Anyone who read Chris Kyle’s American Sniper should read Mark Mulholland’s novel, A Mad and Wonderful Thing. Taken alone, Kyle’s memoir is poison. Combined with the Irish novel, it’s medicine. Here’s why.
A six year-old boy was riding in the back seat of the family car one night. This was back during the Irish Troubles, in the 1970s. The boy’s family lived just south of the border, in the Republic of Ireland. They were coming home from shopping in Newry, just north of the border in British-occupied Northern Ireland. The car bumped along the road. The sun had gone down. The kids were sleepy.
The “slow arc of a lamp being waved” signaled the car to stop. Guns pointed at the family. Soldiers ordered the boy’s
father out of the car. Then they ordered his mother and the kids to stand out in the rain under the scrutiny of the lamps. Soldiers ransacked the car, flinging the shopping into the road. Of course there’s nothing to find. They are not terrorists. They’re just a family gone shopping for the day. Finally, the parents are told to gather their stuff from the puddles, get back in the car, and head off again. The father’s panicked fingers can barely find the ignition. The car lurches, but the clutch slips, and the car stalls a few feet down the road. A gun appears in the window. It’s shoved in the father’s mouth. An English voice:
“I’m going to kill you.”
Then “voices and laughter.” A soldier says, “Pissed his fucking pants, mate!”
The boy never forgets. The Troubles stretch on for years till young Johnny Donnelly is old enough to join the Provos, train as a sniper, and get even.
A Mad and Wonderful Thing is a revenge tragedy. Motivated by this primal childhood event, Donnelly sets out to kill one British soldier for each IRA prisoner who died in the notorious H-Block of Long Kesh prison. Bobby Sands was the first of those prisoners to die. He joined the IRA after watching Protestant neighbors intimidate his family out of their home. He was arrested for being in a car in which
a revolver was found, a crime for which he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. He was tortured in prison and further humiliated. Treated as a criminal in Long Kesh, he and other soldiers in the IRA demanded status as a political prisoners. They went on hunger strike to force the issue, and the Margaret Thatcher let them die rather than acknowledge that they were anything other than common criminals.
This is Mulholland’s first book. It’s been percolating a long time. He grew up in Dundalk, the town just south of the border that harbored Catholic refugees from Armagh during the Troubles and, as one might expect, produced many Irish Republican Army soldiers. He was fifteen when Bobby Sands died. I was nineteen, and I remember how his struggle was romanticized in the United States, so one can imagine how Sands must have been regarded in Dundalk. While he was dying, Sands was elected to Parliament—a testimony to how the Republican population in the North regarded this man that the British called a criminal.
The struggle was still going on ten years after Sands died, when the legendary South Armagh Brigade of the Provisional IRA virtually drove the British out of the Republican parts of that county. Armagh is just over the border from Dundalk, and
portions of the county near the border became no-go areas for British soldiers. The famous “Sniper at Work” signs that appeared in several South Armagh towns and crossroads in the 1990s marked this small measure of victory against the British.
Men like Michael Caraher and Bernard McGinn mounted that campaign. McGinn died just a few months before A Mad and Wonderful Thing hit the bookstore shelves, but Caraher is probably closer to Mulholland’s sniper. He had the revenge motive: as a young man he watched two trigger-itchy British soldiers shoot down his brother, Fergal, at a roadblock in 1990.
In the early 1990s, no one knew that up to twenty men collaborated on the sniper attacks. They were attributed to a figure as shadowy as Zorro. Johnny Donnelly is that legendary hero, a modern version of Cuchulain, the soldier of Celtic lore, revered in Ireland as the mythic embodiment of militant nationalism. (A monument to Cuchulain stands today at Dublin’s General Post Office, which was the center point of the 1916 Easter Rising.) Charming, handsome, likeable, lethal.
Above all, Donnelly binds himself to strict, personal rules of engagement. He kills with surgical strikes. Only soldiers. Only informants. No bombs, for instance, because bombs inevitably kill innocents. He has a cold-hearted, eye-for-an-eye mentality. Deep in the heart’s core he nourishes an “intimate, tribal revenge,” to borrow a phrase coined by Ireland’s late Nobel poet, Seamus Heaney. People in Dundalk still cherish those wounds. The city will commemorate the hunger strike in an exhibit at the old gaol and by a procession to martyr’s graves later this month.
