claim of that sort invites exception. Dixon’s was a remarkable shot for drama, perhaps, and it certainly brought the Adobe Walls fight to an end as abruptly as Hiroshima ended the war with Japan, if practical result is all you are interested in. But distance is the challenge for a sniper. The greatest shot must be the longest shot that still did the job. Some US Army surveyors with General Nelson Miles showed up at Adobe Walls after the fight and measured the distance from Dixon’s rest—the spot where he steadied the gun while he aimed and squeezed the trigger—to the bluff off in the distance where a group of Comanches on horseback were silhouetted against the sky while deciding whether to go on with the fight. The surveyors came up with a distance of 1,538 yards, about nine-tenths of a mile. Very nice shot.
But the friends of Chris Kyle and around a million other Americans who have read or at least bought Kyle’s book, American Sniper, would all know, and somebody in the circle at the bar would be bound to say, that the longest shot, making it the greatest shot, was not Dixon’s. The longest would have to be the shot that Kyle fired one day through the window of a second-story room of a house in a small village just outside Baghdad in 2007. He was on the last of his four tours in Iraq. During the ten weeks he spent in the area Kyle had about twenty confirmed kills but the one he remembered was the long one. He refers to his equipment as the .338 Lapua and includes a photograph of it in his book. He doesn’t name the weapon but it looks a good deal like the .338 McMillan TAC sniper rifle. It’s not as fancy as you might think but the scope and the cheek rest were state of the art. The designator “.338 Lapua” doesn’t refer to the gun but to the cartridge, developed in the 1980s specifically for long-range sniping.
Kyle was doing overwatch while army units were operating in the area. That meant his job was to keep track of everything within eyesight, looking for bad guys. Through the scope on his rifle he could see out a mile or more, across open country to the next village beyond. The rules of engagement (ROEs) said that nobody was a target who was not armed and more or less immediately threatening.
But by this time Kyle had developed a deep instinctive sense for the behavior of Iraqi men in a war zone. If he saw an Iraqi male of military age poking about a rooftop with no apparent purpose, he grew suspicious. If the fellow appeared to be looking around—in effect trying to spot him—he grew warier still. Was he fooling with something Kyle couldn’t quite see?
Kyle had watched hundreds and hundreds of Iraqi males of military age lurking in doorways, prowling rooftops, moving stuff around, appearing and disappearing, peeking around corners. He didn’t like peekers. But the ROEs said he had to wait for certain signs and behaviors before he was allowed to pull the trigger. This is the only official navy or SEAL regulation of a great many cited that Kyle in his book does not immediately crack some sort of joke about ignoring. Of the many hundreds of Iraqis observed by Kyle through his scope he concluded that about 160 met the ROEs, at which point he shot and killed them. Officials queried a few but it never went further than that.
On this particular day in the village near Baghdad Kyle noted a man on a rooftop in the next village more than a mile away. Kyle didn’t like the look of him. Then a US Army convoy emerged on a road, moving into range of the man on the rooftop. The man reappeared, raising a bulky something that Kyle spotted as a launcher for rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). The ROEs had been met. The distance was 2,100 yards, a full thousand feet further than a mile. Kyle’s scope was not calibrated for that sort of distance but he thought he could eyeball it. The squeeze was just right, no antic breeze defected the bullet an inch this way or that, and through his scope Kyle watched the Iraqi male of military age drop his RPG and tumble off the roof, just like they do in old western movies.
So how did it make Kyle feel to have fired what is possibly the greatest single sniper shot in the history of the world, and certainly the greatest by a Texan? If you depend on Kyle’s book for the answer, that shot made him feel that “maybe I was just the luckiest son of a bitch in Iraq.” “Wow” was the word that he muttered at the time. On reflection he called it a “straight-up luck shot.” The army guys in the convoy probably never knew the sniper had been there at all. Then “I went back to scanning for bad guys.”
