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
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