The Real American Snipers

Clint Eastwood's new movie on famed Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle only shows part of what it means to kill in combat.


In American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s new movie about Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, we see Kyle’s rifle before we see the man (as played by Bradley Cooper). That seems appropriate, since it was the rifle, and what Kyle did with it during four tours in Iraq — recording 160 confirmed kills, more than any American sniper in history — that made him famous in military circles and beyond. The camera then pans to Kyle himself staring through his scope into the streets below, implying that we will soon get to know the SEAL behind the weapon.

We do learn much about him — about his father’s insistence that evil exists and that the “sheepdogs” of the world must protect the sheep from wolves; about his entry into the military, his time in Iraq, and his supposed rival, an enemy sniper dubbed Mustafa; about the impact repeated deployments had on him and his family, particularly his wife, Taya; and about the work he did to help fellow veterans, which brought him into contact with a troubled ex-soldier who shockingly murdered Kyle, just as the ex-sniper’s life seemed to be normalizing. It’s a lot to cover in just over two hours, but, sadly, it also alters or leaves out a great deal.

I should be clear: I wasn’t watching American Sniper as a film critic or a casual theatergoer. I watched the movie to see how it addressed killing in combat. This was because I’ve spent the past year interviewing soldiers and Marines — including a Navy Cross awardee, senior officers, and a newly elected congressman — about just this topic, building on reporting I’d done years ago in Iraq and Afghanistan. How does the military train people to kill? What is it like to take a life, in the moment? And what is it like in the days and years that follow? The United States has been at war for more than a decade, but these basic questions — and this most basic aspect of combat — are still discussed by the military, by elected officials, and by the public at large only rarely, if at all. That’s meant that something crucial has been missing from the larger conversation about these wars, and that vets themselves have wound up carrying it by themselves, often in isolation.

Here, then, was a great opportunity to examine the topic in all its difficult, brutal, and, many would argue, necessary detail. Kyle’s best-selling autobiography — also titled American Sniper, and the basis for the screenplay — was a blunt, plainly delivered account of his career. Would Eastwood and his team stay true to it, I wondered? Would it accurately portray Kyle’s work, maybe make it easier to talk about killing in combat and what it’s meant for American servicemen, and America in general?

Some elements hewed closely to conversations I’d had with people who’d served — and killed — in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kyle, as Cooper portrays him, had many of the traits that Col. Patrick Malay (ret.), who commanded a Marine infantry battalion in the 2004 battle for Fallujah, told me effective battlefield killers shared: “They did it with a sense of urgency, but they really didn’t seem to take any pleasure in it. It was just business,” he said. “There was certainly no mutilation of bodies, no hooting and hollering. It was, ‘He’s done. What’s next?’”

That sounds like the Kyle of the book and the film, a man who was wholly assured that his actions were just, even righteous. When he kills someone, he usually does little more than sniff before lining up his next shot.

That might suggest he had only easy decisions to make. But the film also depicts the wrenching situations in which those pulling triggers inevitably found themselves. During Kyle’s first deployment, he shoots a boy who’s been handed a grenade by his mother and is heading toward some Marines; he shoots the mother, too, after she picks up the grenade. During his last deployment, he sees a boy eyeing a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) dropped by a man Kyle shot moments earlier. “Don’t pick it up,” Kyle mutters, knowing he’ll have to shoot the boy — and will be within the rules of engagement in doing so — if he points it at Marines. “Don’t you fuckin’ pick it up.”

The scene mirrors a story a Marine lance corporal I’d met in Ramadi told me about the initial invasion of Iraq. After someone in his unit shot an Iraqi soldier, a boy, maybe 7 years old, ran to the dead man’s body and reached for his AK-47. “Just run back, just go back, just go,” the Marine remembered thinking.

The boy in the movie picks up the RPG, but then drops it, to Kyle’s relief. This other boy picked up the AK-47 and took aim. The lance corporal shot and killed him. He’d been trained to “neutralize” threats to his fellow Marines, and shooting the boy was legal, as horrible acts can be according to the laws and realities of war. But years later, he can still picture it all in excruciating detail. And while the lance corporal has been able to make some progress on other issues he brought home after he was injured in 2004, he knows that he’ll be dealing with the consequences of killing the boy for a long time, if not for the rest of his life.

