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.
The War on Terror ThemeTracker
The War on Terror Quotes in American Sniper
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
I shot the first beach ball. The four men began flailing for the other three balls.
I shot beach ball number two.
It was kind of fun.
Hell—it was a lot of fun.
I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.