Kyle was not a man subject to turbulent crosscurrents of emotion that he struggled to put into words. When something made him feel bad, like he did the day he was flying home when his buddies were going back to war, he said, “That sucked.” Of the brothers who served beside him in Ramadi, men he would have died for, he said, “There were absolutely no turds in that platoon—it was a real outstanding group.” It seems nothing can drag a strong feeling out of Kyle in the form of words.
Doubt on this point was laid to rest on the day two of his closest friends were mortally wounded in Ramadi several hours apart, both right in front of him. His friend Ryan was shot across his face, permanently blinded, and later died during reconstructive surgery. His friend Marc, just ahead of him going up a set of stairs, glanced out a window, and was about to shout a warning when a bullet entered through his open mouth and exited from the back of his head.
“Having lost two guys in the space of a few hours,” Kyle writes,
our officers…decided it was time for us to take a break. We went back to Shark Base and stood down. (Standing down [Kyle adds here] means you’re out of action and unavailable for combat. In some ways, it’s like an official timeout to assess or reassess what you’re doing.)
There can be little doubt that Kyle took this hard, but appropriate words were very slow to come.
American Sniper was written after Kyle, under pressure from his wife Taya, left the military. The book was put together with the help of two coauthors, Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwen, who have imposed clarity and order on what might have been a rote account of 160 incidents of war. Kyle emerges as an uncomplicated fellow who wanted to be a soldier, and then wanted to be a Navy SEAL, and after that wanted to be trained as a sniper, and finally wanted to go on as many missions as possible and kill bad guys to serve his country and protect his friends.
He was a good shot but never the best shot. His remarkable record of confirmed kills seems to have been in large part the result of sticking to it through four tours. Kyle wanted to be right in the thick of it. What the war was about, and why Americans in armored vehicles were racing through the streets killing Iraqi males of military age who met the ROEs, are questions that do not interest him. “Everyone I shot was evil,” he writes at the end of his book. “I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”
Kyle’s book surprised everybody when it became a dramatic commercial success—over five hundred thousand copies in hardcover, and more than a million so far in paperback. Kyle’s murder in Texas in February 2013 by a veteran he was trying to help did not halt the efforts of Clint Eastwood and Warner Brothers to make a film of the book, which has also been a huge success that surprised everybody—over $300 million in ticket sales as of mid-February. Fierce cudgel fights have been waged in the blogosphere about what the film actually means but conventional reviews have been generally good and the film received six nominations for Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor. In the event it won for best sound editing.
What strikes me as really remarkable about the book and the film, considered together, is not so much the unreflective and hyperactive man at the book’s center, but the fact that it was turned by Clint Eastwood and his writer Jason Hall into a film of such disciplined art and moral complexity. Part of the magic is the acting of Bradley Cooper when delivering the half-dozen lines, lifted more or less intact from the book, that capture the serene confidence of Kyle at the beginning of his career, and the strain bringing him close to collapse at the end. In the film Kyle is prompted, a little more clearly than he was in life, to join the military by the terrorist attacks on US embassies in East Africa. Cooper tells a navy recruiter that the SEALs might not be right for him—he’s not too keen on water. The recruiter needles him: he understands; 90 percent of the men who sign up can’t take it and quit.
“I’m not one of those men, Sir,” says Cooper. “I don’t quit.”
The simplicity of these lines gives them strength but Cooper without effort pushes them further, conveying absolute conviction. I’d have signed up Cooper on the spot, just as the recruiter did.
In a scene close to the end of the film, Cooper/Kyle is pressed by a psychiatrist to explain certain out-of-control behavior after his final return from Iraq. “Have you ever seen things,” the psychiatrist asks, “or done things you wish you hadn’t?”
“Oh, that’s not me, no. No, Sir, I’m not worried about that. I am willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot I took.”
