Friday, March 15, 2013

Honoring Chris Kyle

When he was working for our country, we had no idea who he was.

Now that he's dead, people can't stop admiring him.

Chris Kyle was, by all accounts, the most accurate sniper in American military history, with 160 confirmed kills as a Navy SEAL.  He served his country intensely and honorably, and when he retired in 2009, he wrote a book about his extraordinary career that became a New York Times bestseller.

Then, this past February, he was murdered at a gun range by an acquaintance apparently afflicted with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  He was 38 years young.

Suddenly, the media began swarming over Kyle's story, from his professional accomplishments that by any standard are bizarre, to his death at the hands of a gunman who likely is deranged from battle fatigue.  Former presidential contender Ron Paul mused that Kyle's death appeared to confirm the Scripture that "he who lives by the sword dies by the sword."  Others wondered how anybody would logically include target practice as effective therapy for a soldier suffering PTSD.  Most people, however, surged onto the bandwagon that was rapidly immortalizing Kyle as a patriotic saint.

In Remembrance

And the canonization of America's most lethal sniper continues unabated today.  Here in Arlington, Texas, a life-sized clay sculpture of the 6'3" Kyle is being bronzed after being paraded into town from Florida on the back of a flatbed truck, escorted by 100 motorcycles on the ground, with a couple of news helicopters chopping overhead, filming it all.   The statue, which will cost about $85,000 to make, is being paid for with private funds, and will be donated to Kyle's family and erected wherever they desire.  Although the clay sculpture, created by Greg Marra, had already been started before Kyle's death as a generic depiction of a soldier, within days of Kyle's murder, it had been turned into a likeness of Kyle, portraying a swiftness in the creative process that reflects an uncanny fascination with the sniper and his legacy.

Kyle lived in the far southern suburbs of Dallas, and was killed in a resort area southwest of Fort Worth, so it makes sense for our local media to be focused on his death, as well as his life.  But Kyle's story has commanded attention from the national media, obviously responding to an outpouring of interest from a populace that doesn't quite know what to make of somebody who expertly assassinated our enemies, one by one, on our behalf.

The clumsy pride with which many Americans are responding can be seen in a new proposal to name one of the most highly-traveled freeways here in Dallas after Kyle.

Dana Morris works as a schoolteacher in Dallas, and she says Central Expressway, an 8-lane concrete canyon which runs from the city's bustling downtown district through some of its priciest and trendiest residential neighborhoods, would be a suitable venue with which to honor the deceased Navy SEAL.  Morris claims renaming the freeway "Chris Kyle Expressway" would remind Dallasites about the now-legendary warrior and his comrades, most of whom serve and die without us ever getting to know their names.

Which is an admirable goal, and likely one that many veterans could embrace.  And Morris likely has an easier job convincing the powers that be of "Chris Kyle Expressway" being a better name change for Central Expressway than another idea floated by a politician earlier this week.

Dan Branch is a Republican state representative from Dallas who has filed a bill in the Texas Legislature to re-name a portion of Central Expressway for our 43rd president, George W. Bush.*  The former president is getting ready to open his posh new library on the campus of Southern Methodist University, which overlooks the western side of Central Expressway near its congested Mockingbird Lane exit.  Branch thinks the Bush library needs to be flanked by the Bush expressway, even though Dallas already has a freeway named after a Bush - 43's father, #41, George H. W. Bush.

Suffice it to say that if Dallas' Central Expressway gets a name change, Kyle's provides a less logistically cumbersome choice.

Controversy Within the Ranks

Even if, just as both Bushes have their detractors, Kyle has his, too.  In his bestselling book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Kyle claims to have decked Jesse Ventura, of Minnesota's governorship fame, after Ventura called US troops in Iraq "murderers."  Kyle's account has generated considerable animosity between supporters of these two men, plus a lawsuit by Minnesota's flamboyant former governor.

Ventura insists the incident never took place, and despite six witness statements to the contrary, only one witness admits to having actually heard what Kyle claims Ventura said.  The case was due to go to court this coming August, but at this point, its status is unclear.  And it's not like Kyle left a lucrative estate behind for Ventura's lawyers to raid - his publisher reports that Kyle donated the proceeds from American Sniper to the families of two of his comrades who died in action in 2006.

All of this attention on one particular soldier may or may not be fitting, since I have no idea how to evaluate the worth of somebody who's personally killed 160 enemies of the United States.  I strongly suspect that our country's morbid fascination with violence is contributing to its fixation on Kyle and the utter irony of his murder, and the fact that there is a genuine difference between what happened to Kyle and what he did to his prey.

Casualties of War

But ever since word spread like wildfire here in north Texas that America's top assassin had been shot dead himself, my mind has been flitting back to an essay I wrote after the SEALs' successful raid on Osama bin Laden's compound almost two years ago.  What does it say about us when we're willing to name a freeway after somebody we've corporately - as a country - trained to do our specialized killing for us?

We all know that SEALs aren't ordinary soldiers who kill the enemy in a conventional battlefield scenario.  SEALs practically have their emotions excised from their souls, and their natural reflexes for self-preservation blunted to sustain extreme tolerances.  Sure, the death they inflict upon their victims isn't the sin of murder, since the Bible allows for justice and protection to be achieved through warfare.  Yet even for Kyle to donate the proceeds from his bestselling autobiography to families of soldiers who died fighting alongside of him; was that more some act of coming to terms with what his job description required him to do, or was than an altruistic gesture towards families who couldn't profit as much from the deaths of their loved ones as much as he could of his enemies'?

It distresses me to imagine the kind of psychological burdens men like Kyle have to carry around with themselves, and while I'm not opposed to naming a freeway after him - a freeway near his home in far south Dallas actually is without a name, and poses a far more suitable memorial than any in north Dallas - I hope our country doesn't stop at gestures like renamed freeways and bronze statues when it comes to acknowledging what these men do for us.

Remember, Kyle wasn't just out there as some special operative taking the lives of people who both hated the United States, but were still made in God's own image.  He was acting on our behalf.

Meanwhile, so was the guy who fought for our country and ended up with PTSD.  While he can't claim exoneration from his murder of Kyle on the basis of mental wounds he suffered during a war, the reason Kyle is dead today is because somebody else who served on a battlefield in our stead couldn't handle the ramifications of that devastating experience.

Indeed, Kyle's life may have been something remarkable, but his death is a potent reminder that war's casualties can be far less heroic than we're comfortable acknowledging.

Perhaps even better than renaming roads and building statues, Kyle's tragic passing can be immortalized in the greater respect we have for the unseen injuries with which our warriors are returning home.

*Update 7/6/15:  For the latest on the now-official Bush expressway, click here.

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