Mulholland grew up with it, but he does not celebrate the revenge motive. He’s sides Heaney, who felt its lure, the pull of tribal kinship, the seduction of communal violence. But such punishment violates the teachings of Jesus. Who is without sin? Jesus asked those who would stone the adulterer. The question commands the killers to see that their victim is no different than themselves.
The Fun of Killing
Donnelly’s rules of engagement make him sound a lot like Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, “the most lethal sniper in American military history,” who claimed a similar surgical precision in his 160 confirmed kills.
Kyle was not motivated by any of the complex geopolitics of the neoconservative hawks who started the Iraq War. Nor by the altruism voiced by President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who reminded us of Saddam Hussein’s atrocities and destructive potential. Kyle was not liberating oppressed Kurds or Shiites. He was not bringing democracy to a military dictatorship. Kyle “never once fought for the Iraqis.” His autobiography, American Sniper, insists that he “could give a flying fuck about them.” America’s most lethal sniper killed for one thing only: to save the lives of Americans.
Technically, we might not be able to call those revenge killings, at least not the early ones, which occurred before Kyle saw any American casualties. They were pre-emptive strikes. Kyle spied down the streets the Marines would stalk on foot patrol, looked for ambushes, and he’d kill insurgents before they had a chance to strike.
Take this story: Kyle scoped a woman stepping out of her home with a child. Ten Marines on foot, backed by the rumble of their armored vehicles, moved cautiously up the street in her direction. The woman retrieved a Chinese grenade from under her clothes, set it, and waited to ambush the American troops. Kyle foresaw the bloodbath.
“Take a shot,” his chief told him.
He hesitated. This was his first day as a sniper. He’d never before sent a bullet into living flesh.
“Shoot. Get the grenade. The Marines–”
He pulled the trigger. The bullet hit the woman. His second shot went out even as the grenade exploded.
“Everyone I shot in Iraq,” Kyle assures us, “was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.” And you can dismiss that lip-service reference to loyal Iraqis. “I risked my life for my buddies,” he says, “to protect my friends and countrymen.”
So if these are pre-emptive strikes, why do I call them revenge?
Because Kyle takes this motive to a deeper level. Anyone trying to kill Americans was possessed by “[s]avage despicable evil.” “That’s what we were fighting in Iraq,” he explains. “That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy ‘savages.’” Whatever gave him pause before killing that first woman, it was no twinge of conscience. His simple moral calculus boils down to this tribal equation: my people are good; anyone shooting at my people is evil. “I only wish I had killed more,” he says. “Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives.”
That’s an effective way for a sniper to think. Once we deploy our soldiers, their number one priority is force protection. To put it as an anthropologist would put it and as a Navy SEAL would put it, you protect your blood brothers. Those who threaten your brothers are beyond the pale of civilization, irrational, evil, savage, sub-human, and therefore free game, vermin to hunt down mercilessly. If one of my two sons were a Marine patrolling the streets of Fallujah, I’d want his snipers to have Kyle’s depth of communal loyalty. You don’t want a troubled conscience on the sniper scopes. Even so, I’d be troubled if that sniper said, as Kyle says, “I loved what I did. I still do. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life.”
A Lack of Imagination
Such statements shock us civilians back home. It even shocked Bill O’Reilly, who called Kyle to account for it. Kyle, who appeared on the O’Reilly Factor to promote his book, backed off a little on how much fun he had killing savages. Shielding himself from criticism, he reassured O’Reilly with the old cliché, war is hell.
That’s a strange phrase to come out of the mouth of genuine Texas cowboy like Kyle. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman coined it in a speech in 1879. He used just about the same phrase to justify expanding the rules of engagement under which his army burned Atlanta, just before his infamous March to the Sea. White Southerners still talk about Sherman and his notion of total war the way the Irish talk about Oliver Cromwell. So far as villains go, he’s not much shy of Satan.
