American Sniper

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The War on Terror Theme Analysis

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The War on Terror Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in American Sniper, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
The War on Terror Theme Icon

It’s impossible to understand Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper fully without understanding the history of the so-called War on Terror—the era following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when the United States stepped up its efforts to fight terrorism around the world, especially in the Middle East. Under the leadership of President George W. Bush, the military deployed troops to Afghanistan, followed by Iraq. At first, the military’s stated goal in these countries was to make America safe by fighting terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda (which had claimed credit for 9/11) and the Taliban (who were believed to support al-Qaeda). However, there was (and continues to be) a significant controversy about the decision to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. Some have argued that neither country played a significant role in the 9/11 attacks, while others have suggested that the Bush administration sent troops there because both countries were perceived as easy targets, because Bush wanted to honor the legacy of his father, the former president George H. W. Bush, or because the administration wanted to gain control over Iraq’s valuable oil reserves. Although Kyle doesn’t spend much time talking about the politics of the War on Terror, his memoir, focusing on his service in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, paints a vivid picture of the era at the “ground level.”

The central point Kyle’s memoir makes about the War on Terror is that it was chaotic. American politicians at the highest levels gave conflicting reasons for sending troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, or gradually changed their stated reason for sending troops. (As Kyle notes, he spent most of his service stationed in Iraq fighting Saddam Hussein, a man who had nothing to do with 9/11.) This confusion about why Americans are fighting in the Middle East, and who their enemies are, “trickles down” to Navy SEALs like Kyle. Kyle recognizes the confused reasons for the War on Terror, but insists that his job is to fight wars, not decide where or why to wage them. Nevertheless, the Navy SEALs struggle to identify which people in Iraq are dangerous terrorists (or “insurgents”) and which are civilians, reflecting the overall vagueness of America’s mission in Iraq. The confusion about which Iraqis are allies and which are enemies puts Kyle and his fellow SEALs in a life-or-death situation. The insurgents in Iraq have no trouble identifying American soldiers, but American soldiers have difficulty identifying insurgents. Furthermore, they can’t shoot insurgents until the insurgents show visible evidence of hostility—in other words, at the last possible minute. Thus, while insurgents are trying their hardest to kill Americans, Kyle and his peers have to expend extra time and effort deciding who to shoot and who to spare.

This leads to Kyle’s other important point about the War on Terror: the futility of the counterinsurgency strategies that the U.S. military used in Iraq. During the 2000s, many journalists and politicians argued that the American military’s brutal, intimidating conduct in Iraq was counterproductive because it encouraged civilian Iraqis to join radical terrorist groups; instead, it was suggested, the military should dial back on force and try to win the “hearts and minds” of moderate Iraqis. At several points in American Sniper, Kyle insists that the “hearts and minds” strategy is ludicrous. Strangely, he argues that the military’s behavior in the Middle East wasn’t too brutal—it wasn’t brutal enough. (See Racism Theme.) While discussing his experiences as a sniper, Kyle constantly bemoans the bureaucracy and "red tape” that he had to deal with in Iraq. He had to write lengthy reports after every kill he made, and worry about the possibility of being court-martialed for shooting an innocent person. Kyle strongly suggests that excessive bureaucracy and commitment to the human rights of the Iraqi people weakened his service, and the overall American war effort. In the end, Kyle offers a controversial interpretation of the War on Terror. In many ways, he seems to regard the War on Terror as a failure; however, he insists that it would have been more successful had the U.S. used a more aggressive, less bureaucratic strategy.

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The War on Terror ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The War on Terror appears in each Chapter of American Sniper. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The War on Terror Quotes in American Sniper

Below you will find the important quotes in American Sniper related to the theme of The War on Terror.
Prologue Quotes

It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it. The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn't take any Marines with her.
It was clear that not only did she want to kill them, but she didn't care about anybody else nearby who would have been blown up by the grenade or killed in the firefight. Children on the street, people in the houses, maybe her child. She was too blinded by evil to consider them. She just wanted Americans dead, no matter what.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Related Symbols: Guns
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In the opening section of American Sniper, Chris Kyle prepares to take his first shot as a sniper in Iraq. He sees a woman walking down the streets, toward a group of American soldiers—suddenly, he notices that the woman is carrying a brightly colored grenade. Kyle hesitates to shoot the woman; he’s naturally reluctantly to kill her. But with the encouragement of his commander, Kyle takes his shot, kills the woman, and saves the lives of his fellow soldiers.

