If you follow the news or are an avid moviegoer you have no doubt seen or heard that the movie American Sniper has broken box office records and is nominated for six Academy awards, including Best Picture. Many people have seen this movie; for those who haven’t let me fill you in. American Sniper is a movie based on the life of American Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Based on the New York Times bestselling autobiographical book it is the story of Chris Kyle the American Sniper who holds the U.S. military record for greatest number of confirmed kills—160. Kyle surpassed a previous record held by Carlos Hathcock a Marine sniper in Vietnam with 93 confirmed kills. Tragically, Chris Kyle was murdered in 2013 at a shooting range by a Marine allegedly suffering from PTSD. At the time of his murder, Kyle was working to rehabilitate troubled soldiers.
Although the book and movie have had great success controversy has followed the film. Michael Moore, liberal director of several documentaries has criticized the book saying that snipers are cowards. Others have claimed Chris Kyle was a racist and disparaged Iraqi people. So there is conflicting information about the life of Chris Kyle. Was he an American Hero or an American murderer? Can a “good” Catholic be a fan of Chris Kyle? I believe the answer is yes.
First, Catholics are not strict pacifists so to support a soldier in war is compatible with Church teaching concerning “just” war. Second, if the soldier in battle is acting in self-defense their actions are compatible with Church teaching. Third, the attacks on Chris Kyle’s character by Moore and others are founded on superficial and fallacious arguments.
Catholics believe and the Church teaches that there are “just” wars; if a Catholic can go to war for a just cause then a Catholic could not in theory be a pacifist because a pacifist is someone who believes all acts of violence are intrinsically evil. Therefore Catholic moral teaching holds that there are just wars and there is such a thing as legitimate self-defense. Whether or not the Iraq War was a just war is open to opinion, there are plenty of opinions on both sides. What is pertinent to my subject is that is it permissible by Church teaching to support a soldier during and after a war.
Secondly, it seems clear from Kyle’s book and the scrutiny of his superiors that Kyle’s kills were all in self-defense, whether for his own protection or the protection of other fellow soldiers targeted by enemy combatants. The Church teaches that killing in self-defense is morally licit. According to the Catechism:
Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. (CCC 2265)
Hence, Kyle acting in self-defense does not make him a murderer. But was he acting in self-defense? Some critics say Kyle was a mindless killer who went on killing sprees, but this is far from the truth. Kyle had strict Rules of Engagement (ROEs) that he was required by military law to follow, Kyle explains his kills in his book:
You cannot be afraid to take your shot. When you see someone with an IED or a rifle maneuvering toward your men, you have clear reason to fire… The ROEs were specific, and in most cases the danger was obvious. But there were times when it wasn’t exactly clear… Those shots I didn’t take. You couldn’t –you had to worry about your own ass. Make an unjustified shot and you could be charged with murder…I was always extremely aware of the fact that every killing might have to be justified to the lawyers. My attitude was: if my justification is I thought my target would do something bad, then I wasn’t justified. He had to be doing something bad. (“American Sniper” pp 170-2.)
In Kyle’s own words and confirmed by many witnesses and “overseers” in the military Kyle was not murdering people but protecting the innocent in a combat zone.
Finally, I will leave you with Kyle’s own words concerning his Faith and the decisions he made as a soldier:
I don’t spend a lot of time philosophizing about killing people. I have a clear conscience about my role in the war. I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close… When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth… Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all… in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die. My regrets are about the people I couldn’t save—Marines, soldiers, my buddies. I still feel their loss. I still ache for my failure to protect them. (pp 431-2)
It is not a coward who only engages enemy combatants, it is not a racist who calls only the enemy in Iraq savages—those that would pull a grenade to kill soldiers and carelessly chalk up the killing of innocent civilians and children to collateral damage. I believe the evidence will show that Chris Kyle as an American Sniper was a soldier who acted in accordance with the moral teachings of the Catholic faith while engaged in the battles of the Iraq War. So, If you haven’t already, read the book or watch the movie or both. I only hope that faced with similar evil we also would have the courage to risk our lives to protect innocent life. My gratitude is to those who serve honorably in our U.S. military and it is to them that I dedicate this post. God Bless and reward them all. To support the mission that Chris Kyle began, to rehabilitate soldiers, click here for his charitable foundation.
The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.