I doubt Kyle knew he was quoting Sherman, but since he brought up the Civil War, we might as well follow the analogy to its logical conclusion, where we find that Confederate soldiers are possessed by savage despicable evil. The Confederates, like the Iraqi insurgents, were trying to kill U. S. soldiers operating in their homeland.
No one with a grain of sense and surely no true Texas cowboy believes the typical foot soldier in Confederate armies was a savage. Some Confederates–more than anyone cares to admit–fought merely because they were drafted. Many fought to protect their homes. Thousands sought tribal revenge. So why do we pretend that the Iraqi insurgents were so different?
Kyle recounts how he and fellow SEALS and Marines busted down Iraqi doors in the middle of night, pointed guns at women and children as they “cleared” rooms, and dragged off men suspected of insurgency. No doubt many of the men were insurgents, but that’s beside the point to a child watching an American soldier point a gun at his mother. The child’s simple calculus figures out who is savage and evil. It never occurs to Kyle how such invasions might affect the psyche of Iraqis who suffered them. He never imagines what would happen in his own heart if, as a child, he watched foreign soldiers in the middle of the night humiliate his father or shoot down his brother.
This inability is a colossal failure of the imagination. The consequences can be fatal.
“[B]oys go to war,” according to Mulholland, for revenge. Iraqi boys shot at U. S. Marines for the same reasons American snipers shot at Iraqis. It’s tribal.
With thirty-five million of us claiming Irish heritage, Mulholland knows that American readers’ sympathies, naturally enough, will be with the Dundalk boy who watched British troops harass his father. That’s how Mulholland turns Kyle into medicine. He tricks us into identifying with the Iraqi insurgents.
“For Ireland read Syria,” Mulholland explained to an Irish Times reporter. “[R]ead Mali, read Afghanistan. Or go back 10 years and it’s another set of countries.” Read Iraq. And though Mulholland does not say so, it’s obvious that the counterpart of the British soldiers setting up road blocks on Irish roads are American soldiers in Iraq: a massive, occupying army that is unbeatable on the field of battle but vulnerable to ambush and snipers.
Ernest Hemingway had enough imagination to see what Kyle did not see. “Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.” He wrote that in 1946, after the so-called Good War, when “Remember Pearl Harbor” was our rallying cry. War is never clean and precise and wholly just. You cannot lay down some “rules of engagement” and think you’ll be able to come away, at the end of the day, with a clean conscience. Killing even German Nazis, Italian Fascists, and Japanese Imperialists might be just by any moral code short of radical pacificism. Yet, to do that job we committed criminal acts.
American writers about Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have forgotten this insight. When we decide to go to war, we commit ourselves to killing innocent people. We better be damn sure it’s worth it. We better make damn sure that the ends of the war are important enough to accept the collateral damage of our violence. Abu Ghraib is inevitable. It’s inevitable that our own troops will include men like Staff Sergeant Frank Wuterich. On 19 November 2005, he led the killing of two dozen innocent Iraqis, including women and children, in a frenzy of revenge. According to Iraq Body Count, about 150,000 Iraqi civilians have died since we cried “havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”
Kyle’s first shot as a sniper might have prevented an ambush. The hand grenade meant for Marines dropped to the woman’s feet and exploded. But a child was standing next to her. There might have been two children, according to Kyle. It’s true that that the Iraqi woman brought the child into harm’s way. But that’s irrelevant. The child was innocent. The sniper who shoots the woman knows his trigger will trigger the death of the child. He might not be the ultimate cause of the child’s death—that blame belongs to the Iraqi woman. But the sniper knows that if he pulls the trigger he will be the immediate cause. One imagines the terrible rapid calculation that has to be made: that child’s life weighed in the scale against Americans lives.