The passage is important because it marks the first and last time in the book that Kyle shows any hesitation to kill an enemy. Kyle insists that he has no regrets for his actions—even though he doesn’t like killing a woman, he maintains that he did so for the greater good, protecting his friends.

The subtext of this passage—apparent in the way Kyle attacks the woman and accuses her of being utterly evil—is that snipers have to replace all sympathy with hatred in order to do their jobs. In other words, Kyle sincerely believes that the insurgents he shoots are utterly, irredeemably evil—they’re trying to kill Americans, and don’t care who else dies in the process. As a result, he feels no compunction about ending their lives.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam's army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren't Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we'd just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did.
Isn't religion supposed to teach tolerance?
People say you have to distance yourself from your enemy to kill him. If that's true, in Iraq, the insurgents made it really easy. My story earlier about what the mother did to her child by pulling the pin on the grenade was only one gruesome example.
The fanatics we fought valued nothing but their twisted interpretation of religion. And half the time they just claimed they valued their religion—most didn't even pray. Quite a number were drugged up so they could fight us.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker), Saddam Hussein
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is one of the few points in American Sniper when Kyle discusses radical Islam—arguably, the threat to which America responded by beginning the War on Terror. In the first half of the passage, Kyle offers a scathing, and arguably very offensive, interpretation of Islam. He points to the radical Muslims who bombed the World Trade Center on 9/11, as well as the radical Muslim insurgents who attacked his friends in Iraq, and argues that they attacked Americans because “we weren’t Muslim.” The implication of this point would seem to be that Islam itself is a violent, intolerant religion.

But in the second half of this passage, Kyle seems to offer a slightly more nuanced interpretation of Islam: he suggests that the radical terrorists who threatened American lives may not have been pious Muslims at all. Indeed, many radical insurgents simply pretended to be Muslims, despite not praying, and using a significant amount of drugs (which the Koran forbids).

In all, it’s not entirely clear how Kyle feels about Islam—it’s not clear if he regards insurgents as representative of Islam in general, or if he believes that Islam is a fundamentally peaceful religion and terrorists are just twisting it to justify their own violent ends. However, there’s a convincing case to be made that Chris Kyle was a racist, Islamophobic man, and critics of Kyle often point to this passage as proof.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I signed up to protect this country. I do not choose the wars. It happens that I love to fight. But I do not choose which battles I go to. Y'all send me to them. I had to wonder why these people weren't protesting at their congressional offices or in Washington. Protesting the people who were ordered to protect them—let's just say it put a bad taste in my mouth.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

While he’s traveling to Iraq for his second deployment, Chris Kyle notices a group of people protesting America’s involvement in the war in Iraq. Kyle finds these protesters despicable, because the protesters choose to target their criticism at American troops, rather than American politicians and military planners. If anything, Kyle argues, protesters should be criticizing politicians and “higher ups,” not the people whose job is to protect civilians.

Kyle’s comments are interesting because they suggest that he has his own criticisms of the way the war in Iraq was waged (and throughout the rest of the book, we learn more about what his criticisms are). Kyle sees it as his duty to carry out orders without question, not to plan entire wars. Therefore, he carries out his orders in Iraq without question, while still reserving the right to criticize the overall war effort.

As far as I can see it, anyone who has a problem with what guys do over there is incapable of empathy. People want America to have a certain image when we fight. Yet I would guess if someone were shooting at them […] they would be less concerned with playing nicely […] picking apart a soldier's every move against a dark, twisted, rule-free enemy is more than ridiculous; it's despicable.

Related Characters: Taya Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 179
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Taya offers a carefully worded response to the critics of the war in Iraq who suggest that American soldiers committed human rights abuses and killed innocent people in Iraq. Taya argues that criticizing the American military is “despicable”—American soldiers have a tough job (killing insurgents), and this job shouldn’t be made any more difficult due to bureaucracy or nitpicking rules.

