On February 11, 2013, the New York Times reported about the funeral of retired Navy Seal sniper Chris Kyle, portraying him as a “warrior and family man.” The highly politicized and massive public funeral, held at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, points to the severe moral schizophrenia our nation has internalized. We see ourselves as the shining “city on a hill” and therefore a U.S. citizen who kills people in other lands becomes an unquestionably renowned hero. This must appear offensive and ridiculous to many people living beyond U.S. borders.
Mr. Kyle was a man who professed “no regret” for killing 160 people during his four tours in Iraq. A fellow soldier and former Marine, struggling with PTSD, murdered Kyle at point blank range while they were practice shooting for fun and “therapy” at a gun range in Texas. Despite the bizarrely karmic nature of his death and setting aside the much needed conversation on gun culture and pervasive violence which our nation is being forced to address, I am just as worried by our collective need to construct a fig leaf cover up over the legacy of Chris Kyle.
Glorifying Chris Kyle’s story integrally connects to U.S. media and military efforts to affect public perception of ongoing warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as expanding war on terror policies which the Obama administration is aggressively attempting to institutionalize. Now, the U.S. not only retains the right to attack those whom it dubiously asserted were responsible for 9/11, it regards the entire world as a potential battlefield, dismissing any need for constituent and congressional approval nor any evidence of an attack being planned against the U.S. Though President Obama ran on an anti-war platform, he needs the legacy of Chris Kyle and others as much as any of the previous war criminals from the Bush years to sustain his current militarism.
For example, the same issue of the New York Times reports that President Obama awarded a medal of honor to Clinton Romesha for “defending an outpost” in Afghanistan. Mr. Romesha was wounded in the neck in the course of action. He was also lauded for calling in airstrikes that killed 30 Taliban fighters. As a public, to what degree do we question why Mr. Romesha nearly lost his life? Was it to protect us? How informed are we as to who these “Taliban fighters” are, and why do we have the right to take their lives or to occupy their country in the first place? This is especially relevant as the current administration attempts to legally justify its even broader parameters for killing which automatically categorize every male 16 or older as a militant. Other members of the military command structure have been quite willing to extend that logic to “children with potential hostile intent.”
So as we consider these issues of legality and US legacy, perhaps we should step back and remember a few big picture facts about Iraq and Afghanistan. The belligerent and misplaced aggression and ensuing chaos after the 2003 Iraq invasion led to hundreds of thousands of casualties (over a million by some calculations) and the largest refugee crisis in the region since the Nakba, with over 4 million Iraqis being displaced from their homes. In addition to the many thousands of Afghan casualties, more than a decade of crushing warfare and billions of dollars per week being spent on the effort, Afghans have been “perishing under one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. At least 36% live below the poverty line and 35% of Afghan men do not have work. The UN calls the acute malnutrition of nearly one million children in the Afghan south “shocking“. Almost three quarters of all Afghans do not have access to safe drinking water.
Given these appalling truths, I am not inclined to write off the immense suffering we have caused around the globe as a necessity or reframe it as victory, nor to join in the popular declarations that Mr. Romesha and Mr. Kyle were heroes. I don’t want to demonize them either. They are part of an imperial system to which many in the US are deeply tied and unquestioningly support with tax dollars. Quite possibly Mr. Kyle was a “family man” to his circle and a loyal friend to his comrades. But can we really honor him as such when he was willing to rob Iraqi families of their fathers and sons?
The New York Times reported that Mr. Kyle saw himself as “protecting American troops” and that his deadly skills were “payback for the 9/11 attacks.” Even as he may have initially been deceived into thinking Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, how could he extend payback to the entire Iraqi population and return for three additional tours without questioning this logic, which was so full of holes that even the Bush administration gave up on defending it? If you are going to take a life, wouldn’t you want to know with the highest certainty why you were doing so? No, this is not a hero. This is a “yes man” who was so callous to the effects of his violence that he intentionally took a veteran with combat PTSD to a shooting range as a form of therapy.
This type of high profile incident often eclipses the more prolonged tragedy within the military of rising PTSD rates and soldier suicide. In 2012, the number of suicides for US forces surpassed the deaths from combat operations reaching 177 precious lives lost. We owe it to these men and women to question and resist the policies which continually put them in patently immoral situations where they are faced with decisions that no human should face. These policies are almost certain to cause many more disgruntled and violent veterans like Eddie Ray Routh, the man who shot Chris Kyle, to kill other people. We must help young people resist cultural elements and military propaganda to admire blind submission to orders, and seek to help them understand the importance of questioning authority and developing actions based on empathy and careful examination.
Private Bradley Manning should become a household name and honored as a whistleblower. Instead, the established elites in this country have imprisoned and persecuted him. Soldiers should be pointed toward organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Afghan Veterans Against War. Members of these groups had the courage to return their war medals to generals during last year’s NATO summit and speak honestly about the crimes being committed during these conflicts.
Gen. John Allen, who just stepped down this week from leading the U.S.-led NATO occupation force in Afghanistan, said in his resignation speech, “Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens, this is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words. I believe that Afghanistan will never again be a safe haven to terrorists that will oppress the precious people of this country and be the scourge and the plague of the world.”
As mentioned earlier, three quarters of all Afghans are living without access to safe drinking water. This is victory? I also wonder whether the outgoing Gen. Allen would like to comment on yesterday’s NATO airstrike in Kunar, Afghanistan, which murdered ten civilians, 5 of them children. Yes, “Afghan forces defending Afghan people…. This is what winning looks like.” We are fed the same lines until the point of exhaustion. And always when a Gen. Allen steps down or a Gen. Petraeus is forced to resign due to some scandal, the corporate media furiously reminds us that these noble men may have made a few mistakes, probably personal ones, but really their overall service to our country was impeccable and accountability is off the table.
This impunity is obviously granted to our Commander in Chief who assured us in his State of the Union speech that “Tonight, I can announce that over the next year, another 34,000 American troops will come home from Afghanistan. This drawdown will continue. And by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over.” Any drawdown on this warfare is good news, but president Obama went on to add, “Beyond 2014, …the nature of our commitment will change. We are negotiating an agreement with the Afghan government that focuses on two missions: training and equipping Afghan forces so that the country does not again slip into chaos, and counter-terrorism efforts that allow us to pursue the remnants of al Qaeda and their affiliates.”
Aren’t these the same lines we have been hearing since the Bush administration? It’s always about our benevolent training and commitment, murky “remnants” and “shadows of Al-Qaeda.” President Obama admits that many of these militant groups did not exist before 9/11 and have sprung up afterwards, but he does not make the correlation between our violent actions in the region and their ability to increase recruitment for armed groups. Apparently this very tense negotiation between the US and Afghanistan will leave behind thousands of troops and contractors while seeking immunity for US soldiers from prosecution in Afghan courts. Meanwhile, Obama moves on in his speech to re-affirm his right to unilaterally “take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans” through increased drone strikes in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Mali and potentially elsewhere.
As humans, we are all full of many contradictions. President Obama, the generals and soldiers are, of course, all complex individuals, and so is the world we live in. I recognize that as I yearn to be a better and more conscientious person, I often take three steps backwards before I have even made my first step forward. However, if I want to continue to evolve as an individual, I strongly believe that my role models and mentors cannot be fictional characters of patriotic tall tales. There must be a refusal to stomach a narrative of history and current international affairs which whitewashes culpability for suffering caused by U.S. wars of choice. To draw a line from the song The Spy Hunter which came out shortly after 9/11, “we don’t need no truthless heroes.”