I wasn’t sure what to make of the book American Sniper or the controversy that seems to surround it. Some are calling Chris Kyle a patriot and the movie about him a “war on terror masterpiece.” Others see his actions as murder and his views intolerant or racist.
I am very anti-gun and opposed the Iraq war, but yet I was fascinated with Kyle’s story and found myself comparing and contrasting Chris Kyle with my grandfather who was also a sniper, but in a war fought 100 years ago.
Three days after war was declared in 1914 Sydney Gunter, age 24, enlisted. He arrived in France in July of 1915 and spent two years in the trenches. Two years of wet filth, fatigue, and fear. Imagine crawling through waist deep mud past bloated bodies of men you once called friends now corpses floating in water filled shell holes? The threat of gas and gunfire and shelling was often too intense to retrieve bodies.
My grandfather was an excellent shot and so became a sniper. I’m not
sure if he had been around guns as a child. The Gunters were quite well to do in those days so he may have hunted, however, by the time he enlisted most of the money was well on its way to being spent by my great grandfather on women, gambling, and football (he was the first manager to pay £1,000 for a player).
As a sniper my grandfather’s job was to protect the men in the trench, provide cover, and kill as many Germans as possible. My father and uncle, now 85 and 92 respectively, only have shards of memories as my grandfather rarely spoke about it. I imagine a Sisyphean pot of images, sounds, and smells just below a rolling boil, overflowing now and then when the act of keeping it in became harder than hearing it spoken.
The one story he told me was about taking a trench. They started in the early morning under cover of the dark. As they crawled through the bog they were stunned by the absence of gunfire, shelling, and gas and wondered what terrible thing the Germans had in store. As the morning mist lifted they came upon a row of German soldiers with rifles lined up to take the perfect shot that would never come. Each German had his throat slit by Gurkhas who has propped them up and positioned their rifles as a joke for the British. Imagine encountering that? I can’t.
My grandfather sat in trees or lay behind a sod parapet constantly overflowing with mud as it was barely higher than the field itself. He was there whether it was raining or not. Waiting.
Unlike the weapons that Chris Kyle used my grandfather likely had one shot at a time. He had to shoot and then move very quickly as the spark and smoke and sound from his rifle announced his position to his German counter parts. Shoot. Move. Reload. Repeat. For two years he sat waiting for movement, the glare from the sun, the spark from a careless cigarette or the fire of a German rifle.
Like Kyle my grandfather was injured by gunfire twice. That he survived both injuries is incredible considering the wounds would have been contaminated with feculent water and there were no antibiotics and knowledge of wound care was in its infancy. Many men died from infections acquired rigging barbed wire or from an infected trench foot, never mind a gunshot wound.
His third hit was directly over his heart. Normally he was a quick shot, but this time, for whatever reason he couldn’t quite say, he lingered just a bit to long and was struck. His cigarette case in his left breast pocket deflected the bullet that would have gone through his heart. My uncle still has the case with the dent.
My grandfather said war was terrible and my dad tells me that he was very affected by it. I’m sure, like Kyle, that he had PTSD, however that didn’t stop his sense of duty. During the Second World War he joined the home guard and walked the streets at night making sure black out curtains were drawn.
What about Chris Kyle calling the Iraqi’s “savages” and wishing he had “killed more”? My grandfather was in the antechamber of hell for two years. Many of his friends would have been killed by Germans or diseases caught in the trenches. He must have at times has little empathy for his adversaries and I imagine at times he would have felt that the more he killed, the safer his men. Maybe he hated the soldiers he was fighting and possibly the German people too. Knowing he liked to provoke it wouldn’t surprise me to learn he had used choice and inappropriate words about Germans. Many in my family hated Germans. I lost many great uncles between the two world wars, one was killed when the Germans bombed his hospital ship. Not everyone handles the death of friends and family in war with grace and charity.
The psychology of snipers is very complex and has actually been studied. Most are well adjusted during their tours and view their killing as personal because they can see their target, as opposed to dropping a bomb from a plane or launching a missile. How they view what they did later isn’t well known. My grandfather talked rarely about his experiences and how he viewed them after 60 plus years was likely different than in the immediate aftermath.
I don’t see Kyle’s statements as wishing he had killed everyone who didn’t look like him, rather a curt choice of words explaining that he wished he could have protected more of his men. Maybe dehumanizing his enemy worked for him. Maybe he was grandstanding for the book, egged on by his editor or the press.
So how was my grandfather different from Chris Kyle? Confirmed kills, the weaponry, writing a book and profiting from his experience (I’m ok with that), the number of years he had to reflect on his experiences (my grandfather lived to 98), and of course how we look back on World War I vs. Iraq.
War is terrible, regardless of how it starts. We put troops in impossible situations. We ask men and women to kill. Sometimes the situations we ask them to solve are impossible. Sometimes they return from wars and find out that there is no real welcome home. That they should have complex and frightening thoughts and ideas afterwards should not surprise us. That we should be wrestling with the complex thoughts and emotions that their stories raise is also appropriate.
In my opinion Lest We Forget is always an appropriate reflection. Especially for those who lead us into war.