THE REAL AMER­I­CAN SNIPER

A new film paints him as a hero. But the true story of Chris Kyle, Amer­ica’s dead­li­est marks­man, is not so sim­ple, says Colin Free­man

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Cover Story -

It is just another grim, terrifying day for US troops in the Iraqi city of Fal­lu­jah, and Chris Kyle, a rookie sniper perched on an empty build­ing, has the un­en­vi­able task of watch­ing his com­rades’ backs. As they pa­trol the bomb­scarred street be­neath him, his crosshairs zero in on a burka­clad woman and child who are head­ing to­wards the sol­diers in sus­pi­cious fash­ion. In the folds of the woman’s burka, Kyle can see the glint of a bomb. Or is it? He ra­dios the street pa­trol be­low him for con­fir­ma­tion, but no one can help. It’s “his call”. Should he leave her be, and risk his fel­low sol­diers be­ing wiped out? Or should he pull the trig­ger, know­ing that the death of an in­no­cent woman will throw Fal­lu­jah into ever more vi­o­lent throes of re­bel­lion? So goes a scene in the new film Amer­i­can Sniper, Hol­ly­wood’s take on the Texan sol­dier who be­came the most lethal marks­man in US mil­i­tary his­tory. Dur­ing six years of ser­vice in Iraq, Kyle notched up some 160 con­firmed kills, be­com­ing such a threat to Iraq’s in­sur­gents that they put their own $80,000 bounty on his head. The biopic, di­rected by Clint East­wood and star­ring Bradley Cooper as Kyle, prom­ises to do for the im­age of the long-range as­sas­sin and his .300 Winch­ester Mag­num what Dirty Harry did for the lone cop and his .44 Mag­num re­volver. The film has been nom­i­nated for six Os­cars and com­pared with Hol­ly­wood’s other big Iraq war nail-biter – Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which chron­i­cled the life of bomb­dis­posal ex­perts in Bagh­dad. But that is where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end. First, Amer­i­can Sniper shifts the ac­tion an hour’s drive west to the ci­ties of Fal­lu­jah and Ra­madi, the self-de­clared “grave­yards of the Americans” that make Bagh­dad look almost be­nign. And sec­ond, in con­cen­trat­ing on the role of the sniper, the film ze­roes in on an al­to­gether darker, psy­cho­log­i­cally murkier side of war­fare. For while bomb-dis­posal men save lives sin­gle-hand­edly, snipers take them sin­gle­hand­edly, and of­ten in very great num­bers. Most sol­diers can fight en­tire wars with­out get­ting any­where near the tally that Kyle amassed, for the sim­ple rea­son that gun bat­tles are usu­ally far too chaotic to be cer­tain as to who shot whom. A sniper, by con­trast, plays “God” over those who come in his sights, de­cree­ing who lives and who dies, and watch­ing the in­stant re­sults in close-up tele­scopic vi­sion. So what kind of per­son be­comes a sniper? If Kyle’s ex­am­ple is any­thing to go by, peo­ple who are not too plagued by in­ner doubts about what they do. The US mil­i­tary does rigid psy­cho­log­i­cal screen­ing of any sol­dier want­ing to spe­cialise as a sniper, but even so, it is hard to imag­ine them find­ing any bet­ter can­di­date than Kyle, whose God ’n’ guns back­story – re­counted in a 2012 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that be­came a New York Times best­seller – sounds like some­thing out of a US mil­i­tary re­cruit­ment ad­vert. Born in Texas to a dea­con and a Sun­day school teacher, Kyle got his first ri­fle at the age of eight, start­ing out by shoot­ing quail and deer. Be­fore the army, he worked as a rancher and pro­fes­sional bronco rodeo rider, chew­ing to­bacco, sip­ping whisky, and never walk­ing away from a barfight. He lists his pri­or­i­ties as “God, coun­try and fam­ily” in that or­der. And in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, he makes it very clear that those who tried to kill his com­rades richly de­served the fate he dished out in spades. “Peo­ple ask me, ‘How many peo­ple have you killed?’” he writes. “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.” On the fi­nal page, he adds: “When God con­fronts me with my sins, I do not be­lieve any of the kills I had dur­ing the war will be among them.” For Kyle, the sheer bru­tal­ity of many of his en­e­mies, who killed far more fel­low Iraqis than they did Americans, elim­i­nated any doubts: in the film, one of his tar­gets is a tor­turer called the Butcher, who more than lives up to his nick­name. Be­sides, were the Almighty to de­cide he did want to scru­ti­nise Kyle’s for­mi­da­ble kill list, it would take a very long time to go through them all. His tally of 160 was a con­ser­va­tive es­ti­mate based on kills cor­rob­o­rated by other sol­diers. The real fig­ure, he reck­oned, was more than 250, if one counted “the ones that got away” – those who crawled out of sight be­fore dy­ing. Even so, Kyle did not claim to be a par­tic­u­larly out­stand­ing shot. He sim­ply claimed that Iraq gave him a lot of chances. On one oc­ca­sion, he shot seven dead in a sin­gle en­gage­ment. On another, he killed two in­sur­gents on a mo­tor­bike with a sin­gle bul­let. As he put it: “When you’re in a pro­fes­sion where your job is to kill peo­ple, you start get­ting cre­ative.” His con­firmed kills also in­cluded one par­tic­u­lar shot from 2,100 yards (the record is held by a sniper from Bri­tain’s House­hold Cavalry, who killed two Tal­iban at 2,700 yards in Afghanistan). More to the point, Kyle’s skills also won the ul­ti­mate ac­co­lade from his en­e­mies, who nick­named him the Shai­tan AlRa­madi (The Devil of Ra­madi) and put up posters of­fer­ing first