These lines are also simple and direct, but Cooper’s voice is weak, close to breaking, and the look on his face betrays bleak fear and doubt. With these two scenes and a few others the arc of the film is established, from the gung-ho enthusiasm of young men eager to go forth and kick ass for the greatest country in the world, to the half-strangled confusion of men who have suffered and killed for reasons that slip away like water in sand.
This may not be your view of how young men back from Iraq ought to feel, and you may think that saying so somehow distorts and diminishes everything Chris Kyle believed and did, but I would argue that you can’t interpret in any other way what Clint Eastwood’s film of American Sniper actually says. There is no easy Op-Ed summary of the film’s point; it’s certainly not pro-war but it’s not antiwar either. What it summons up is a rich sense of the empty magnitude of a long war that achieved nothing.
Sniping is at the heart of the story Eastwood tells. It opens with the classic nightmare sniper’s dilemma—whether to shoot a ten- or twelve-year-old boy who has just been handed a Russian grenade by his mother. American troops are approaching the pair. The scene is the city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, far enough along in the war for the place to be a desolate wreck. A second SEAL is beside Cooper on the roof. Cooper is wearing a headset and tells somebody what he sees and asks, “Can you confirm?”
“Negative,” is the answer. “Your call.”
Cooper doesn’t look happy but he doesn’t hesitate, either.
This scene is interrupted with a flashback to the deer he shot with his Dad, the one thing after another that led to the military, marriage to the smart-talking girl Taya whom he met in a bar, everything changing in a minute on September 11, and back to Fallujah where Cooper has placed the scope’s crosshairs on the boy, who has broken into a gentle run toward the American soldiers. Finger on trigger. Sniper SOP is to exert just enough pressure to complete the trigger pull between the shooter’s heartbeats. But in truth this isn’t a hard shot. The kid is right there. Cooper kills him. In the next instant he kills the mother, who has rushed forward to pick up the grenade.
The second SEAL says, “That was gnarly.”
Later Cooper gets a little ragging for being a softie. “Get the fuck off me!” he shouts—then explains, “It’s not how I envisioned my first one to go down.” So he’s not a heartless bastard who laughs at killing, but at the same time he is cut out for the work.
Kyle’s war was mostly sniping; that’s how he rang up his high score and was nicknamed “the Legend” by fellow soldiers who felt safer when Kyle was on overwatch. But Kyle on one tour also joined the troops on the ground to break into houses while searching for a local killer called “the Butcher” who might help lead them to Abu Musab al-Zarkawi, leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the ultimate bad guy the military really wants. These scenes are filled with horror and confusion—the brutal torture of a boy by the Butcher using a power drill, the killing of the boy’s father, an assault on a building where the Butcher has established a kind of abattoir for cutting up his enemies.
Iraqis portrayed in the film are mostly bearded men trying to kill Americans, or terrified women and children being yelled at in English by Americans all shouting at once. “This is a war zone, Sir,” Cooper yells at an Iraqi who has ignored a command to leave the city. The film makes three things clear: Iraq is being devastated by the war, the main American achievement is to get Sunnis and Shiites killing each other, and the basic American strategy is to kill all the Iraqis who are trying to kill them.
This chaos raises an interesting question. It creeps in as we watch Cooper setting up his rooftop perches, scanning the cityscape for peekers. Sometimes the guy in the scope is just a guy on a moped, but sometimes the guy in the scope drops to his knees and starts to scrabble in the dirt of the road to bury an artillery shell. When the ROEs are met Cooper settles himself into his rifle. He prepares to shoot with both eyes open, not the usual practice. He likes to see what’s going on around the target. We watch the pad of his trigger finger approach the trigger. The pad is gently depressed as it touches metal. At this point the target has about a second to live. Cooper’s kills are all clean. There are no wounded men requiring another shot to muddy the shooter’s satisfaction.
But Cooper is not unchanged by the progress of his war. In a late episode he scopes another child picking up a grenade launcher. This one is maybe seven or eight. “Don’t pick it up,” Cooper says once, then again. He might even be praying, but to whom? He is conflicted—we’ve just been shown that he now has a boy of his own—and his relief is palpable when the kid drops the launcher and runs away. This is the one clear step we witness in Cooper’s moral education.