It’s not clear what Taya defines as “playing nicely.” Would it be wrong to criticize the American military, for instance, for torturing and abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison? Would it be wrong to court-martial a sniper for shooting an innocent child? Taya suggests that people shouldn’t criticize the American military for its behavior, but surely there must be some standard of ethics to which American troops should be held. However, based on many of Chris Kyle’s comments throughout the book (at one point he says he wishes he could kill anyone carrying a Koran), it’s possible that neither Taya nor her husband believe there should be any standard of ethics at all for American soldiers—they should be allowed to do whatever they want in Iraq, as long as it gets the “job” done.

Chapter 7 Quotes

A half-second's more hesitation, and I would have been the one bleeding out on the floor. They turned out to be Chechens, Muslims apparently recruited for a holy war against the West. (We found their passports after searching the house.)

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 186
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Chris Kyle describes a violent encounter between a group of Chechens and the American military. Kyle and his fellow SEALs enter a house and see a group of blond, Caucasian men. Kyle deduces that these man must be Chechens—Caucasian Muslims, some of whom traveled to Iraq to fight a holy war against the American military. Kyle opens fire on the men, killing them immediately.

There are two disturbing things in this passage. First, although Kyle claims that had he hesitated a little, he would have died, he gives no additional indication that the Chechens were, in fact, armed. Second, Kyle notes parenthetically that he later found the Chechens’ passports in the house, confirming that they were, in fact, terrorists. This would suggest that Kyle and the SEALs had to strike preemptively—they had to kill a group of men who may or may not have been terrorists, and later determined that they were terrorists. Whether or not these Chechens were terrorists, the fact that Kyle and his fellow SEALs had to make such a tough, risky decision virtually guarantees that, at some point during his time in Iraq, Kyle accidentally killed an innocent person because he mistook them for a terrorist.

I shot the first beach ball. The four men began flailing for the other three balls.
Snap.
I shot beach ball number two.
It was kind of fun.
Hell—it was a lot of fun.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 203
Explanation and Analysis:

In this disturbing passage, Kyle describes one of his most sadistic actions. While stationed at a military base overlooking the Euphrates River, Kyle noticed a group of insurgents trying to swim across the river by holding onto beach balls. Recognizing that the insurgents couldn’t swim, Kyle proceeded to shoot each one of the beach balls, slowly allowing the insurgents to drown in the river.

It’s frightening that Kyle so jauntily insists that he enjoyed torturing and killing the insurgents. Many American soldiers who fought in the war in Iraq spoke of killing enemy insurgents as a solemn duty—a necessary deed, but hardly something to celebrate—but Kyle claims that he actually relished the act of killing, and of toying with his victims like this. Some have argued that Kyle’s ability to enjoy killing made him a better soldier, and even protected him from the gnawing sense of guilt that causes many soldiers to suffer from PTSD. Others have argued that Kyle was clearly a sadist and a bully.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Seven, Kyle explains that he and his fellow SEALs were sent to Iraq in part to install a democratic regime. However, Kyle fiercely denies that he respects the people of Iraq—his goal in the Middle East was to kill as many insurgents as possible and protect his fellow soldiers, not to benefit Iraq itself. Kyle later notes that he doubts democracy will ever flourish in Iraq.

The passage has been cited as an example of Kyle’s racism and Islamophobia. Frequently, Kyle refers to Iraqis as “savages”—while it sometimes seems that he’s referring strictly to murderous insurgents, it sometimes appears that he’s referring to the people of Iraq as a collective group. In this passage, Kyle acknowledges that he doesn’t care about Iraqis at all. Perhaps one of the reasons why Kyle claimed not to feel stress or guilt as a sniper is that he didn’t care about accidentally killing innocent Iraqis. It would seem he thought that Iraqi lives—even innocent Iraqi lives—weren’t worth protecting.

