"American Sniper's" twisted empathy: Chris Kyle, our police forces, and the kill ratio America gets wrong

Our military and our police view "enemies" the same way. That's dangerous news both at home and in war zones

Published February 21, 2015 3:45PM (EST)

A still from "American Sniper"        (Warner Bros. Entertainment)
A still from "American Sniper" (Warner Bros. Entertainment)

My neighbor is recovering from cancer, and last month his wife, a retired nurse who nursed him through the worst of his chemo, died of cancer. In mourning, my neighbor holed up at their second home—his second home—on Sutton’s Bay at the tip of the ring finger on Michigan’s mitten. While away, my neighbor asked if I’d go next door to water his wife’s African violets so they, too, wouldn’t die.

That night, I got a frantic call. My neighbor had received word that, minutes earlier, someone had broken into his home. I thought he was delusional; as I’d left his house, I’d taken care to set the burglar alarm. To reassure him, and worried I might be a suspect, I dashed next door.

Two windows were busted out. The alarm wasn’t tripped. I touched nothing but the ground beneath me, and just barely. When a pair of cops arrived, I let them in with my spare key. Once they secured the house, I checked the alarm.

I’d botched the setting of it. The robbery was my fault. At my admission of guilt, the cops shook their heads. The three of us stood on broken glass in my neighbor’s kitchen while I gave a statement. If I’d been a suspect in their eyes, I didn’t see it.

Done with formalities, the two cops told me stories. They recounted a spate of recent burglaries, and some tactics a homeowner can use to slow but not stop a robbery. I was struck by the words both cops used to talk about the burglars: idiots, bad guys.


Shortly after the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner on Staten Island, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, followed in rapid-fire succession by the assassinations of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, the New York Times ran an op-ed by Steve Osborn. A retired NYC cop, Lt. Osborn seeks to explain, and excuse, his former colleagues for turning their backs to their mayor. A parenthetical in the op-ed, what is presented as an afterthought, reads: “(Mornings are the best time to catch bad guys.)”

This straight talk is often represented as the counterbalance to the linguistic bloat of political correctness. It’s cowboy banter, tough-guy American cant inspired by John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. This talk, like a lot about the eye-for-an-eye Wild West, can sound like the Old Testament as translated by President Reagan.


In his bestselling autobiography, "American Sniper," Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle details how he excelled at long-range killing, but make no mistake, CPO Kyle was no murderer, despite what Bill Maher might intimate. Murder, strictly speaking, is the crime of killing somebody. CPO Kyle operated in a moral no-man’s-land where killing was sanctioned. Kyle’s memoir—his life and tragic death—inspired Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award-nominated biopic by the same name, and, taken together, these testaments—book, movie—have spawned a tremendous amount of comment.

CNN confirmed that CPO Kyle’s first kill was a woman cradling a toddler who, in the other hand, stood armed with a grenade, but Robert Ito recently contradicted this claim. The scene—censored in Kyle’s memoir by the Department of Defense or the United States Naval Special Warfare Command—unfolds more true-to-life in Eastwood’s adaptation: Kyle takes aim at a 10- or 12-year-old boy sprinting toward a Marine convoy. The boy carries a Russian-made grenade. When Kyle shoots and kills the boy with a single bullet—his first kill—a woman takes up the armed grenade in an attempt to finish the boy’s suicide mission. Kyle then shoots and kills her. Welcome to war.


When the two cops left my neighbor’s house, I waited for the crime-scene investigation unit to come dust for prints. As I did, I took inventory.

The house was a disaster, both bedrooms tossed entirely, an ocean of clothes and personal effects on the floor—half belonging to a recently deceased woman. The biggest crime, it seemed to me, was not whatever the thieves made off with. The crime was the chaos. The mess left in their wake. The grim time it would take to reorder. But then there were the houseplants.

The robbers—the cops suspected at least two—took care with the plants. They thoughtfully set aside a thriving Easter cactus so that they could ransack a wedding chest.

A third cop arrived to dust for prints. He showed me a smudge mark on the window. “See that,” he said. “Bad guys wore gloves. When these idiots wear gloves, they don’t take them off inside. Best bet now’s to find some blood. Let’s hope one of the idiots cut himself on the broken glass.”

