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Chris Kyle: American Hero or Racist?

Why is American Sniper such a Phenomenon?

The debate continues whether the movie The American Sniper portrays a real American hero, Chris Kyle, or a racist who was out to kill as many Iraqis as possible without regard for the value of a human life, with hatred in his heart, and with nothing resembling a moral compass. The movie has become an American phenomenon in the one month since its release and now is the highest grossing war movie since Saving Private Ryan.

The support for the story of Chris Kyle is compelling. The underlying reason, I believe, is the lack of true American heroes. Try naming five American heroes today especially those with a public persona who might serve as an inspiration to others. No, make it two or three. On the other hand, is it ethically appropriate to hold up a person who reportedly killed about 160 Iraqis as a hero in a time when human life is being devalued?

Now it’s being asked whether the notoriety of the film, and Chris’ actions itself, are responsible for the deplorable killing of three Muslims in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Was Chris Kyle a racist who lived and breathed killing Iraqis without any sense of remorse? This is an important question that supporters and opponents of the film should consider.

I have read all sorts of comments and blogs about the meaning of the movie and Chris Kyle’s life. The most damning comments come from Chris himself. In an interview with BBC, Chris made the statement that “Every person I killed I strongly believed that they were bad. When I do go face God there is going to be lots of things I will have to account for, but killing any of those people is not one of them.” In his memoir Chris says “I hate the damn savages. I couldn’t give a flying f..k about the Iraqis.”

As much as I liked the movie and was drawn to Chris’ persona I have to admit that his thoughts and words are troubling even after serving four tours of duty in Iraq where his mission was to kill as many “bad guys” as he could. On the other hand I also wonder whether a sniper, any sniper, can be tasked with killing Iraqis to save American lives and not feel the way Chris felt. What was he supposed to think? That killing was wrong? He wouldn’t have volunteered for four tours of duty if he felt that way. Do we truly believe that he should have focused on the value of a human life before pulling the trigger? This is unrealistic at best but it is the subject of thoughtful reflection once he returned and in the aftermath of so much death and carnage.

Other comments intrigue me as well including those from Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir who writes: “American Sniper, the movie, is a character study about a guy who sees himself as fundamentally honorable and decent, but whose simplistic moral code turns out to be exceptionally poor preparation for the real world and real warfare.”

I agree the movie is a character study but it’s more about how a soldier holds together a family life and being a husband and father in the midst of the killing. It’s about how someone who was expected to kill the enemy can transition to a normal life after four tours in a war zone. It’s about how someone whose Raison D'être was to kill can be a contributing member of society upon his return to civilian life. It’s amazing how, in a time when 1 in 8 soldiers returning from war have PTSD, Chris Kyle could escape it given his charge and, instead, turned to helping others like him to overcome the affliction. Ironically, Chris was killed after his return from Iraq by just one of those he tried to help.

Some of the negative comments have been downright embarrassing including Michael Moore who tweeted that his uncle was killed by a sniper in World War II and he was always taught “snipers were cowards.” This implies snipers should come face to face with the people they are supposed to kill before killing them. Please, Michael, the phrase war is hell is there for a reason. It’s not surprising to me that Moore views everything from his own lens rather than to take an objective look at a story and consider both sides.

Then there is Seth Rogan – Seth Rogan for goodness sake – whose credibility should be gauged by the movies he makes such as the moronic The Interview. He chimes in with the tweet that the movie reminded him of a Nazi propaganda film in the 2009 flick Inglorius Basterds. He later backtracked posting, “I just said something ‘kinda reminded’ me of something else. I actually liked American Sniper.” Seth should stick to making asinine movies.

For me Chris Kyle is not a hero because to me a hero is someone for others to emulate. I suppose you could make the case that if you are going to war, Chris’ approach to battle is one to emulate. Nevertheless, a hero reflects on his/her actions after the fact and tries to learn from them – become better people. But, perhaps Chris did just that in helping returning soldiers with PTSD. The issue is a complicated one and let's not forget that Chris didn't consider himself a hero.

If Chris had been more thoughtful about what he had done and its consequences on the lives he ruined he would be a true hero to me. A sniper can be the best at what he does but still question his actions after the fact. Why did I do it? Was it worth it? Was it justified? What did we accomplish by destroying Iraq without provocation? Was it a moral act? These are questions a true hero considers – one who should serve as a role model for others.

I suppose Chris Kyle and American Sniper would have found unanimous support among the American viewing public for its message if Chris had been more reflective and remorseful. Then again we may be expecting too much from someone who did not have the luxury of time to think about what he was about to do. If he had, he probably would have been killed in battle a long time ago.

For me the moral of the Chris Kyle story is to kill another person you have to hate that person, not for their ethnicity but because that is the only way to survive. Chris embodied that spirit and, as a soldier tasked to kill Iraqis, he reached the pinnacle of his “profession.” Love him or hate him, Chris truly believed he was fighting for our freedom. Who are we to judge him having not been to war ourselves?

“Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” is part of a proverb that dates back to the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans. Nelle Harper Lee was seemingly inspired by the saying in her classic book “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where she wrote,

“You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on February 17, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: www.workplaceethicsadvice.com.

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