Many moons ago when I was a studly infantry company commander a man in my battalion received an award that was nearly 20 years overdue. SGT Larry was a legend among the officers. He’d showed up as a private first class wearing a Ranger tab, Special Forces combat patch, combat infantry badge, and master parachutists wings. He was older and had had a checkered career that involved a stint in prison and riding with an actual outlaw motorcycle gang. At some point he decided to give the Army a second try and had several very senior officers go to bat to get him the necessary waivers to reenlist. The Army IG had been investigating a senior NCO for wearing unauthorized decorations — he worked in the Army personnel center and simply inserted his name in approved decorations — and discovered one of those belonged to SGT Larry. One day we were notified that SGT Larry was going to receive a Distinguished Service Cross, the second highest combat decoration. As a twenty year old SF advisor to a MIKE force company composed of Nung bandits he’d been involved in a multiple day running fight with elements of an NVA division. His partner had been killed and he’d been given up for dead. When another MIKE force tracking team found him he was sitting, near comatose in the brush near a trail intersection. He was armed with a fighting knife and a garrote he’d fashioned from a boot lace and two sticks. He had several broken ribs and numerous knife wounds. In a ravine behind him they found nearly thirty NVA who had been killed hand-to-hand. When his tracks were retraced his total body count approached triple digits using about any form of mayhem you wish to consider (he once told me, “When they came by I jumped out and pinched their heads off”). The citation was filled with colorful detail and afterwards I discussed it with a friend of mine who was much more cynical then than I am now.
“Gee,” asks I, “with all that stuff I wonder why he didn’t get a Medal of Honor?”
“Easy,” says Captain Cynic, “he didn’t save anyone’s life. We don’t give the Medal of Honor for killing a crap load of people hand to hand. That scares people.”
There are two underlying principles to war. Kill people. Break things. If you harness political will and a moderately efficient economy to these two principles you can win. If you are unwilling to do the first two, then everything you do in war is irrelevant. The outcomes in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan can be directly attributable to the notion that modern war, like European war practiced before Marlborough upset the apple cart, can be bloodless and sanitary. This is the problem that the left is having with the hugely successful film, “American Sniper.”
I’m not going to give a review of the movie, as I haven’t seen it, but I will give a review of the left’s reaction. The critique is best summed up by Laura Miller in Salon:
It is both cruel and perverse to reproach soldiers for killing the enemy when that’s what they’re sent to war to do, and when they do so in defense of their own lives and the lives of their comrades. Nevertheless, you can expect soldiers to kill and still recoil when they kill blithely and eagerly. In “American Sniper,” Kyle describes killing as “fun” and something he “loved” to do. This pleasure was no doubt facilitated by his utter conviction that every person he shot was a “bad guy.” Fallujah and Ramadi, where he saw the most action, were certainly crawling with insurgents and foreign Islamist militants, and Kyle swears that every man he picked off with his sniper rifle was manifestly up to no good. But his bloodthirstiness and general indifference to the Iraqis and their country don’t suggest that he was highly motivated to make sure.
“I don’t shoot people with Korans,” Kyle retorted to an Army investigator when he was accused of killing an Iraqi civilian. “I’d like to, but I don’t.” Later in “American Sniper,” he announces, “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” “I hate the damn savages,” he explains. What does matter most to him are “God, country and family” (although much of the friction in his marriage arose from his ordering of those last two items). As Kyle saw it, he and his fellow troops had been sent to war in this contemptible place “to make sure that bullshit didn’t make its way back to our shores.”
Or as the obese, hirsute Michael Moore says:
It goes without saying, that if his first tweet is true then profound mental disability is a multi-generational property of Michael Moore’s family. The other guy’s snipers are hated and loathed. Yours are treasured. But no one thinks of a sniper as a coward.
Chris Kyle was an exceptional instrument of war. He not only succeeded in being assigned to a SEAL team but he had the physical and mental attributes necessary to become a sniper. When people think of a sniper they think of a expert marksman. This is a necessary but completely insufficient qualification. Intelligence and a special type of mental toughness are required. Can you do math problems in your head with sufficient rapidity to convert the WORM formula (width of the target over, i.e. divided by, the range equals the width of the target into mils, there are 6400 of these to a circle, that your sight reticle is graduated into) into a useful shooting solution? Can you do this when your target is moving? Can you estimate the effect of altitude on the range and ballistic properties of your round and apply them? Can you lay motionless for hours on end while maintaining acute attention? Do you have enough confidence in your abilities that you are comfortable performing the combat equivalent of a high-wire act with no net every time you go out? Can you look another human in the face through your scope and kill him… and do it again and again?
Herein lies the left’s problem. They want their soldiers (here I’m using the term generically to apply to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines) to be victims. Ideally, they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they are marginally intelligent, they became soldiers because it was their last chance, they are troubled, they are filled with angst. Since Vietnam, the left has not only insisted that our soldiers be a mix of the unfortunate and stupid with a few psychopaths thrown in but that our enemies are so modern derivative of the Noble Savage. If you want to see an exemplar of this trend, then watch the movie Platoon. When I watched it the good guy was obvious that the hero was Tom Berenger, the tough SOB who was going to kill as many of the other guys as necessary to bring his men home safe. Willem Dafoe, naturally, played the role of the self-righteous [derogatory expression for vagina] who wasn’t really sure who’s side he was on but he was against war, man.
Kyle was not only very good at his job. He was enthusiastic and unapologetic. To a great extent Kyle is much more a metaphor how the typical soldier thinks, though he may not voice it in print to hundreds of thousands readers, than what you will see coming to the screen soon in the cinematic adaption of a truly horrible, pointless and utterly mind-numbing Iraq war novel called The Yellow Birds. Combat units are a case study in how primary groups operate. People outside the group really don’t exist and any threat to anyone in the primary group is not only going to be met forcefully but there aren’t going to be a lot hurty-feelings second thoughts afterwards. This is not aberrant behavior. This is how humans are hardwired to operate. Kyle’s memoir and the subsequent movie expose the unpleasant truth that we have to be taught it is wrong to kill (it’s in one of those commandment thingies, you can look it up) and soldiers have to be taught how to restrain the impulse to kill. We are likewise social creatures who will kill, without remorse, to defend members of their pack and here I am extending the word to defense to mean pre-emptive killing. But this is an unpleasant truth that we spend a lot of time deceiving ourselves that killing isn’t part of war. And as my friend many years ago noted, the military realizes that war brings out a primal side of the human that we’d all prefer was kept in a dark basement somewhere and when that primal side is shown it makes a lot of people very uncomfortable.