In his essay “Guns” best-selling author Stephen King dismisses claims that U.S. culture is violent. King counters: “The assertion that Americans love violence and bathe in it daily is a self-serving lie promulgated by fundamentalist religious types and America’s propaganda-savvy gun pimps.”
Yet, as King also recounts in “Guns,” he demanded his publisher pull one of his novels from the shelves — “Rage,” published under the name Richard Bachman — after it was found in the backpacks of two boys who shot and killed teachers and fellow students at their public schools. King subsequently learned of two additional fatal school shootings in which boys who brought guns to their schools and terrorized fellow students and teachers said they got the idea from reading “Rage.”
King pulled the book but refused to apologize, ultimately claiming that while his book may have been responsible, he was not culpable.
“You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it,” he concluded.
King started writing “Rage” when he was in high school, in the autumn of 1966, soon after Charles Whitman, whom King has called “America’s favorite sniper,” killed 14 and wounded nearly 50 from the top of the University of Texas Tower in Austin. But all that was long before our most recent undeclared wars, the militarization of our police forces and the ascendancy of the iconoclastic American Sniper.
Chris Kyle’s No. 1 New York Times best-selling memoir “American Sniper,” published in 2012, and the Clint Eastwood film of the same name, released in 2014, also offer evidence that points to the centrality of violence to U.S. culture.
The memoir and the film tell largely the same story: between 1999 and 2009, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle recorded the most career sniper kills in U.S. military history. Though Kyle writes honestly about the pain of war, including the deaths of two close SEAL teammates, both the memoir and the film were criticized for contributing to Islamaphobia in the United States. Further, Kyle writes repeatedly that he “likes” and “loves” war, suggesting how technological advancements have thoroughly dehumanized an already inhumane practice.
Despite his vocation for killing, witnessing the deaths of his buddies left Kyle with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition from which he recovered by helping disabled veterans, providing them with exercise equipment and personal training, even taking some to shooting ranges. Yet it was on a shooting range that Kyle and a friend were shot and killed by a 25-year-old U.S. Marine Corps veteran.
Kyle was murdered as Eastwood was finishing the film version of “American Sniper.” Though Kyle was already known as “The Legend” by his fellow troops, Kyle’s death enabled Eastwood and former Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin, who financed the film — and who is now U.S. treasury secretary — to create the myth of Chris Kyle, American sniper and fallen hero. Among the contrasts between Kyle’s memoir and Eastwood’s film, one factual difference stands out. It involves the death of Kyle’s SEAL brother, Marc Lee, in Ramadi in 2006.
In Ramadi, Lee drew fire when he exposed his position to try to redirect attention from his fellow soldiers. Kyle tells the story that way, as does the military’s official account of Lee’s death. Lee was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with valor, and the Purple Heart. Lee majored in Bible theology in college before changing his major to law, and was by all accounts a sensitive as well as brave soldier.
Lee wrote a letter home shortly before he died — you can find it online if you search for “Marc’s letter home.” In it he observes, “Glory is something that some men chase and others find themselves stumbling upon, not expecting it to find them. ... My question is when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade, or an unjustified means ... which consumes one completely?”
Yet Eastwood cannot let Marc Lee’s mix of valor and compassion — of complex human dignity and struggle — stand.
In the film version of Kyle’s story, Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, tells his wife, Taya, played by Sienna Miller: “That letter killed Marc.” Yet nothing remotely like that scene is in Kyle’s memoir.
What is implied in the film, left for the viewer to supply, is not merely the suggestion that the act of composing somehow led to Lee’s death. What Eastwood — and, it must be said, Cooper — intend audiences to take away from the film version of “American Sniper” is that anything short of loving war and never questioning the rightness of the fight or the evil of the enemy will be fatal.
What can we do to understand and overcome the violence that pervades our culture? Maybe talking honestly about it would be a good first step.
Rosa A. Eberly is an associate professor of rhetoric in the department of communication arts and sciences and the department of English at Penn State.