The best part about the Keeping Up With The Penguins project is the opportunity for rapid gear-shifts. In this case, I went from classic children’s fantasy to a 21st century assassin’s memoir, in the form of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.
This copy was proudly borrowed from the library of my mate Drew, which I guess makes him a Keeping Up With The Penguins sponsor of sorts. Top bloke!
So, let’s get the obvious stuff out the way: the book’s full title is “American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History”. Kyle, the primary author, was a former United States Navy SEAL. His two (two!) ghostwriters list this book as the shiniest jewel in their career crowns, according to their author websites. I suppose the stats back them up on that; American Sniper was published in 2012 and spent 37 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, followed by the release of a film adaptation (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper). Them’s some solid signs of success.
What’s the draw? Well, American Sniper tells the story of Kyle’s Texas upbringing, SEAL training, and a decade’s worth of tours in Iraq. During that time, he became “the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history”, killing somewhere in the vicinity of 255 people (160 of which have been “confirmed by the Pentagon”, whatever that means).
Aaaand I think I have to end my “objective” overview right about here, because American Sniper is fucking awful.
From the opening pages, you can just feel Kyle’s militarised boner pressing against your upper thigh. He’s going to be slobbering in your ear all night about how white men with big guns saved the day. Welcome to your spot in the American Imperialism Circle Jerk.
Lest you think I’m overstating it: by page 4, Kyle is passing moral judgments on the “worth” of Iraqi lives versus American ones. Oh, but he doesn’t call them Iraqis – they are the “bad guys”. They are also “pure evil”, and “savages”. He also calls them “motherfuckers”, and “whackadoos”. He “wishes he’d killed more of them”. I use all of these inverted commas to emphasise that these are the actual words he used to describe the human beings that he killed.
Pro tip: don’t try taking a drink every time he says “bad guys”. It won’t make the writing any better, and you’ll pass out long before you finish the book, so you’ll just have to start again the next morning (with a hangover).
He also calls the Iraqis “targets” now and then, too, like it’s a bad ’80s action movie. The lack of self-awareness, not to mention basic critical thinking skills, is truly astonishing. Catch-22 it ain’t. Kyle will, on the one hand, try to impress upon the reader that the war in which he was a willing (eager) participant was Absolutely Necessary, because the “bad guys” were coming to kill Americans. Why or how the “bad guys” were going to do that he doesn’t make clear, but regardless he is Absolutely Sure it is the case. As such, he sees no problem in taking out these “targets”, and talking about the joy of it ad nauseam.
On the other hand, Kyle seems to lack the mental capacity to attribute those same feelings – fear of strange invaders coming to kill you, doing everything you can to stop them in their tracks – to the people of Iraq. He storms and raids their homes, shoots them in the streets, ignores and denigrates the Iraqis who would fight alongside him… and doesn’t understand at all why that might piss them off. After all, he’s forgotten that they’re humans. They’re “targets”. They’re “bad guys”.
If you can get past his dehumanisation of the 25 million people living in Iraq before 2003 (hats off to you, I couldn’t), you’ll still have plenty of other shitty stuff to contend with. His false modesty is the worst. The whole book reads something like: So many people want me to tell my story, and I don’t know why! I’m just an average Joe! Also I really love killing people, I’ve killed lots and lots of people, more than anyone else, did I tell you? I’m really good at it. I’ve basically saved the world from evil savages. But I’m just a guy doing his job, and I can’t believe that sooooo many people want me to write a book… Appeals to group authority abound. I lost count of the number of times he did that before I was 100 pages in: “people” wanted him to write a book, “people” ask him all the time how many bad guys he killed, “people” ask him every day about his favourite gun… ugh.
It’s not just that the writing is exceedingly average (which, of course, it is). Kyle is just awful: literally him, his personality and his way of being in the world. At best, he’s just dull and clichéd. He fancies himself a real-life G.I. Joe. He got his first “real” rifle at age seven, and he talks about guns more often (and more lovingly) than he does his wife. He opines at one point, without a hint of irony, that the British soldiers “speak English funny”. The thrust of every anecdote is that he is a hero, anyone outranking him is an idiot, and the Iraqis are dispensable savages. Rinse and repeat.
If you told me that American Sniper wasn’t, in fact, a memoir, but instead the wish-fulfillment first novel of a socially-awkward young white man who spends 100 hours a week playing first-person shooter video games, I’d believe you, without question.
The bit that truly turned my stomach – the point at which Kyle became completely irredeemable in my eyes – was on page 161. He tells the most horrifying story of stealing a child’s video game from the house that he and his team raided and occupied. He talked about it so glibly, without a hint of remorse or regret – indeed, joking about the circumstance and inviting the reader to laugh along with him – that it brought me to tears. He literally stole from the child of a family that he turned out onto the street in a war zone. He turned a crib from that house into a sniper bed; he used it for eight hours, then discarded it, and moved on to the next raid.
