“Medals Never Tell the Whole Story”: On “American Sniper” and the Warrior Culture

When I was around 10 years old, I wanted to become a SEAL. The fact that they were the U.S. Navy’s special operation force, while I was an Italian boy, did not matter to me of course. I was into movies such as Navy Seals and The Finest Hour: as such, I just wanted to join the most bad ass American combat unit, protect my brothers and get rid of the bad guys. In hindsight, I was thinking and talking like Chris Kyle.

Awarded multiple times for acts of heroism over four tours in Iraq, “the most lethal sniper in the U.S. military history”, as he was labelled, was the author of bestsellers American Sniper (with Jim DeFelice and Scott McEwen) and American Gun. The former, recently adapted into a movie directed by Clint Eastwood, had been on my reading list for a while and I finally had the time to read it over the summer.

"American Sniper" by Chris Kyle. Film Tie-in Edition.

As I suspected, I found the book of no particular literary merit. It is far away from first-hand accounts of war experiences such as Michael Herr’s Dispatches, but I was not expecting a masterpiece of contemporary literature. What hit me most was the overall tone of the book, which reflects Kyle’s attitude towards war and his own role in it.

With chapter titles such as Evil in the Crosshairs and Just a Cowboy at Heart, you know what you’re getting. Yet, the candid tone of Kyle’s writings surprised me. The way he recalls fighting “the savages” or “the devils”, as he called the insurgents in war zones, is quite astonishing. You can cite countless passages in the book such as “After the first kill, the others come easy. I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything special mentally—I look through the scope, get my target in the crosshair, and kill my enemy before he kills one of my people.” Or “It felt like an old western duel—whoever got to their pistol the quickest was going to live.”

Chris Kyle

I still have mixed feelings about this book, but I do think that it’s an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to considering how the culture of “elite warriors” has spread through media and society. Partly because of the number of books, documentaries and films that captured the imagination of what being a SEAL means (Lone Survivor, Act of Valor and Zero Dark Thirty only in recent years). Partly because of the short circuit between pop culture and war zones – see for example when Kyle himself speaks about combat units wearing the insignia of Marvel’s comic book series The Punisher.

Partly because of the visceral relationship which ties guns and American citizens. And partly because of the fact that, at least since the legendary founder of SEAL Team Six, Richard Marcinko, former special forces officers and veterans have become consultants, authors, motivational speakers and entrepreneurs themselves, transferring skills acquired on the battlefield to the civilian job market. Is this any different from adapting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to marketing?