Other aspects of the film’s treatment of killing are less impressive. Kyle somehow skips several steps that precede tryouts for the SEALs. The training scenes that are included show little of the great lengths the military goes to in order to prepare servicemen to kill — the progression from paper to more lifelike targets, the use of language, drills, simulations, and other tools to send combat troops into battle feeling like they’ve done it all before. A former infantry soldier described the end result to me when recounting a close-quarters run-in with a Taliban foot solider in Afghanistan: “The target presented itself. The weapon comes up, you fix the sights, you pull the trigger, and the gun comes down again,” he said. In that instant, “It was a 25-meter target, is what it was,” he said. Only later did the soldier think, “That was actually a person.”

What’s more, the film doesn’t make clear where Kyle is going or whom he is fighting from one deployment to the next. His autobiography shows much more respect for the Marines, soldiers, and National Guardsmen he worked with than the film does, too. The screenplay departs dramatically from the book (and recorded fact) in other ways as well: Mustafa the sniper is said to be Syrian, for instance; the book says he’s Iraqi. Kyle’s nemesis in the film also fights both with the overwhelmingly Sunni al Qaeda in Iraq, in Fallujah, and with the overwhelmingly Shiite Mahdi Army in Baghdad, which beggars belief. Then he shows up during a pivotal battle that supposedly occurred on Kyle’s last tour, a scene that all-too-conveniently brings together numerous plotlines.

The screenwriter has said he compressed events, made Mustafa a recurrent character, and took other liberties to create what he thought was a more concise narrative. I find that troubling in an account presenting itself as the true story of a real person who fought in a real place, killing real people. It also falsely implies the Americans had a single, unified enemy in Iraq, when they did not, and that Kyle was targeting members of the same fighting force over and over, which he was not. This undermines the film’s claim to authenticity.

My biggest issue, though, is that American Sniper is far too cautious when it comes to addressing killing, far more cautious than the real-life Kyle or the people I spoke to about it felt the need to be.

“I loved killing bad guys,” Kyle writes at one point in his book. “Man, this is going to be good, I thought,” he writes at another, when he learns he’s going to Fallujah. “We are going to kill a massive amount of bad guys.” The people he’s killing are uniformly “evil.” At times, he boasts about “slaughtering savages.” And killing them is “payback” for attacks or threats against America, despite the well-established fact that Iraq had nothing do with 9/11. His certitude is absolute. “Everyone I shot was evil,” he writes. “They all deserved to die.”

To people who have not experienced combat, these are ghoulish, bloodthirsty words. But for Kyle and many others combat vets, they’re verbal reflections of the world they were living, fighting, killing, and dying in for months or years. “If you’re seeing a person for the first time, but you’re seeing only his inhuman side that’s been unveiled for battle, that can get very confusing,” Lt. Col. Steve Russell (ret.), a newly elected congressman from Oklahoma who led an Army infantry unit in Tikrit that helped capture Saddam Hussein, told me. Even those who’ve been through it numerous times and who’ve had years to reflect can struggle to define the sensations that come with taking life. “You kill a dude, you do get, in the moment, this excitement,” said Brian Chontosh, a recently retired Marine who was awarded the Navy Cross for charging an Iraqi ambush in 2003 and later led a company in the battle for Fallujah. “What is it? A rush? Is it a rush because you took pleasure in killing the person? I don’t know. Is it a rush because you have some job satisfaction, that you actually did it, you passed the test, you’re alive and he’s not? I don’t know. Yes? Maybe. Both? Maybe.”