He and his team did this a lot, according to Kyle. They would take over entire apartment buildings (“stinking slums”, he called them), give any civilian family they found $300, and tell them to fuck off and live somewhere else. All so they could use a single room as a sniper hole, for less than a day. He talks about it all with such immense pride, it’s fucking disgusting.
“I don’t shoot people with Korans – I’d like to, but I don’t.”an actual quote from American Sniper (vomit)
There were several controversies about the book following publication. Kyle described beating a man in the first edition, and the victim brought a lawsuit alleging defamation and unjust enrichment. Then there was the official investigation into Kyle’s claim that all of the book proceeds went to veterans’ charities (in fact, 2% went to charities, while Kyle’s family received $3 million). There were also squabbles over Kyle’s alleged embellishment of his military record and honours (seriously, by this point, who cares? seems to be the least of his crimes).
I make a point of not Googling books before I read them, so it was only after I’d finished American Sniper that I learned about Kyle’s death. He was shot by another veteran on a rehabilitation sojourn to a shooting range. It’s a tragic story, but it really doesn’t change my opinion, or this review, at all – the book must be judged by its own merit (or lack thereof) after all. It might be callous to say, but Kyle lived by the sword and he sure as shit died by it. I can’t say I was surprised.
So, is Kyle’s story one that should be told? Maybe. On its face, it’s an interesting window into a world that we don’t often see in full technicolour. But to do it this way, without a trace of self-awareness, not a hint of insight, nary a critical thought… is that really the best we can do?
My tl;dr summary: American Sniper is basically Fifty Shades of Grey, except that it’s the love story of Chris Kyle and his guns. It’s a few hundred pages of horribly-edited masturbatory anecdotes about war. If you want to learn the truth of war, seek it elsewhere. I would recommend American Sniper to precisely no one.
My favourite Amazon reviews of American Sniper:
- “Very good book. I would defiantly recommend to anyone. It was full of action and just very well wrote in my opinion” – Riley Madsen
- “Great book! So great someone busted out my car window and only stole this book and a cellphone charger.” – Two Dogs
- “I checked this book out from the library. I was thoroughly enjoying this book until I got to page 199 where Chris Kyle talked about watching porn. That ruined the whole book. Although I appreciate his service for the United States, after reading that, I felt completely disappointed and disgusted.” – K.M. Lessing
- “I think one can be a patriot and Not be disgusting. This is not that.” – alan babcock
- “Reminded me of junior high school.
I don’t plan to see the movie.” – Letha Courtney Harmon
August 22, 2018 at 1:54 AM
What an excellent review. I’ve never planned to read this book because I assumed it was all of the things you’ve laid out here–and it appears that I was right. That it was such a phenomenon for a while in the U.S. speaks to everything that’s wrong with our politics (in my admittedly biased opinion). The attitudes he championed in this book are shameful.
That first Amazon review is pure gold.
August 22, 2018 at 10:43 AM
Thank you so much Allison! For a minute there, I was worried that *I* was the crazy one, because this book was SO POPULAR. I felt like the kid in the Emperor’s New Clothes 😂 so I’m glad to hear you’re on my side. Definitely give this book a miss. It’s one of the very few books that I outright dislike; I try and present a balanced view of anything I read here, but it was tough to find anything redeeming about American Sniper at all. Even the name… ick! And I do love those Amazon reviews, this book had some of the best!!
August 22, 2018 at 11:26 AM
Your closing remarks are amazing and exactly why I haven’t picked this one up. Thank you for hilarious honesty and taking one for the team.
August 22, 2018 at 12:14 PM
Hahahahaha I do what I can, Christine 😉 And thank you so much for your kind words – I kind of felt like I was going out on a limb with this one, seeing as it’s been so popular, but I’m clearly not the only one that feels this way! <3
August 22, 2018 at 1:49 PM
Fantastic review. I prefer not to read memoirs as I much prefer my murderers to be fictional characters. I wonder if the reviews were so good because some readers don’t differentiate between fact and fictional reads.
August 22, 2018 at 1:58 PM
I think there’s every chance that’s true, Veronica. I think maybe also a lot of the positive press and reviews came from a certain romanticising of military conflict; if you’re not thinking critically about it, you can get swept away in this whole “Good Guys vs Bad Guys” narrative. I would have completely believed, no question, that this was fiction if it hadn’t said “autobiography” on the front; in fact, I still can’t quite believe that it was real. Thank you for reading and enjoying my review, at least! 😉
August 22, 2018 at 4:03 PM
What do you think the point of it is? To glorify the war on terror? Paint him as a hero? I haven’t read it or seen the movie (It’s not my thing at all), but it sounds like he was more jerk than good guy and that brings me back to wondering at tye purpose of the book.