As this cop talked, I stared at the Easter cactus. A houseplant set neatly aside by a bad guy, an idiot. Again, I felt incriminated. As a teenager, I’d been arrested for theft, among other crimes, some of them felonies. I’d never broken into homes—my friends and I broke into cars. I’d been an idiot, a bad guy. As I stood there in that crime scene, one my idiocy helped bring about, I worried I was still a bad guy.


A large part of the American military machine is structured around training men—and now women—to kill, and to do so in the most efficient way possible. Military training is conditioning. This is no state secret. The world's largest employer of psychologists is the U.S. Army Research Bureau. The U.S. military is doing its damnedest to turn voluntary motor responses—ready, aim, fire—into a conditioned response.

The gap between aim and fire is substantial. During wartime, we place a moratorium on murder and a premium on killing. We’re asking soldiers to violate what is arguably the greatest taboo of civil society: thou shalt not kill.

Even under the most ideal military situation—as in World War II, say, when the enemy was usually in uniform and the mission was plain if not simple—the U.S. had a 20 percent firing rate for riflemen. You get that bad guy lined up in your sights, idiot or not, and it’s tough to pull the trigger. But the U.S. military solved that quandary.

By Korea, the firing rate was up to 55 percent. Come Vietnam, it reached its historical peak: 95 percent. How was it accomplished? With words. The trick is to dehumanize the enemy before first encounter. Short-circuit the inherent sympathy most humans feel for one another. Among the infantry, the U.S. military seeks to encourage empathy failure.

In his groundbreaking book "On Killing," Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a former U.S. Army Ranger who taught psychology at West Point, notes that during the Vietnam era, extreme cases became the near norm. “One [cadence call] that was only a little bit more extreme than the majority was a running chant (with the emphasis shouted each time the left foot hit the ground):

BURN, annnnn’
EAT dead

American soldiers are no longer so savagely trained, but, as Lt. Col. Grossman notes, for decades this conditioning was a “key mechanism for desensitizing and indoctrinating adolescent males into a cult of violence in basic training.” To this day, in the best-trained soldiers, there’s little room for premeditation. Response is nearly autonomic. The paradox is that when the firing rate was at its height, in Vietnam, we lost the war. When it was lowest, in World War II, we won.


In his memoir, CPO Kyle uses one phrase 33 times: “bad guy.” (Much has already been made of the use of “savage,” which appears 10 times.) But faced with an unflinching war story that details the tactical desperation inspired by asymmetrical warfare—an overmatched enemy commanding and coercing the suicide assaults of women and children—critics should be slow to fault CPO Kyle for the remorseless tone of his book. CPO Kyle was a sniper, not a writer.

The fault falls squarely at the feet of his two co-writers, who are guilty of sensational hackwork, because Kyle, as a character, comes across as far more sympathetic on film than on the page.

In an hour-long interview with a Time correspondent, when asked by Belinda Luscombe about that first kill, if it was the hardest, CPO Kyle answers, “Probably. It was difficult. I mean first of all it’s a woman, and there is a child involved.” Later, Kyle adds:

"The first time of killing someone, you’re not even sure you can do it. I mean you think you can, but you never know until you’re actually put in that position and you do it, and then you’re double-thinking yourself, like can I really do this? Am I going to be OK? And then you’re asking your leadership, ‘Am I clear and hot to be able to do this? Am I going to be in trouble?’ You know, this guy’s really bad. And then you’re worried when you get home, are the politicians going to hang you out to dry and put you on trial for murder?"

To kill or not to kill—there’s the rub. The distinction between killing and murder is a legal one, but laws, and their interpretations, change. Every soldier, in his or her own way, wonders if it is nobler to suffer the slings and arrows, or better to take up arms against our troubles and, by opposing, end them. At another point in his memoir, CPO Kyle declines the opportunity, granted him by his commanding officers, to kill a child combatant.


Words change. Meaning is malleable. Language is a living thing. It is by definition open to interpretation. When CPO Kyle says, “You just view these guys as the terrorists that they are,” we can quibble over what he means by “terrorists.” He continues:

"I call them savages in the book, but if you see the way these people act, you don’t know how any civilized person can do what they do. So you’re not really viewing them as a person. They’re out there, they’re bad people, and you just take them out and you don’t think twice about it."

When CPO Kyle finishes, we might respond, “But, Kyle, you co-wrote this book. You’ve given interviews. You talked with a screenwriter, with the actor set to play you in the movie version of your life. It’s obvious you’ve thought about these bad people far more than twice.”