I had trouble holding my tongue. At one point, I told the Army colonel, "I don't shoot people with Korans—I'd like to, but I don't." I guess I was a little hot.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 227
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kyle narrowly avoids a court-martial. He stands accused of killing an innocent man. Kyle insists that the man he killed was a dangerous insurgent, carrying a weapon, but the man’s widow accuses Kyle of murdering an unarmed man, saying that her husband was just carrying a copy of the Koran. During a conversation with his military superiors, Kyle insists again that the man was armed—but more importantly, during this conversation Kyle betrays his true feelings about Muslims: he claims that he’d like to murder anyone carrying a Koran, a clear sign that he wants to kill civilian Iraqis.

Kyle’s defenders and apologists praise him as a hero who protected American lives in Iraq. However, comments like the one Kyle makes in this passage (and which he saw fit to print in his book) suggest that, heroic though he might have been, he was also a violent racist.

Chapter 9 Quotes

As I watched them coming from the post, I spotted an insurgent moving in behind them.
I fired once. The Marine patrol hit the dirt. So did the Iraqi, though he didn't get up.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 260
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Nine, Kyle has reenlisted in the military, and he’s back in Iraq, faithfully serving as a sniper once more. In this passage, Kyle pulls off a particularly daring shot: he hits an insurgent who is about to ambush two Marines with whom Kyle is working. Kyle’s quick thinking and excellent marksmanship save the lives of the Marines, and later on, several of the Marines thank him personally for saving them from danger.

The passage is an important reminder that, whatever one comes to think of Kyle (and there’s ample reason to think that he was a bully, a sadist, and a racist), Kyle’s actions in the Middle East saved the lives of many American soldiers. Kyle remains a controversial figure; some regard him as a hero, while others regard him as the worst America has to offer. Passages like this one provide an important illustration of why Kyle remains so controversial.

Chapter 10 Quotes

We would bump out five hundred yards, six or eight hundred yards, going deep into Injun territory to look and wait for the bad guys. We'd set up on overwatch ahead of one of his patrols. As soon as his people showed up, they'd draw all sorts of insurgents toward them. We'd take them down. The guys would turn and try and fire on us; we'd pick them off. We were protectors, bait, and slayers.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 304
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter Ten, Kyle continues to serve in Ramadi, Iraq, alongside the other Navy SEALs. He leads a team of SEALs into one of the most dangerous parts of the region; there, he tries to draw insurgents out into the open, and then he and his fellow SEALs fire at them.

The passage is a good example of both Kyle’s bravery and of his often-offensive attitude toward other races. Kyle risks his life to fight insurgents and protect other Americans—in this passage, he effectively offers himself as a human target in order to provoke insurgents. However, it’s important to notice the detail that Kyle compares his actions to those of the cowboys who fought with Native Americans (or “Injuns,” as Kyle calls them) in the American West. It’s very telling that Kyle the Navy SEAL sees himself as a cowboy fighting Native Americans—after all, cowboys, despite being romanticized in American culture, were often murderous, even genocidal figures, who tried to wipe the Native Americans off the face of the Earth. It is sadly appropriate, then, that a 21st-century American racist compares himself to 19th century American racists.

If you loved them, I thought, you should have kept them away from the war. You should have kept them from joining the insurgency. You let them try and kill us—what did you think would happen to them?
It's cruel, maybe, but it's hard to sympathize with grief when it's over someone who just tried to kill you.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 312
Explanation and Analysis:

Chris Kyle kills many insurgents in Iraq, and in this passage, he witnesses the mother of one of his victims, crying and screaming. Kyle doesn’t feel the slightest sympathy for this woman; on the contrary, he blames her for doing a bad job of raising her child. Surely, Kyle thinks, this woman is at least partly responsible for her son’s terrorist activities.

The passage is notable for being 1) a particularly clear example of Kyle’s cruel, careless attitude toward all the people of Iraq, not just insurgents, and 2) the one moment in American Sniper in which Kyle himself acknowledges the cruelty of his worldview. It seems like a major leap for Kyle to place the blame for his victim’s actions on the mother, a woman he’s never met before (for all he knows this woman might have tried her hardest to raise her child right, or her son might have been wholly justified in hating America). Kyle’s thought process would seem to suggest that he sees all Iraqis as savage—either they’re insurgents, or their actions enable insurgents. Kyle’s explanation for his own cruelty is that it’s a natural reaction when “someone tries to kill you.” While there may be a lot of truth in such an explanation, there are many Iraqi veterans who have expressed their sympathy for the families of insurgents, and take a gentler view of Iraqi society.

