In 1997, Chris Kyle joins the navy and begins his time in boot camp. He works hard, and, over the course of three months, gets into the best shape of his life. Afterwards, he begins training for Basic Underwater Demolition/Scuba (BUD/S), a skillset necessary to become a SEAL. Boot camp for BUD/S is even more rigorous than ordinary boot camp. Kyle is hosed in the face to train for oxygen deprivation, and does thousands of pushups and pull-ups every week. The physical exertion of BUD/S boot camp is immense; however, the real challenges are psychological—drill sergeants yell at the recruits constantly, and dare them to quit the program. Because he has a swaggering, “cowboy” attitude, the drill sergeants often single out Kyle—however, in the long run, their bullying and intimidation make Kyle a better athlete and soldier.
It’s sometimes said that military training is harder than serving in the actual military. The goal of basic training, as we can see, isn’t just to improve the health and fitness of the soldiers; the goal is to “weed out” the weakest soldiers, so that the final group is as strong as possible. Kyle’s training prepares him for the physical and psychological rigors of the battlefield: his drill sergeants yell at him, forcing him to become more determined and single-minded. It’s interesting to compare Kyle’s experiences in boot camp with his experiences with machismo culture—in both cases, the bullying and intimidation of his peers makes him (he assumes) stronger and tougher.
Toward the end of his time in boot camp, Kyle participates in Hell Week—the infamous six days during which recruits work, exercise, and barely sleep. The purpose of Hell Week is to weed out the weakest recruits, leaving only those who have “what it takes” to be SEALs. Just before Hell Week, Kyle fractures his foot in a boating accident. However, he refuses to show up for Hell Week in a cast, knowing that he’d have to start his training all over again. Hell Week began with a drill sergeant waking up the troops in the middle of the night by firing blank bullets into the air. Kyle and his fellow recruits swim, jog, do pushups and pull-ups, and generally work harder than they ever have in their lives.
Hell Week serves the same purpose as boot camp overall: to weed out the “weak” soldiers, and toughen up the good ones. Notice that Kyle refuses to sit out because of his foot injury. Mostly, this is because Kyle doesn’t want to begin boot camp all over again. But at least in part, it would seem, Kyle chooses not to sit out of Hell Week because of the code of machismo—like any self-respecting SEAL, he refuses to acknowledge pain or weakness, and wants to impress his peers.
During Hell Week, recruits have the option of ringing a bell at any time—after ringing the bell, the recruits are taken away from the SEALs for good; they’ve failed boot camp. Kyle concentrates on completing Hell Week, never giving into the temptation to ring the bell. In general, Kyle remembers Hell Week being one of the most challenging experiences of his life—but later, after he arrives in Iraq, he says, he’ll think “Hell Week was a cakewalk.”
Hell Week isn’t just a tremendous physical challenge—its greatest challenges are psychological. Kyle must excel at the physical challenges while ignoring the voice in the back of his head that wants him to give up. Toughness isn’t just a matter of physical strength; it also means not giving up in the face of adversity.
After Hell Week, Kyle and the other remaining recruits enter “walk week”—a brief recovery period. During this time, Kyle discovers that he has a perforated eardrum. He receives medical attention, but is sent back to training immediately afterwards. He then begins phase two of boot camp: the “dive phase,” in which he learns how to maneuver in the water. Kyle never feels entirely comfortable in the water, and barely scrapes by. Furthermore, during this time, he isn’t allowed to chew tobacco. This poses a problem, since Kyle has always loved tobacco. He sneaks tobacco into camp, and chews it during drills. One day, his sergeant catches him chewing, and orders him to eat his entire can of tobacco, and then do hundreds of pushups. The sergeant is disappointed when Kyle doesn’t throw up—nevertheless, the experience leaves Kyle exhausted. Later on, Kyle becomes good friends with the sergeant, and learns that the sergeant likes chewing tobacco, too.
In this passage, Kyle gives us a particularly vivid illustration of the code of machismo: Kyle’s drill sergeant forces him to do pushups and eat his own tobacco as punishment. Much to the drill sergeant’s displeasure, however, Kyle manages to complete his exercises without throwing up. The “coda” to this story is that Kyle and the drill sergeant become good friends. Strangely, the doling out of pain and punishment doesn't prevent Kyle from befriending the drill sergeant—and, in fact, pain and punishment seem to bring them closer together by building an unlikely camaraderie between them. One could say the same of Kyle and his fellow SEALs—they haze and tease each other, but become buddies in the process.
BUD/S training ends, and Kyle “survives.” Afterwards, he heads to advance training. There, he reunites with his friend, Marcus Luttrell. Kyle first met Luttrell in basic training, and they got along because they were both “Texas boys.” During advance training, Luttrell and Kyle partner up for diving exercises. Luttrell is the first to notice that Kyle has an “O2 hit”—i.e., he’s ascended too quickly, leaving too much oxygen in his bloodstream (a potentially lethal condition). Luttrell and Kyle remain friends, though they later end up on different SEAL teams. After advance training, Kyle is assigned to his top choice for SEAL team: Team 3, the California-based team that saw duty in the Middle East.
Marcus Luttrell was one of the most famous American soldiers of the 2000s. He was the only survivor of the Operation Red Wings disaster, during which Taliban soldiers ambushed Luttrell’s group of Navy SEALs. Luttrell bravely protected himself and, with the help of Pashtun guides, found his way back to an American military base. Like Kyle, Luttrell later wrote a memoir about his service, Lone Survivor, which was made into a successful film starring Mark Wahlberg.