Sometimes Cooper kills two or three people in a day. Kyle makes no attempt to give each his due in his book, nor does Eastwood in his film. But he records the care with which Cooper builds his record of deliberate kills. What is the greater good being served here? If what we see is what was really happening—a relentless American mission tempo to kill Iraqi males of military age who meet the ROEs until officials in Washington tell them to stop—then what, in truth, could a man like Chris Kyle tell his Creator when the time came? That he hadn’t been told to stop?
Cooper’s last shot is Kyle’s long shot, with most of the circumstances changed. He is on a rooftop scanning the city for an Iraqi sniper who has been killing American soldiers trying to build a concrete wall between two Baghdad neighborhoods to hinder the Sunni–Shiite sectarian killing. A soldier is shot off a ladder and Cooper spots the Iraqi sniper on a rooftop 2,100 yards out. But the men with Cooper on the rooftop don’t want him to take this shot. The streets are filling with bad guys. The Americans on the rooftop are hopelessly outnumbered and it’s getting worse by the minute. Help from a quick reaction force is thirty minutes away. A sandstorm is rolling into the city of Baghdad.
But Cooper has a bead on the Iraqi sniper, squeezes the trigger, and kills him. Something like this happened in fact, but not in the manner of the mad compression of events in this final scene of Cooper’s war in American Sniper. After Cooper kills the Iraqi sniper, bad guys in the street converge on the building where the Americans are trapped. A missile-firing helicopter, called in on themselves by Cooper’s group, destroys half the building. The sandstorm closes in. Iraqis and Americans are firing every which way in the swirling twilight of the storm. The surviving Americans scramble aboard armored vehicles to make their escape. I do not see how this final scene of blind confusion can possibly be interpreted as a statement of Eastwood’s support for the wisdom or necessity of the war. In a kind of epilogue he delivers a similar measured judgment about snipers.
Back home Cooper takes his son deer-hunting in Texas, just as his father had taken him. They are striding through tall grass on a bright fall day. “You know,” Cooper says to the boy, “it’s a heck of a thing to stop a beating heart.”
That struck a chord of memory, and what I remembered was Eastwood’s 1992 film, Unforgiven. Eastwood, playing the part of Will Munny, and two colleagues are hired to kill two men who have cruelly mutilated a prostitute. They have behaved atrociously and certainly deserve something. One of the hunted men breaks a leg when his horse is shot from under him. He starts to drag himself slowly toward safety. Eastwood’s partner can’t bring himself deliberately to kill a wounded man so Eastwood takes the gun and shoots him. He is hit in the stomach and is soon crying pitifully for water. “Give him a drink,” Eastwood shouts. “We ain’t gonna shoot.”
Like his character Will Munny, Eastwood as a director shrinks back from a deliberate kill, an act stripped of the danger and threat that justify violence in the heat of battle. That is the thing Eastwood finds it unsettling to contemplate—the moral emptiness of the deliberate kill. The second hunted man is killed by Eastwood’s other partner, a nearsighted kid, who surprises the victim sitting in an outdoor privy and shoots him pointblank as he struggles to rise. The kid is badly shaken, close to tears. “It’s a helluva thing,” Eastwood says, “killing a man, taking away all he’s got, and all he’s ever going to have.”
With this line we are given a simple formula for measuring Cooper/Kyle’s contribution to America’s war in Iraq. It’s a fair guess that the sniper’s victims were for the most part killed young. On average they might have lived another thirty years or more. The math says the sniper, all by himself, one shot at a time, managed to erase about five thousand years of human life. How far down that line of thought Chris Kyle went I cannot say, but Eastwood, and Cooper under his direction, have looked it in the eye. In their judgment the deliberate kill is a heck of a thing.