August 22, 2018 at 4:39 PM
Quite honestly, the only “point” as far as I could tell was money. I’m very sure everyone involved knew that there would be a huge amount of interest in this man’s story, with a tagline like that, and they got dollar signs in their eyes. I suppose it could have also simply been an ego stroking exercise for Kyle… but it sounds like he had plenty of other opportunities to give his ego some TLC, it didn’t need any more. Keep avoiding it with a ten foot pole, Theresa, that’s the best call 😉
August 23, 2018 at 5:53 PM
Will do! I really hate anything that even attempts to glorify war.
August 22, 2018 at 8:13 PM
“you can just feel Kyle’s militarised boner pressing against your upper thigh”
excellent, so loved that. And also ewww.
Seems to refelect a lot of American Media broadcasting of late, no wonder it sold so well.
August 23, 2018 at 12:58 PM
Hahahaha that might be the best, and most apt, line I’ve written in the history of this blog 😉 glad you enjoyed it/it disgusted you.
August 23, 2018 at 12:29 AM
Excellent review. Not quite as pithy as those you quoted at the end…(I tease). Thanks for the thorough analysis. I won’t be reading this one. I’ve had enough of my country’s raging hard on for guns.
August 23, 2018 at 12:59 PM
Hahahaha I could write reviews all my life and I would NEVER be as good as some of the gold to be found in the Amazon reviews section 😉 I take no offence! And yes, avoid this one with as long a pole as you can find. Solidarity from across the pond x
August 24, 2018 at 12:27 AM
WOW! Awesome, in-depth review. That’s one of the few movies I saw and I had no doubt the book would be exactly the way you described it. (Not interested!)
August 24, 2018 at 9:34 AM
Yep: in many ways, the book was WORSE than the movie, because there was just SO MUCH repetition. Ugh! Thanks Tina 😉
August 25, 2018 at 10:43 PM
The book sounds pretty horrible as does the author. Though I have not read any of them, I understand that there are numerous worthwhile accounts by veterans written about that war. I should read at least one of them myself.
August 26, 2018 at 1:30 PM
Absolutely Brian, it’s definitely worthwhile to read accounts by veterans (indeed, I greatly prefer that to fictionalised accounts of conflicts, especially WWII) – just not this one!! If you’re interested, I’ve just finished reading The White Mouse by Nancy Wake for this project (review coming soon). It’s not a great work of literature (the editing was beyond average), BUT she has such a fantastic story and such a matter-of-fact tone, I really enjoyed it. I would love to see her story get more attention, so pick it up if you get a chance!
April 9, 2019 at 11:21 AM
The boy in the book with the Daisy one pump BB gun is not his brother Jeff it is me? Who am I definitely not Jeff the boy on the right with the Tweety bird and a wagging State his name is Robert and my name is Jason the picture was taken in carrabelle Florida oyster town with the smallest police station a phone booth so why doesn’t he indicate who the boy is on the right because he died in 1998 if you want to know the truth someone owes me or my family some money the only way the picture could have got into his hands is by my father which I will not give that name and I am not joking
July 28, 2019 at 5:25 PM
Thank you for such a great review. I wasn’t surprised that most of the agreeing comments on it were by women. And someone equating it to 50 Shades of Gray didn’t surprise me. He was dictating [can’t call it writing either with TWO Ghosts helping out] rifle porn. And it’s easy to see why it made as much moola as it did. It glorifies the American love of guns. I remember wanting to read Leon Uris’ debut novel, Battle Cry, at 14 when it came out. It was one of several written by men who’d been there, fighting in WW II. My mother told me not till I was 16. I assumed it was the hot for the 1950’s sex, which I admit was one of my reasons for wanting it. I skimmed the bloody battles at the end on that first read. Many years later when I reread it as an adult and didn’t skip the battles, I realized the sex wasn’t that hot and the battles did not glorify war, rather it was a nasty killing business that left the men who signed up dead, or broken in mind or body, and no doubt the reason I had to wait to read it. I suppose our War on Terror needs ramping up. I see American Sniper as propaganda in a war with no draft, luring in gun happy kids willing to fight “bad guys,” and giving them permission. ALL the money he got should have gone to the maimed veterans of those miserable conflicts in the Near East, those who come back lost in too many ways to tell.
July 29, 2019 at 9:29 AM
Completely agree. In my view, this book was the worst kind of propaganda – the kind that someone (or someones, as you rightly point out – TWO ghosts! unebelievable) puts out in all earnestness, doing the job of the vested-interest power structures for them. Thank you so much ❤️
January 25, 2020 at 3:40 AM
How many thumbs down can I give for your review? This is a story about an American Hero! Without him and people like him who sacrifice their lives, family and home to save ugly people like you. Shame on you
January 25, 2020 at 1:13 PM
Hahaha you can give as many thumbs down as you like, Tracy! Thank you for sharing a dissenting view 😉 Given that I’m a born and bred Australian who believes strongly in the regulation of firearms, I doubt Chris Kyle had any intention of sacrificing anything for me. I do stand in solidarity with the families of his victims.