After he moves to Team 3 in Long Beach, Kyle falls in love with a woman named Taya. They meet at a bar one night: Taya asks Kyle what he does, and Kyle replies that he’s an ice cream truck driver (there’s an unwritten rule that SEALs don’t talk about being SEALs with civilians). Taya quickly deduces that Kyle is in the SEALs, since her sister’s ex-husband was a SEAL, too. She tells Kyle that she finds SEALs to be arrogant. Instead of getting offended, Kyle earnestly tells Taya, “I would lay down my life for my country. How is that self-centered?” Taya is impressed with Kyle’s humility, and Kyle senses that “this was someone I wanted to spend a lot of time with.” Quickly, they become a couple.
Taya is one of the key characters of American Sniper, because she provides a unique civilian’s perspective on the war. Although the majority of the book is narrated in Kyle’s voice, Taya offers frequent asides, commenting on Kyle’s mental state, her frustration with his reenlistments, etc. Notice that, right away, Taya is attracted to Kyle for his apparent humility—he sincerely believes that being a Navy SEAL is an humble, selfless job.
On September 11, 2001, Kyle awakes to a call from Taya, telling him that terrorists have bombed the World Trade Center. Kyle immediately drives to the Team 3 base for further instructions. As it turns out, Team 3 doesn’t see active duty for a full year. When Team 3 does ship out to the Middle East, its target is Saddam Hussein, not Osama Bin Laden (the terrorist who claimed to have planned the 9/11 attacks).
Although Kyle doesn’t offer many opinions about the Bush administration’s handling of the War on Terror, this is one of the few passages in which he alludes to his own feelings about the war in Iraq. Kyle seems vaguely puzzled (as a lot of Americans were) that the U.S. sent troops to fight Saddam Hussein, who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11. But as Kyle says later on, his job is to fight wars, not plan them.
Kyle takes a moment to explain how the SEALs function. SEALs are trained for diving, but the majority of their work takes place on land. Usually, SEAL teams are assigned “direct action”—in other words, short, challenging missions with one clear directive. After 9/11, SEALs were trained for land duty, since most of them would be shipping to Iraq and Afghanistan. In the early 2000s, there was a vigorous debate about whether SEALs should continue to be trained for the water or not. Kyle feels much more comfortable on land than in the water.
Kyle is a talented SEAL, but he’s not perfect. Like all SEALs, he has his own preferences and specializations—most significantly, he’s not very good in the water.
In the year leading up to active duty, Kyle trains hard. Team 3 is divided into platoons, and each platoon is made to compete against the others—only one will be shipped off to fight. To prepare for worst-case scenarios, Kyle and his fellow soldiers are water-boarded and forced to run through tear gas. Kyle and the rest of his platoon work hard to outshine the other platoons. In the end, Kyle’s platoon ranks second, meaning that they’ll stay behind. Afterwards, Kyle and his platoon continue to train for active duty. They go through elaborate drills designed to prepare them for interacting with civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Friendly competition is an important part of training: Kyle isn’t just working hard; he’s trying to outshine other platoons. Also, notice that Kyle gets water-boarded during his training. Water-boarding was one of the most notorious practices of the War on Terror: prisoners and suspects were punished in this way (which simulates drowning) until they divulged useful information. Many argued that water-boarding was a form of torture, and therefore illegal.
During Kyle’s time in training, he gets word that Team 3 will be shipped out to Iraq. Assuming that he’ll be in the Middle East soon, Kyle marries Taya. Kyle is deeply in love with Taya but also frightened that the marriage won’t last. The divorce rate for SEALs is very high—about ninety percent. But Kyle is so in love with Taya that he ignores the odds. Kyle and Taya are still married today.
Kyle and Taya are in love, but Kyle senses that his military service is going to interfere with their relationship (and, as it turns out, he’s absolutely right). This passage is an early example of the tension between Kyle’s loyalty to his country and his love for his wife.
Kyle gets into fights during his time in Team 3. In California, he goes to bars with his friends, and often fights with other patrons. There are always “assholes” in the bar, he explains—most people just ignore them, but SEALs don’t. Kyle is arrested for bar fighting on more than one occasion.
Kyle gets in fights throughout the book, and it’s worth thinking about why. Kyle’s training as a SEAL teaches him to be aggressive and never back down, meaning that he’s likely to get into confrontations in a crowded public place.
Kyle experiences a lot of hazing during his time in Team 3. One night, his fellow soldiers handcuff him and conduct a “kangaroo court.” They accuse him of being arrogant and overly ambitious, and make him drink a shot of Jack Daniels for each of his “felony counts.” In the end, Kyle passes out, and the other SEALs draw Playboy bunnies on his chest and back—just days before he leaves for his honeymoon. The honeymoon lasts a mere three days, much to Taya’s annoyance—afterwards, Kyle returns to the SEALs and “got back to work.”
Kyle’s hazing, bizarre though some of it may be, is a crucial part of his training as a SEAL. The SEALs torture Kyle in dozens of different ways—and yet, oddly, these forms of torture make Kyle “one of the guys.” In the code of machismo, being able to accept punishment and pain is the essence of masculinity—thus, in his peers’ eyes, Kyle isn’t really a man, or a SEAL, until he goes through the hazing process.