Clint Eastwood, a non-combat veteran from the 1950s, dramatizes this decisive moral moment in his film version of Kyle’s autobiography. Late in the film, Kyle shoots an insurgent who was aiming a grenade launcher at U. S. troops. A young boy, presumably a brother or son of the insurgent, runs into the street and heaves the weapon up onto his slight shoulder, where it wobbles, too heavy for the boy to balance. Kyle hesitates, weighs the moral issues, tightens his trigger finger, and prays that the boy will put the weapon down. The boy is not evil. He’s motivated by revenge. He just saw his brother killed by Americans. In the end, Eastwood wiggles out of the moral dilemma, which is disappointing. But in the meantime he’s done something Kyle never managed to do in his book: he gives the sniper a conscience. Eastwood’s shooter has moral depth, imagination, a sense of responsibility, and he could see how the Iraqi child resembled his own children.
In real life, the sniper was not troubled. The endangered child weighed not an ounce in Kyle’s moral scale. The child signifies only to indicate the depravity of the grenade-toting woman. When the device detonates, the child disappears from the narrative. Because you and I sent Chris Kyle to Iraq, we have to restore the child to the center of the scene. It’s our moral obligation.
We must presume that the child died. Presumably, the child’s limbs were ripped by the shrapnel, perhaps the small hands were dissevered from their elbows. We don’t know because Kyle doesn’t tell us. Nor do we see the child’s relatives, after the Marines have left, come out of their houses to gather what’s left of the child’s body, put it in a coffin, follow the four-foot casket to the grave, bury it, and cherish an intimate, tribal revenge for the man who pulled the trigger.
Americans writing about their experiences in Vietnam understood that our enemies were human beings with hopes and fears and motivations similar to our own. Read Tim O’Brien’s short story, “The Man I Killed,” or Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem, “We Never Know.” By comparison, Kyle’s book is shallow.
The most compelling parts of American Sniper chronicle the soldier’s struggle to balance the demands of his marriage against the attractions of war, with all its male camaraderie. His sensitivity to his wife’s point of view humanizes Kyle. It deepens his character. It tears down the macho façade of moral certitude that ruin his war stories.
We might forgive Kyle for the shallowness of those war stories. He claims to give us nothing more than one soldier’s perspective. It’s harder to forgive someone like Bill O’Reilly, who’s written several respectable histories. He should not have let Kyle slip free from the implications of Sherman’s phrase. Hasn’t O’Reilly read the works of other veterans, like O’Brien, Komunyakaa, Vonnegut, and Hemingway?
Mulholland has certainly read this canon. He opens his book with Hemingway’s quotation about the criminality of war, and his novel explores what happens when someone thinks they can kill with a clean conscience.
It may be that it takes an Irish writer to remind us of our own great tradition of war literature. After all, Bill O’Reilly was just expressing the typical American attitude toward the Iraq War.
We attend to only one lesson from Vietnam: above all else, don’t criticize the troops. The literature that’s emerging out of the War on Terror—celebrated books like Phil Klay’s Redeployment and David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, and popular books like Matt Bissonnette’s No Easy Day—concentrate on the experience of the troops. As they should, these works elicit sympathy and gratitude for the soldiers who have fought our recent wars. But they don’t peer into the lives of Afghans and Iraqis to imagine their perspective. They don’t shoulder responsibility for the human suffering we have brought into the world. They don’t answer any big questions, like whether the world’s a better place since we invaded Iraq. Have our own national interests been served? Did we create the conditions that nourished ISIS? Iraq War literature refuses to ask such questions, as if discussing them would disrespect the troops.
Kyle was so disengaged with big issues that as late as 2012 he still believed that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Not even George Bush believes that anymore. But what does it matter to the sniper if the casus belli was a mistake? All he knows is that someone’s shooting at his buddies. When his buddies are in danger, the big picture doesn’t matter.
Kyle gave the last full measure of devotion to his country. After his discharge in 2009, he worked hard to help vets readjust to civilian life. One of those traumatized vets killed him in February 2013, just a year after the autobiography was published. Though it happened in Texas and though no Iraqi pulled the trigger, Kyle died helping his buddies, a late casualty of the war.
The American casualties will continue lining up at veteran’s hospitals for a generation. In Iraq, war still howls.
Mulholland reminds us that we need to answer the big questions. We need to read Tim O’Brien. We cannot leave Hemingway’s books buried with him in the grave.