American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice (New York: William Morrow, 2012. 448 pp)

Chris Kyle served four combat tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom and elsewhere. He was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars with Valor, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, and one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation. Kyle died in February, 2013.

Scott McEwen is a trial lawyer in San Diego, California. An Eagle Scout, he grew up hunting with long-range rifles in Oregon.

Jim DeFelice is the author of Omar Bradley: General at War, the first in-depth critical biography of America’s last five-star general. He has also written a number of acclaimed military thrillers.

Boys Will Be Boys

In my youth, my preferred weapon was the sniper rifle. But let me step back for a second. I’ve never fired a real gun. In fact, the first time I ever touched a gun only occurred a couple years ago. Honestly, I’m not much of a gun guy.

But during my younger years, my role was sniper, no matter the games we played. Consider laser tag—I purchased the “long-barreled rifle.” When laser warfare broke out in a friend’s wooded backyard, I’d find a concealed area and I’d wait patiently for unsuspected warriors, racking up kills without ever revealing my position.

In the virtual world, I always wanted the sniper rifle. In Halo multiplayer matches, I’d grab the sniper rifle and sneak around, waiting for the best shot.

So even though I’m not a gun person, I would fashion myself to be a long-range, accuracy kind of gun person.

Given my background, American Sniper intrigues, even if I wouldn’t fashion myself as a pro-war kind of person.

The Bad News

Let’s start with the bad news about this book. First off, Kyle should not be confused with a literary giant. Even with the help of two other writers, American Sniper’s prose is simplistic and poorly organized with little concatenation. Each chapter bounces around from skirmish to a random thought about a gun to a paragraph from Kyle’s wife, Taya.

Given these factors, the general thrust of the book is difficult to discern, aside from the general principle of Chris Kyle being a “bad-ass Navy SEAL.”

“Why do SEALs fight so much?
I haven’t made a scientific study of it, but I think a lot is owed to pent-up aggression. We’re trained to go out and kill people. And then, at the same time, we’re also being taught to think of ourselves as invincible bad-asses. That’s a pretty potent combination” (54).

Additionally, Kyle’s anthropological and sociocultural analysis is nonexistent. If you were expecting a nuanced approach to the conflict in Iraq and an attempt to understand the differences between cultures and the reasons behind the conflict, you will be sadly mistaken. Kyle’s viewpoint is rather black and white:

“Savage, despicable evil. That’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy ‘savages.’ There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there” (4).

Even though I understand there are people with strong convictions surrounding the harm of Westerners, such a comprehension is a far cry from labeling a group of people savages. Truthfully, such statements as these made reading American Sniper incredibly difficult.

The Good News

And yet, American Sniper included its fair share of interesting points.

I’ve always been a proponent of experiencing life through the perspective of another. This position means I ought to read literature from cultures different from mine, but also excerpts from those people living at the other spectrum within my own culture.

God willing, I hope to not encounter warfare first-hand, but American Sniper illustrates a side of American life known to many in the last decade.

I had imagined a war field of chaos, certainly influenced by the many war-based films and television shows depicting battle as a literal “war zone.” But Chris Kyle’s experience differs greatly from Saving Private Ryan.

Most interestingly to me, Kyle operated under strict rules of engagement, to the point where he needed to justify every kill:

“It would have been tough to go and just blatantly shoot people in Iraq. For one thing, there were always plenty of witnesses around. For another, every time I killed someone in Ramadi I had to write a shooter’s statement on it” (296).

Statements such as these shed a new light on warfare, not as a place of chaos but one of order and paperwork.

The Verdict

Ultimately, American Sniper is not my kind of book. Even though my youth suggests the sniper as my warrior alter ego, a first-hand account of war unsettles me. Even though I found certain aspects of American Sniper interesting, Kyle’s simple prose, all-over-the-place storytelling, and overly one-dimensional analysis of culture makes this book a frustrating read.

Verdict: 2 out of 5

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