Chris Kyle, Martin Luther King Jr., and Our Complicated Relationship With Heroes

I saw a preview for the movie “American Sniper” several months ago. Bradley Cooper had his face behind a rifle scope, he was on patrol, he was at home with his wife. According to the screen, this was “based on the true story” of Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in US history.

And I thought, “I definitely will not see this movie.”

To be fair, I felt the same way about the movie Lone Survivor, which chronicled the harrowing tale of Marcus Lutrell in Afghanistan, and how his entire unit was lost in an ambush. I feel the same way about most war movies. The problem that I have with these movies is that they’re so close to being real, so very authentic in the way that they almost portray the realities of war.

People go to these movies and sit in silence for two hours. They cry. They get angry. They applaud at the end.

And then, they go home.

People are served up war as an 80s training montage, and then allowed to leave the theater feeling that they finally get it. They now understand what war is like, or at least they’re a little bit closer.

And so many of them leave the theater in a patriotic fervor, feeling deep in their soul, “These guys are heroes.”

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I knew Chris Kyle, if only in passing. The Seal Team that he was assigned to operated in the same area of the city of Ramadi in 2006 as we did, and they could often be seen at our Combat Outpost. We always got kind of excited when the Seal Team came to town, because we knew that we’d be seeing a lot of action. We knew that we’d be killing a lot of bad guys.

I have never read “American Sniper”, nor have I seen the movie, but I have read a lot about both works in the past few weeks. The opinions seem to be broken down into two categories:

Chris Kyle was a hero who saved America with every precision round that he fired.

Chris Kyle was an ignorant, psychopathic monster who symbolizes everything wrong with our country.

I’m not surprised by either of these viewpoints. America is not well-known for her focus on moral complexity. This is the country where you’re either Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal, “For us or with the terrorists”. If you don’t think Chris Kyle is a hero, then you’re forced to view him as a monster. If you don’t think he was a monster, you must reluctantly conclude that he was a hero.

This is the thing that I hate about war movies: war movies never give us any new information. All that these films do is cement already formed viewpoints. If you go into a war movie with a sympathetic view of soldiers, then you’re going to come out with an even more sympathetic view. If you think that war is evil, you’re going to come out of the movie with an even firmer conviction.

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We celebrated MLK Jr. Day a couple of days ago. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. hated war. One of his less famous quotes – one rarely spoken and not written on his memorial – is as follows:

“(I)n the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers, (a)s I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — ‘what about Vietnam?’ They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. (Emphasis mine) For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”

While I watched the news channels and social media explode with either adulation or criticism of our American Hero, Chris Kyle, I had to wonder about Dr. King’s quote. Here we were, celebrating a Federal holiday in honor of Dr. King (killed by a sniper’s bullet), and the most popular movie in the country was “American Sniper.” The most celebrated man in the country on January 19, 2015, was a man who killed people in service of the government of the United States. I had to wonder where Dr. King would have stood on the issue of Chris Kyle as Hero or Villain.

I also wondered where Jesus would have stood.

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We have a cognitive dissonance problem when it comes to heroes in this country.

We built a monument of stone to Dr. King, but the monuments in our hearts are built to men like Chris Kyle.

We give our worship to Jesus – a man who commanded us to love our enemies, who forgave the men who killed Him as He was dying – but our real faith is in a man behind a rifle, dispensing justice to our enemies and those who would do us harm.

Any man or woman who puts on body armor and picks up a gun, then goes and stands guard against the barbarians at the gates is considered a hero.

Forgotten are those who stood toe to toe against corrupt police, oppressive governors, and a racist citizenry. They are given secondary consideration, even though they were neither armed nor armored.

Forgotten are those who go into the same warzones that the military do, only as unprotected civilians, to give aid to those who have lost their homes and families to the conflict.

Forgotten are those who risk life and limb every day, in dozens of unknown countries, to help fight against epidemics, hunger and poverty.

We have all the wrong heroes in this country, but we don’t know that we do. We really want to believe that we are the kind of country that MLK dreamed about, but we don’t want to acknowledge that his ideas would run contrary to what we think of us a Hero. We don’t want to acknowledge that Dr. King would see Chris Kyle as a symbol of what is wrong with this country, just as we don’t want to acknowledge that Dr. King and his mobs of protestors are exactly the kind of people that Chris Kyle would have gladly taken a shot at if asked to.

To paraphrase another popular movie: Dr. King is the hero that we need, but Chris Kyle is the one that we deserve.

Is it any wonder that our country is in such a state of polarization, when even our heroes are diametrically opposed?

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I picked up my first rifle for our government in 2004. I went to war for the first time in service of my country in 2006. I finally laid down my weapons in 2013.

When I was a soldier, deploying to Iraq for the first time, they told me (and all of us) that going “over there” was the only way to keep ourselves, our families and our country safe. We were told that we simply had to kill all the bad guys, all the people threatening our way of life, and we would all be safe again.

While we were there, we did just that. We shot and killed the people that threatened us. We eliminated the enemy. And we felt safe, as long as we could keep killing the people that threatened us.

But, then we got home, and it wasn’t safe. Suddenly, there were enemies in every room we entered. There were enemies in every car on the road.

And, unlike “over there”, over here we had no issued weapon, no standing orders, no rules of engagement. We had to find a way to make ourselves feel safe again.

Some guys do that by stockpiling all the personal weapons they can get their hands on.

Some guys do that by constantly wishing they could go back “over there”, to the only place in the world they really felt safe.

So, I understand what Chris Kyle felt when he wrote that he would go back “over there” in a heartbeat. I understand why he helped veterans treat their PTSD by taking them to a shooting range.

Chris Kyle bought a lie that said he was only safe behind the sights of a rifle. He bought a lie that said he and the people he loved were only safe when he was pulling a trigger. And, while his work with veterans was effective, it was built on that same lie, the lie that tells all of us that we’re only safe when we have the ability to kill the people that threaten us.

I don’t think Dr. King would have hated Chris Kyle. I believe that Dr. King would have pitied Chris Kyle. I believe that he would have seen the terrible moral complexity that turned a kid from Texas into the most successful government-sanctioned killer in American history.

But, I don’t believe that he would have seen Chris Kyle as a victim. He would have acknowledged his choice, even as he mourned the awful system that gave him that choice over and over again. He would have praised the good that Chris did, even while condemning the evil that he had in his heart.

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Or, maybe I’m just projecting my own feelings onto a man that I consider a hero. Maybe I want Dr. King to be alive today to believe all those things, just like I want Chris to be alive today to undergo the redemptive process that comes when you let go of hate and the absolute need for safety-by-any-means-necessary.

Maybe I really hate war movies because I’m tired of mourning my slain brothers-in-arms over and over again.

Maybe I want all the talk about Chris Kyle to stop – on both the left and right – because I just want him to rest in the peace that he never had in this life.

Maybe I feel the need to justify him, because if I do, it justifies all of us.

Maybe I feel the need to condemn him for the same reason.

2 thoughts on “Chris Kyle, Martin Luther King Jr., and Our Complicated Relationship With Heroes

  1. That was beautiful. You poignantly shared what so many of us feel and are frustrated by the push back we get when we express it. The protagonist of American sniper tells a tragic tale that is so often repeated not as a tragedy, but as a triumph. I find it heartbreaking.

    Thanks for writing. And thank you for doing what you felt needing done for our safety and for your honesty. It is stories like yours that need to be told more often

  2. Pingback: Blogging When You Don’t Want To: An MLK Post for 2016 | The Unlikely Evangelist

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