The war-hero biography does not lend itself well to truth telling. The easy path is to give the public what they want. If they will pay to see you in a certain way, why not go along with it? You can write the standard tell-all book about your all-American upbringing, your rigorous training, and your triumphs on the battlefield. You will stand tall as a patriotic, upstanding role model for your children and your children’s children. It will sweep all your faults under the rug. You will make a ton of money.
Chris Kyle does not take the easy path in his autobiography, American Sniper. He writes with a rare brand of honesty. Some veterans writing about themselves will sprinkle in bits of cheesy “aww shucks” modesty, which makes their accomplishments seem even greater by comparison. American Sniper does not read that way. This soldier’s blunt, plain talk is so central to the book that I must base my recommendation on it. There are some people who should not waste their time reading American Sniper, and there are some people who need to read it as soon as possible.
If you are looking for a dramatic story of fighting against impossible odds, don’t bother with this book. Pick up Marcus Luttrell’s book Lone Survivor instead. Most of the combat in American Sniper is pretty static. This is the way real sniper missions go—Kyle spends much of his time sitting on rooftops, dust in his nose, watching over other troops in the field. A spotter sees a man with a rocket propelled grenade launcher (RPG) moving towards an American unit. Chris places his crosshair on the man. His gun recoils; the man slumps over. Another man runs out to pick up the RPG and Kyle immediately shoots him at the same spot. Later, the insurgents send a child to retrieve the launcher. Kyle holds his fire and lets the kid go. Rinse and repeat for seven sandy years until Kyle reaches 160 confirmed kills. There is more heart-pounding action in ten minutes of playing Modern Warfare 3 than in 379 pages of American Sniper. If you’re just looking for action, stick with video games—and don’t bother with reality.
If you want technical information on the latest sniping gear and equipment, you will find more on the Internet than you will in this book. Kyle doesn’t shy away from talking about his equipment. He simply waits until the equipment matters to the story. Some Special Forces veterans write tough-guy lines like “I don’t give a crap what gun I have as long as it goes bang.” What they really mean is “…because I’m such an ultimate weapon it doesn’t matter what gun I’m issued. Aren’t you impressed?” This rings hollow to me. Back when your rifle and ammo was the difference between life and death for you and your team, I bet you knew all about it, didn’t you Rambo? Kyle mentions his gear selection at various times, in ways that make sense and mesh with the larger story. He will mention something like, We were in an urban area where we would be observed often, so I brought the Mark 12 Special Purpose Rifle, because it looks more like a regular M16 and I wouldn’t stand out as much. In this way the reader understands that the situation dictates the tools. We were going to be on top of a tall building with a clear line of sight in all directions, so I brought the .300 Win Mag because I needed its extra effective range. This is the level of technical detail Kyle puts in the book. He states that he prefers rifles made by GA Precision and scopes by Nightforce. He doesn’t give up his favorite .308 handloading recipe.
If you are looking for a perfect, all-American hero to worship, there are some good biographies of George Washington out there. Kyle’s kill record was not the result of him being the most accurate shot or the best sniper. Kyle’s nickname was “Ninja Smoke” because when paperwork or administrative duties came up, poof he would disappear and stick someone else with doing the boring stuff. This meant more time for him to look for targets and shoot; his teammates were completed the forms he was supposed to do. His greatest skill was for being in the right place at the right time. He saw more targets that met the rules of engagement than anyone else, so he shot more targets than anyone else did.
Chris Kyle’s honesty extends to himself in ways that get ugly, especially towards the end of the book. There is plenty of hazing and fist fighting. At first, it is all in good fun, as you would expect from a bunch of aggressive men trained to physical perfection. As the book progresses, things start to fall apart and there are many frustrations Kyle cannot cope with appropriately. Getting hammered and beating up on the locals doesn’t fix anything, but that did not stop him from trying. Kyle characterizes this stage as putting his career, his family, and his teammates at risk by getting injured and arrested for no good reason. Strangely, this is what makes American Sniper worth reading.
If you fought in Afghanistan or Iraq, pick up this book. If you are serving in the military and married, you and your spouse need to read this book together. Kyle’s wife Taya writes several passages in the book from her point of view, and she pulls no punches. Several times she lashes out with comments like, I finally get used to handling everything while he’s gone. Now he shows up and wants to change it all around and run everything because he’s the man. He can’t even take care of himself. On top of this, he expects the baby to recognize him? Yeah right. Her sections vividly show that his actions have consequences to people outside the SEAL teams. As the book progresses through a decade of deployments, Kyle goes from a young my body can do anything if I try hard enough soldier to an older its been six months and my knee still isn’t right soldier. He grows distant from his wife and family. When he is overseas, he can feel his relationships back in the states falling apart. When he’s home, he feels guilty that others are on the field of battle without him. He can’t be in two places at once and the harder he tries to control it all, the more worn down he becomes. Towards the end of his career, Kyle’s body, marriage, and alcohol habit are racing each other to see which one will break him next. Finally, with imminent divorce looming, he chooses to keep his family together and quits the SEALs.
I don’t know what its like to come back from a war, or to be a spouse waiting on an airport tarmac. Yet I believe that for folks in that situation, Chris and Taya’s plainspoken writings may be worth their weight in gold. No book I have ever read has done such a good job of explaining just how difficult it is to maintain a marriage while serving your country. American Sniper’s greatest gift is to struggling military couples trying to understand each other’s point of view. There is plenty of death in American Sniper, but it is not a manual on how to kill. It is a book about how to endure all things.
*AUTHOR’S NOTE* I did not include any direct quotations from the book in this article. If you really want to see what the author wrote, that’s what the book is for.