A book, even a memoir, is not the man, not anymore. The days of John Milton are long gone, when it could be said that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” These digital days, our purest extractions can’t be found in biopics, either. For such insights, go to the data and metadata generated by our phones.


Brian Turner—a decorated poet, memoirist and combat veteran—points out that the problem with the Hollywood adaptation of "American Sniper" is

"an American problem: We don’t see, or even try to see, actual Iraqi people. We lack the empathy necessary to see them as fully human. [...] Their bodies are the site and source of violence. In both the film and our collective imagination, their humanity is reduced in ways that, ultimately, define our own narrow humanity."

Clint Eastwood has shown himself to be capable of great leaps of empathy. In "Mystic River" and "Unforgiven," he reveals the all-too-human face of evil. You can imagine Eastwood saying, maybe to an empty chair, that the worst human behavior is still human behavior: “There’s an idiot, a bad guy, a savage, in all of us. In all of us, itching for the perfect storm of terrible circumstance, savagery cowers in wait. If you doubt it, punk, you don’t understand people.”

Whatever his aesthetic and cultural insensitivities, Eastwood did follow up the jingoistic "Flags of Our Fathers" with the empathetic "Letters from Iwo Jima," a kind of large-scale "Rashomon" retelling of WWII from the perspective of the Japanese. But that brand of empathy takes time. We’re still too damn close to the drawdown wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, wars that seem to be forever flaring up.


The distinction between cops and soldiers is substantial, but, more and more, as solders police occupied zones and police actively militarize, the distinction narrows. To combat this tendency, we must insist, to our politicians as much as to our police, that our domestic security force maintain a strong sense of sympathy for the people they police, even if it costs the lives of more cops. That’s how to uphold the public trust.

We must refigure the calculus that preserves the lives of cops and soldiers at all costs. If the costs were higher—politically, legally—for those who take the lives of innocents, or for those who respond disproportionately to aggression, we as a nation would be less trigger happy both home and abroad.

Casualty numbers in Iraq are in flux and under dispute, but a conservative estimate cites the deaths of 26 Iraqi civilians for every dead U.S. service member. At home, the data is also incomplete—even more disturbingly so. Here in the homeland, for every seven so-called bad guys, one presumed good guy is gunned down.

The world—as our advances gain in speed, as our waters rise—is shrinking by the day. We Americans, with our truly global reach, are in charge of a vast sphere of influence, the greatest in human history. This means that, more and more, all men, all women, all children are our neighbors. This is not some sappy rendition of “Kumbaya” or a hokey reprisal of “We Are the World.” This is the real result of globalization. The flip side of our vast reach is that we are more easily reached. Showing our neighbors greater strength—shock and awe—doesn’t work. That’s sham strategy. We need to show our neighbors greater care. If we don’t, we will continue to have cases of chickens coming home to roost.

Wars will be waged, and there is no end to crime. Assuming that, we should strive for equity in our casualty ratios. Perfect-world numbers, 0:0, aren’t possible. Even a just world is too much to ask. In a just world—one not governed exclusively by national security—a just ratio would be 1:1. One dead cop for one killed citizen; one dead soldier for one killed civilian. That’s what we should aim for, not by the destabilizing means of eye-for-an-eye vengeance but by the stabilizing force of moral accountability. That, more so than a visit to a nation’s secret prisons, should be a gauge of civilization in a society: one to one, an actuarial golden ratio gleaned from the golden rule.


Savagery in the face of savagery—killing women and children hell-bent on killing—is a reality of war. In a war zone, at a crime scene, there are no ideals. It’s all too terribly real. That’s the grim fog of it. Success is a matter of managing least worst outcomes. But if we, as Americans, are sincere in our want to reassert American exceptionalism, we must impart to those on our frontlines that our greatest weapons against crime and terror can’t be sidearms and sniper rifles, however necessary. The ultimate sacrifice our cops and our soldiers can make is empathy in the face of imminent danger, sympathy in the face of savagery. That’s the terribly high price of any lasting peace.

By Jay Baron Nicorvo

Jay Baron Nicorvo's essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Poets & Writers and Guernica. He’s published a collection of poems, Deadbeat, and is at work on a novel, inspired by his former sister-in-law, about war veterans confronting the troubles of home. His website is www.nicorvo.net.

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