Chapter 11 Quotes

We requested to be cleared hot to shoot anyone on a moped. The request was denied […] Meanwhile, the insurgents kept using mopeds and gathering intelligence. We watched them closely and destroyed every parked moped we came across in houses and yards, but that was the most we could do.
Maybe legal expected us to wave and smile for the cameras.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Page Number: 337
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kyle has realized that many insurgents in Iraq are riding mopeds and throwing explosives down manholes. As a result, he asks for permission to shoot anyone riding on a moped, and is genuinely puzzled when his superiors deny his request.

It doesn’t seem to occur to Kyle—or perhaps it just doesn’t matter to him—that innocent civilians might ride mopeds, too. Kyle is so fiercely invested in killing insurgents that he is frustrated by any rule or regulation that might slow him down. Indeed, Kyle criticizes the entire Iraqi War on the grounds that the American military was too slow and bureaucratic—there were too many rules preventing Kyle from a “free reign.”

It’s hard not to think that Kyle is indifferent to the possibility of shooting an innocent Iraqi on a moped because he has no respect for Iraqi lives, insurgent or civilian.

Chapter 12 Quotes

He got up in front of the room and started telling us that we were doing things all wrong. He told us we should be winning their hearts and minds instead of killing them […] I was sitting there getting furious. So was the entire team, though they all kept their mouths shut. He finally asked for comments.
My hand shot up.
I made a few disparaging remarks about what I thought we might do to the country, then I got serious. "They only started coming to the peace table after we killed enough of the savages out there," I told him. "That was the key."

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker), Dick Couch
Page Number: 361
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Kyle has an uncomfortable encounter with a veteran and journalist named Dick Couch. Couch is one of the many critics of the war in Iraq who argues that the U.S. military needs to rethink its entire policy in the Middle East. Couch argues that the military has favored an overly aggressive, “shock and awe” style of warfare, when it should be trying to win the “hearts and minds” of average, moderate Iraqis. Couch’s point is simple: the best way to fight insurgency is to prevent undecided people from gravitating toward the insurgents’ causes. Therefore, U.S. troops should be trying to work with Iraqi people instead of alienating them and pushing them toward al-Qaeda and other radical groups.

Kyle completely disagrees with Couch’s argument: instead, he argues that the U.S. military has been too lax in Iraq. At many points in his memoir, Kyle writes about how the bureaucracy of the military delayed him in carrying out his duties. Therefore, Kyle tells Couch, the military should “double down” on displays of force, cutting down on red tape and ignoring the “hearts and minds” approach. The only way to get the people of Iraq to cooperate, he argues, is to intimidate them more than the insurgents do. Kyle’s argument has been disproven by the history of the war in Iraq—in places where soldiers adopted a gentler, “hearts and minds” strategy, they reported much greater success with the Iraqi people.

Chapter 13 Quotes

It was a kid. A child.
I had a clear view in my scope, but I didn't fire. I wasn't going to kill a kid, innocent or not. I'd have to wait until the savage who put him up to it showed himself on the street.

Related Characters: Chris Kyle (speaker)
Related Symbols: Guns
Page Number: 387
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Kyle describes shooting an insurgent carrying a dangerous RPG (i.e., a rocket-powered grenade launcher). After Kyle kills the insurgent, he waits for another insurgent to pick up the weapon, so that he can shoot again. However, Kyle sees a young Iraqi child picking up the RPG and carrying it away from the dead insurgent’s body. Rather than kill the child, Kyle allows the child to walk away (and, possibly, return to the RPG to another insurgent).

Kyle seems to intend for this passage to be an illustration of his mercy and humanity; however, his wording betrays his true beliefs about the Iraqi people. Notice that Kyle boasts that he wouldn’t kill a kid, “innocent or not”—strongly implying that he believes it’s possible for a young Iraqi child to be guilty, and even guilty enough to be deserving of immediate execution. It’s very hard to imagine Kyle passing such harsh, sweeping judgments about a young American child, suggesting his bigoted view of Iraqis.