The movie leaves out Kyle’s perspective on these matters, casting his service, and his killing, as an effort to protect fellow troops and Americans in general — to be the sheepdog his father hoped he’d be. Certainly this was part of his thinking. “My regrets are about the people I couldn’t save,” he writes. I heard this from many people as well, and the guilt associated with surviving attacks or firefights that others did not — of not killing someone they might have — can be profoundly damaging to a soldier’s mind and soul. I also heard several variations of Malay’s assertion that “the true warrior ethos is to protect” — which is to say, protect fellow soldiers and civilians alike from those who would ostensibly do them harm. “And what’s unique about it is that you don’t protect by holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ at the protest line. You do it by killing the enemy,” Malay said.*

Whether one agrees with that or not, Kyle wrote what he wrote, and others I spoke with echoed those sentiments. They stand behind them, too. They may have wrestled with it then and may wrestle with it now, wondering if they truly had to kill everyone they did. They may even say, as Chontosh said to me, that they’ll likely go to hell for what they’ve done. But they don’t try to pretty it up or make it fit a Hollywood-ready narrative. In many instances, they were proud of how they performed in combat, how they killed the people they needed to kill, and they were ready to address it directly. It was the job they signed up to do and they carried it out as their superiors and their commander in chief ordered them to.

But by excising Kyle’s more direct statements about killing from the movie, by making American Sniper as neat as an ugly story can be, the filmmakers miss an opportunity to really examine what killing in combat is and what it requires for SEALs like Kyle, as well as for the Marine and Army infantrymen and other front-line troops who did the bulk of the fighting in Iraq. (And aside from a line when another SEAL wonders briefly about the ends to which they’re fighting, Eastwood avoids any discussion of how the political aims behind the Iraq war and the slipshod planning for it dictated, increased, or prolonged the killing Kyle and many others had to do for many years.)

The film also misses its chance to show the impact killing can have on killers. This is more understandable, because while Kyle acknowledges in his book that he was drinking too much, sleeping too little, getting in fights, and “numb to everything” when he got home after his last deployment, he did not attribute this to killing. (On the prior page, in fact, he complains that the rules of engagement were too restrictive.) Although we see that he’s deeply troubled, the movie largely implies his issues were related to things he saw in Iraq — torture chambers, body parts, civilians murdered and mutilated by insurgents — rather than anything he did. That belies what I heard in the interviews I conducted, as well as studies led Dr. Shira Maguen, a clinical psychologist at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, which found that “veterans who report killing in war are at increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder” and issues such as substance abuse and depression, compared to those who do not. An Army chaplain who had worked with Special Forces units also told me he was particularly concerned for some of the special operators who were deployed again and again on missions that were very likely to involve a good deal of killing. “On the outside, they look fine,” he said, “but we don’t know the toll that’s being taken on their soul.”

At the very least, questions about the cumulative impact of killing should have been raised in the movie. Instead, Eastwood’s version of Chris Kyle is asked by a Veterans Affairs (VA) counselor if he’s troubled by anything he did. Kyle says he was just protecting fellow soldiers and only regrets that he couldn’t save them all. The counselor says many vets back in the United States need saving, too. Kyle takes some of them to shooting ranges, where they start to feel right again. And in an instant, it seems, all is well. Kyle and his wife are close again. He’s a doting father, playful, smiling, present.

This feels like a simplistic, perfunctory treatment of what is usually a much longer, much more complicated and fitful process. But if Kyle truly was in a good place, his death is even more tragic. (That his murderer wasn’t getting professional care is a damning indictment of the VA, as well.) It means we’ll never know if Kyle’s thinking about his service and his kills would have evolved over time, as it often does for veterans. I’ve spoken with vets who killed and carried on with little affect and vets who could compartmentalize their acts or otherwise find ways to make sense of it all. But some were deeply troubled about what they’d done, and why they’d done it, and they brought numerous doubts and questions back home with them.

How Kyle would have carried everything he’d done and seen, we’ll never know. His story, while extraordinary, is incomplete. Unfortunately, American Sniper also feels incomplete as a study of killing in combat. Like too many discussions about our recent wars, it looks closely for a time, but turns away too soon.

*Correction, Jan. 16, 2015: Retired Col. Patrick Malay said the quote, “And what’s unique about it is that you don’t protect by holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’ at the protest line. You do it by killing the enemy.” An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the quote had been written by Chris Kyle in his book. (Return to reading.)

Image: Warner Bros.

Phil Zabriskie is the author of the recently published The Kill Switch, a Kindle Single that tells the story of Marines and soldiers taking lives during America's recent wars and living with it afterwards. He previously covered Iraq and Afghanistan for Time magazine, and has also written for National Geographic, Fortune, New York, The Washington Post magazine, and others.