Moralizing on American Sniper

Chris Kyle a coward? Puh-lease! How easy to pass judgment from an easy chair. All snipers cowards? Give me a break!

(In the interest of full disclosure please allow me to state that 45 years ago I volunteered to fight in Vietnam and served there with incredibly brave soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. Although I did not serve in Nam as a sniper, I did volunteer to do so.)

I have no interest in analyzing the justice or injustice of the wars in Vietnam or Iraq in this space, although I have done so in other settings. War in general, however, I must say, is never completely just, since justice consists of love and fairness to our neighbor, which killing precludes. Jus ad bellum speaks of justice of war; jus in bello addresses justice in war. I wish to speak to the latter first, then add a concluding word.

Let us hopefully agree: the proverb, "All's fair in love and war," is absurd. There are rules for love and there are rules for war. War must be judged twice. Is it just or unjust? Is it being fought justly or unjustly? Are our actions the lesser of two evils, designed to secure peace, to reduce injustice? Criteria for just war and its conduct are not intended to justify a lust for war, but rather to limit its evils. "Anything goes" engagement in war and morality are mutually exclusive. Rules must hold.

Snipers are trained to engage the enemy and render him useless in combat. Snipers are skilled marksmen protecting their brothers, and sisters, from harm or death. All armies employ snipers. To borrow a metaphor from the movie, American Sniper, snipers are "sheep dogs protecting the sheep from wolves." Who would call a sheep dog a coward for preserving the lives of the sheepfold?

Snipers cowards? Why? Because they're invisible? First, no one is invisible in combat. Forget that. Second, many of the lethal dangers in war are invisible: artillery shells, bombs, mortar rounds, land mines, booby traps, gas, disease, other. If, however, snipers were, guaranteed invisibility, why would they be any more cowardly than artillerymen, bombardiers, pilots, or other silent killers? Third, snipers are an acknowledged part of war, fighting within the rules, and have been since rocks were thrown from concealed caves. Finally, Christ Kyle a coward? Not even close. Although a legendary sniper, he wasn't exclusively one, but also a foot soldier who courageously cleared villages house by house.

The promised additional word: Soldiers do not declare war. Soldiers do not send themselves into combat. Governments do that. Our government of the people, for the people, and by the people does that. Soldiers train to protect our nation, and each other. Soldiers obey orders. Soldiers risk their lives in the line of duty. How easy it is to moralize on a soldier's conduct, but fail to see our own responsibility for our presence in war. Sometimes war is just; sometimes it is not. Ours is a representative democracy. We vote. We elect decision-makers. We follow leaders. As a nation we are all in this process together. When Washington says go to war, soldiers go. They do their job. Like Chris. As citizens it is our job to influence our decision-makers. If we do our job, our leaders do right, or they go home.

I applaud the solitary voice, or the chorus of voices, in our country speaking in dissent or in support of issues confronting us. Our voice and our vote are sacred. Most of the issues we face, to be sure, are quite complex, leading to sharp division among the citizenry. I get that. What I don't understand is how anyone could call Chris Kyle a coward. I'm certain he never would have said it himself, but I will. Chris Kyle is an American hero.

J. Randall O'Brien