Imagine the following scenario: a young Muslim from the Islamic world joins his country’s armed forces to fight an aggressive war against an overwhelmingly Christian nation. He gains accolades for his work as a sniper, executing his job with ruthless efficiency and little remorse. He admits to viewing the war he is fighting through the prism of religion. He gets a tattoo on his arm declaring that he embraces the concept of holy war. When parliamentarians in his own country question the conduct or course of the war, he states, “How would they know? They’ve never even been in a combat situation.” After shooting someone whose widow claims he was holding a Bible rather than a gun, he answers, “I don’t shoot people with Bibles. I’d like to, but I don’t.”
How would this person be described when his story was recounted in the western press? That’s easy: He’d be described as an Islamic fundamentalist—aggressive, dangerous, and intent on evil.
Now let’s also imagine that this man was widely embraced back home: That he became the author of a bestselling book, and served as a symbol of strength used by politicians to pursue their own ends. How would the culture that lauded this man be described? Well, that too is easy. It would be said that this man’s Muslim country was full of fanatics, and, moreover, that fanaticism more broadly was celebrated—or at least not condemned—by large segments of the population.
The story I’ve laid out is precisely the one delineated by Nicholas Schmidle in his excellent, long report on the life of Chris Kyle, the sniper and bestselling author, who was killed earlier this year by a former marine with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). With one difference: Kyle was a Christian from the U.S., not a Muslim from a Muslim country. He was a U.S. Navy Seal, rather than a Muslim soldier from abroad. He spoke of wanting to kill people with Korans, not Bibles. He questioned Congressmen who had not served their country, implying that civilians should have no serious role in the conduct of war. He tattooed a “crusader’s cross” on his arm. The most he can manage to say about war crimes is that, “I am not saying war crimes should be committed,” before adding that a “warrior” like himself can’t do his fighting with “hands tied behind his back.”
I mention all this not to draw moral equivalence between Chris Kyle and someone from, say, the Taliban, because I don’t think they are morally identical, or even roughly equivalent. But the narrative Schmidle lays out goes too easy on the society in which Kyle was formed.
Schmidle’s piece focuses first on Kyle, and then on the man who is believed to have killed him, Eddie Ray Routh. Both men returned home from war with mental scars. (The latter had some bad experiences in Haiti, where he came into contact with a lot of dead bodies, despite a lack of combat). Routh is horribly misdiagnosed—or rather underdiagnosed—by the VA. The mental health facilities available to him are inadequate. Family members do not know how to respond to him. As Routh’s father tells Schmidle, poignantly, “I ain’t got my son no more. I got a body that looks like my son. But that ain’t my son.”
In one sense, Schmidle’s story is rather conventional, covering the ways in which we mistreat or ignore the young men and women who fight our wars. It’s a story that has been told before, and will be told again. (And for good reason).
But the real importance of the piece is the way it subtly reveals Chris Kyle’s thinking, and the way he was treated after his death. Steven Spielberg and Bradley Cooper aim to bring his story to the big screen. He is embraced by Sarah Palin and like-minded politicians. His book, where many of his views appear, gets good reviews. This is a man who expressed a desire to shoot people with Korans, and yet the critical focus of the piece is almost entirely on the way in which society has failed returning veterans.
The societal failing is deeper than veteran’s care. Here was a man who, as Schmidle puts it, “was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism.” Think about what that could be possibly mean, and how we would view someone from another culture who had similar sentiments.
Again, the point is not about moral equivalence between Kyle and a Talib or between America in 2013 and Afghanistan under the Taliban. (For starters, Kyle was a staunch Republican whose very participation in our political system demonstrates a belief in representative government.) Instead, it is that Kyle comes from an American subculture where his views—the ones on how to treat members of other religions, not just how to treat troubled veterans—are permissible.
None of this is to say that his death is less than a crime, or that he would not have continued helping veterans had he lived longer. (Routh, it seems, could really have been aided had he met Kyle before his final descent began). But Kyle is a product of his society to the same degree that Islamic fundamentalists are, even if those societies are not equivalent. The value of Kyle’s story is that it allows us to look in the mirror.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him on Twitter at @Ichotiner.