American Sniper was a disturbing book, but not for the reason I expected. The author, Chris Kyle, does such an effective job of dehumanizing not only his military opponents, but the inhabitants of Iraq in general, that the endless violence and killing loses much of its horror. Rather, the most disturbing aspect of this book to me was the lack of empathy or any reflection displayed by the author, and his unblinking belief in the justness of his own actions. This is partly a function of training and environment, but that’s surely not everything.

I haven’t yet seen Clint Eastwood’s film based on this book which carries the same name. My suspicion is that I will find it to be a complex tale and an effective piece of art; for all my reservations about Clint Eastwood’s politics, I am a huge admirer of his films and artistic vision. So my comments here are just about the book. I picked it up at an airport expecting that it might prove an interesting read about the reality of a recent major military intervention from the point of view of a highly trained special forces operative. In fairness, the most interesting parts of the book are those where the author discusses technical aspects of his work and training. Those sections are relatively brief and light on detail, though.

The first section where the author talks about growing up in Texas was eminently skip-able. I’m sure the reality is different but the depiction of Texas here is consistent with the trope that it’s one of those places where everyone is a legend in their own eyes. Most of the book deals with the author’s time in Iraq. The author has no empathy with those he’s fighting, or with the inhabitants of the country in general. This is something one should expect, I suppose, especially with special forces teams, but the utterly categorical nature of the author’s belief still surprised me. I wonder how representative it is.

In contrast, there is a moment of striking irony where the author’s wife comments on the lack of empathy other Americans show for people like her husband. A level of bitterness is shown by the author against the American population back home especially against anyone who spoke out against their intervention in Iraq, but I wonder how far this bitterness extended. There is a staggering list of bar fights and altercations recounted with some glee in this book. It really only seems to be others who served in Iraq that he has any time for.

There are a number of particularly troubling things here. For one, the author embraced Crusader iconography to the point of getting a red Crusader tattoo on one of his arms early on during his deployment. The author routinely refers to his enemies as “savages” and his fellow SEALs as “warriors”. He also talks about how much he loves “going to war”; but does not reflect at all on the implications of what this means in a situation where you have a vast technological and logistical advantage over the enemy, completely different from WWII or even Vietnam. He frequently makes alarming statements and comments about the people he’s fighting; but perhaps the worst was during a section where the author recounts an occasion where he was interviewed by Army investigators over one of his kills. The dead man’s wife had claimed to Army investigators that her husband had not been carrying a weapon when he was shot but had only had a Koran (the author was exonerated of any wrongdoing). During the interview, the author reports:

“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.”

To be clear, this book does not suggest the author or other Americans were motivated by a hostility to Islam–they were there to “save American lives”. Nevertheless this sort of remark should surely set alarm bells ringing. There are other weird sections in the book which do suggest that the author suffered from PTSD. He talks about returning home and being angry at his two-year old son for not looking him in the eye when he was scolding him; or angry at his new-born daughter for crying and “rejecting” him when he held her.

For various reasons it seems inappropriate to give this book a rating as with most of my reviews. Overall, it’s a difficult and unsettling read and not one I would easily recommend to anyone, except perhaps in relation to PTSD as mentioned above. The author’s murder in 2013 by a fellow veteran suffering from PTSD was a tragic ending to what is in the final analysis a very sad story.