$21,000, and later $80,000, for his head – or, more specif­i­cally, his left bi­cep and its cru­ci­fix tat­too, which they learnt of from an in­for­mant among Kyle’s Iraqi army al­lies. Kyle’s first re­ac­tion was to joke that his de­voted wife, Taya, whose nerves were un­der­stand­ably tested by his stints in Iraq, might choose to claim the bounty. His sec­ond was mild envy on dis­cov­er­ing that another US sniper in Ra­madi had earned an even higher bounty. Back home, though, it was Kyle who re­ceived most of the glory. After leav­ing the mil­i­tary in 2009, the man who was still a face­less killer to his en­e­mies be­came a mi­nor celebrity in the US, fea­tur­ing on the cover of Sol­dier of For­tune mag­a­zine and ap­pear­ing on chat shows. That he could even show him­self on tele­vi­sion is proof of how Amer­ica still loves guns and those who ex­cel with them, es­pe­cially in ser­vice of their coun­try. By con­trast, the Bri­tish mil­i­tary does not even re­lease the names of its best snipers, partly for fear that they could be tar­geted by ter­ror­ists. In Kyle’s case, though, the big­gest feeder of the legend was him­self. As well as set­ting up his own suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary train­ing company, he also fea­tured in Stars Earn Stripes, a re­al­ity TV show in which ex-sol­diers helped celebri­ties like Todd Palin – hus­band of ex-Alaska gov­er­nor Sarah – brush up their mil­i­tary skills. And even though he was no longer in Iraq, ru­mours of new “hero­ics” con­tin­ued to emerge. On one oc­ca­sion, he was said to have shot and killed two Mex­i­can ban­dits who tried to car­jack him out­side a petrol sta­tion. On another, he claimed to have holed up in New Or­leans post-Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and shot loot­ers from the top of the Su­per­dome. This, ad­mit­tedly, is where the legend be­gan to wear a lit­tle thin. The US me­dia – keen to stand up such re­mark­able sto­ries – could find noth­ing to prove that they were any­thing other than bar-room boasts. And Kyle, it turned out, was not as in­vin­ci­ble as his legend would have it. Like many other vet­er­ans, he sus­tained a de­gree of com­bat trauma (it stemmed from the deaths of close com­rades rather than his snip­ing du­ties) and this made it hard to get used to life back in Texas. In lo­cal bars, where some­one was al­ways ready to buy the war hero a round, he be­came a reg­u­lar fix­ture, down­ing whisky by the pint. At home, there were rows with Taya (played by Si­enna Miller) who, in the film, tells him: “If you think this war isn’t chang­ing you, you’re wrong.” Iron­i­cally, it was his own ef­forts to read­just that lead to his ul­ti­mate un­do­ing. Hav­ing recog­nised his own post­com­bat dif­fi­cul­ties, Kyle used his celebrity sta­tus to help start the “He­roes Project” to pro­vide fit­ness train­ing and life-coach­ing to dis­abled and trau­ma­tised vet­er­ans. Among those he helped was a trou­bled young ex-Marine called Ed­die Ray Routh, whom Kyle in­vited to a ri­fle range at Rough Creek Lodge, Texas, in 2013. For Routh, it should have been the per­fect ther­apy: a day’s shoot­ing in the company of a mod­ern Amer­i­can legend, and a chance to con­fide in some­one who would un­der­stand his trou­bles. In­stead, Kyle be­came the tar­get. For rea­sons that are un­clear to this day, Routh shot Kyle dead, and also one of Kyle’s friends, Chad Lit­tle­field. He was later ar­rested while driv­ing Kyle’s pickup truck. A memo­rial ser­vice for Kyle was held at the Dal­las Cow­boys’ sta­dium on Fe­bru­ary 11 2013, and on the route to his fu­neral in Austin the fol­low­ing day, mourn­ers lined mile upon mile of In­ter­state 35. Mean­while, Routh awaits trial for a killing that may earn him not an $80,000 bounty, but the death penalty. Whether it was jeal­ousy, a quar­rel, or sim­ply a flash of mad­ness brought back from Iraq, will be for the court to de­cide. But one thing al­ready seems cer­tain. No­body – per­haps not even the in­sur­gents of Iraq – would agree it was a fit­ting end for the Devil of Ra­madi. ‘ Amer­i­can Sniper’ is in cin­e­mas now. ‘Amer­i­can Sniper’ by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice is avail­able priced £7.99.

Truth and fic­tion: Bradley Cooper plays Chris Kyle in Clint East­wood’s ‘Amer­i­can Sniper’, far left; Kyle him­self, above left, with wife Taya. He was killed by a for­mer ex-ser­vice­man, and re­ceived a hero’s fu­neral, above

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