19 March 2020

American Sniper by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice

My husband has a ton of army memoirs and war books, he really likes history and the military, but he doesn't really like reading. I don't know what he planned to do with his collection but it would take him an entire lifetime to get through it. I decided to try some of his books that interested me. I've seen the movie adaptation of American Sniper and thought it would be cool to read and compare. I'm not a history buff but I like modern military stories and am fascinated with their training.

This was an interesting book to read because Meg feels so strongly that these military memoirs serve primarily as patriotic propaganda and doesn't care for them at all. I think there are interesting stories to be told and learned here, but the jury is still out for me on if I think people like Chris Kyle are war heroes, killing machines, or both. At the beginning of this book I found myself weirdly attracted to Chris Kyle's character, but by the end the feeling was closer to repulsion, so perhaps that's what Meg was trying to warn me about...

You have to understand: no SEAL wants to die. The purpose of war, as Patton put it, is to make the other dumb bastard die. But we also want to fight. Part of it is personal. It's the same way for athletes: an athlete wants to be in a big game, wants to compete on the field or the ring. But another part, a bigger part I think, is patriotism."

If you aren't familiar with this story, the book is an autobiography of Chris Kyle, one of the U.S. SEALs' best snipers in history. It starts in Kyle's teen days when he was sort of a rodeo / jockey type dude, carries to his years working on farms, and then proceeds to him joining the Navy and starting a family which are the topics that make up majority of the book. The book is ghostwritten, which I usually don't like, but something tells me Kyle isn't the type of dude who can properly put a pen to paper and tell a compelling story, and it is compelling. The ghostwriters did an amazing job of both storytelling and allowing the reader to know both Kyle and his wife Taya as individuals.

sorry for the bad lighting, this is not a photography blog

In the earlier parts of this book I found Kyle to be humble and hard-working, earnest even. I really enjoyed learning about his time training horses and trying to get into the military. At first they wouldn't take him because he had metal plates in his body from a jockey accident, but eventually they got desperate and called him to join. He was in his thirties when he joined the Navy- something my husband loves to remind me as he talks about his own unfulfilled military dreams.

I really liked the sections where Kyle talked about his military training. It's a topic I'm really interested in and I love the opening scenes of Lone Survivor where they show you real SEALs training. I think I obsess over it because it's not even close to something I would ever attempt to do physically. The program he completes for the Navy is called BUDS and even for someone who enjoys physical pain and exhaustion the way Kyle seems to, it was absolute hell. He talks about them laying on a cold beach for hours and begging each other to pee on them for warmth. He finished "hell week" with a broken foot because he couldn't bear the thought of quitting and having to do it again. There was also this which is fucking insane:

While the Navy was testing a program using dolphins for harbor defense, they used us as targets, in a few cases without warning. The dolphins would come out and beat the shit out of us. They were trained to hit in the sides, and they could crack ribs. And if you hadn't been warned in advance of the exercise, you didn't know what was going on- your first reaction, or at least mine, was to think you were being attacked by sharks."

Kyle actually swims under a dock to escape the dolphins and ends up getting bitten by a sea lion. Maybe it's just me, but I never think of marine life as being an additional threat to the military and it NEVER occurred to me the military was training dolphins as weapons.Where is the doc about this?

Something else that I found... interesting... is that he did BUDS training with Marcus Luttrell. If the name sounds familiar to you, it did for me too! He's the guy played by Mark Wahlberg in Lone Survivor (and author of the book). I really hate this. It makes the whole thing seems sort of celebrity and cringey. I don't really know how to explain it. Kyle even plugs Lone Survivor in his book when he finds out later on that Luttrell has gone missing. It just felt really gross to me.

Once Kyle actually joins the SEALs and heads overseas he almost immediately loses me as a fan. I do believe some people feel compelled to serve their country in a way I will never understand, and I am very thankful those people exist, but I felt Kyle's love of war became more primal and egotistic. I think you can have both a sense of duty and a sense of morality and Kyle's almost seemed to slip as the book continued on. I often wondered if this was a product of him gaining rank as a sniper or rather the effect being in war zones had on him. It's this type of quote that bothered me:

The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives."

There's a lot of ignorance in that train of thought, and this isn't the platform to debate about it, but it seemed Kyle had changed a lot from the farmhand I liked so much at the beginning of the book.

Cooper and Miller as Chris and Taya in Eastwood's 2015 film adaptation

I could have read a whole book about Kyle's marriage with his wife Taya. There wasn't nearly enough of it, but the stuff that was included was so good. There are so many interesting layers to their relationship- the distance, the parenting, the conflicting beliefs. There are a number of passages in the book written by Taya herself which I absolutely loved. One of my favourite parts is when she tells Kyle she isn't interested in the letters he wrote her and their kids in case he died:

Show me now. Make it real. Don't just say some sappy shit when you're gone. Otherwise, it's a load of crap."

I think most wives would romanticize those types of letters but Taya was more grounded in reality. She built a life that didn't need Kyle in it, but which allowed him to be a partner in it when he was able.

My husband and I just re-watched Clint Eastwood's film adaptation starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle and Sienna Miller as Taya. I felt the casting was perfect but the movie plays out much more like a love story than the book does. I also think it makes Kyle seem more like his initial self throughout than I read in the book- you don't fully see the ego and ignorance take over that you get as a reader, in my opinion. I always loved that the movie starts with that really intense scene on the street with the suicide bomber. It seemed to be a very theatrical choice, but interestingly enough the book starts out with this scene as well. It really sets the tone for the rest of the story. 

Propaganda or not, I really enjoy the movie and I liked reading this a lot more than I thought I would and I learned a ton of cool facts about the Navy to bore everyone with for the next few months. If you are into the military or if you liked the movie and feel you'd be interested in more details around the actual warfare, etc. then this is a good read.

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