It is March 2003, in Nasiyira, Iraq. The American Marines have flooded the city in order to “liberate” Iraq from the dictator Saddam Hussein, and the streets are deserted. A man named Chris Kyle—the narrator and author of the memoir—stares through the scope of his sniper rifle. He sees a woman step out of her house with her child and walk down the street.
The memoir begins with a difficult moral dilemma. Chris Kyle has been sent to fight in Iraq; his job is to keep his fellow Navy SEALs safe. There is a chance that the woman he now sees is an insurgent, who is trying to kill SEALs—does he shoot her or let her live?
Chris Kyle’s job is to protect the U.S. Marines as they secure the city, and he’s been in Iraq for roughly two weeks. Kyle is a SEAL (i.e., an elite kind of solider trained to fight on sea, air, and land), and he’s been training to fight for more than three years. His weapon is a rifle, a .300 WinMag. As of now, he’s the “new guy” in Iraq. He’s guarding the streets with the help of his chief (his commander and supervisor).
In the early 2000s, the American government deployed troops to the Middle Eastern country of Iraq, first to find alleged weapons of mass destruction, then to install a democratic government. Kyle, a talented sniper, was involved in some of the toughest fighting of the war.
Kyle watches the woman and her child. They’re walking down the street, toward a group of Marines gathered for foot patrol. Suddenly, Kyle sees the woman take out an object—a bright yellow grenade. Kyle’s chief orders Kyle to fire immediately. Kyle hesitates, but then shoots. The grenade falls to the ground and blows up. This, Kyle notes, was the first time he killed anyone, and the only time he killed anyone other than a male combatant. He notes, “The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.”
In this passage, Kyle makes a difficult moral choice to protect his fellow soldiers. Instinctively, Kyle doesn’t want to kill anyone, especially a woman; however, he decides to do so for the greater good of protecting a large group of Marines from danger. To use a famous phrase from the Bush era, Kyle engages in a kind of “preemptive strike,” attacking the woman before she attacks.
In Iraq, Kyle says, he fought “savage, despicable evil,” the kind of evil that would lead a woman to try to murder ten soldiers. Kyle and many of his friends call the enemy “savages.” Kyle killed many people in Iraq, and he wishes that he’d killed even more—not because he enjoys murder, but because he wanted to protect his friends. Kyle remains the deadliest sniper in U.S. history—it’s estimated that he killed 160 people. He is often asked, “Did it bother you killing so many people?” His answer is always, “No.” The first time he shot someone, he was nervous. But soon, he learned to kill without hesitation—“that’s what war is.” Kyle adds that he had “the time of my life” being a SEAL. Sniping, he insists, was “about being a man,” and about love as well as hate.
After shooting the woman, and for the rest of his military service, Kyle claims to feel no guilt or hesitation while shooting Iraqis. Critics have focused on Kyle’s use of the word “savage”—historically used by conquerors to describe the “uncivilized” people of another land—and pointed out that most soldiers don’t claim to “enjoy” killing the enemy. It has been suggested that Kyle never felt guilty, and enjoyed his kills, because he regarded all Iraqis—not just a few insurgents—as lesser human beings. Notice, also, that Kyle suggests that killing without hesitation is a part of the code of machismo, which, as we’ll see, dominates military life.