American Sniper: Was Chris Kyle Defending Our Freedom?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Seth Rogen and Michael Moore recently made snarky comments about American SniperClint Eastwood’s Iraq War movie loosely based on the life of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL with 160 confirmed kills. This has angered a lot of people on the right, who scold the snarksters for their lack of appreciation for the men and women who, they say, defend our freedom. The “they defend our freedom” line gets thrown around a lot when discussing military policy, but when is it really the case that soldiers defend our freedom? Is this an automatic, intrinsic feature of being a soldier, or does it depend on additional factors? Let’s think about this.

If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s the trailer:

Here’s a sampling of some of our snarky comments. Filmmaker Michael Moore said:

My dad was in the First Marine Division in the South Pacific in World War II. His brother, my uncle, Lawrence Moore, was an Army paratrooper and was killed by a Japanese sniper 70 years ago next month. My dad always said, “Snipers are cowards. They don’t believe in a fair fight. Like someone coming up from behind you and coldcocking you. Just isn’t right. It’s cowardly to shoot a person in the back. Only a coward will shoot someone who can’t shoot back.”

Seth Rogen (of The Interview fame) said:

American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds.

That movie within a movie Rogen refers to is a piece of Nazi propaganda. For the record, both Rogen and Moore deny hating on the movie, but the movie clearly motivates their snark.

Here’s how Craig Morgan, the country musician, responded:

This is in response to the comments made by Seth Rogen in a recent tweet. I am sure he doesn’t care and normally I don’t comment on such statements however, this time I am. Seth Rogen you don’t know me nor did you know Chris Kyle (who was a Great American). I would be interested to know if you have a relationship with any American who served honorably in its military. I realize that your statement was in reference to the movie and not Chris Kyle himself, however the movie was about a portion of Chris’s life so therefore it was in reference to Chris.

You are fortunate to enjoy the privilege and freedom of working in and living in the United States, and saying whatever you want (regardless of how ignorant the statement) thanks to people like Chris Kyle who serve in the United States military. Your statement is inaccurate and insensitive to Chris and his family.

I’m sick and tired of people like you running your mouth when you have no idea what it takes for this country to maintain our freedoms. If you and anyone like you don’t like it, leave.

Morgan’s post has over 150,000 likes and over 22,000 shares. For perspective, the quote I just shared with you has been both read and liked more than the total number of people who have read all of the posts I’ve written on this blog combined since I started it in 2012.

Now, I’m not here to talk about whether or not Chris Kyle was a good individual–that’s really beside the point. What’s interesting here is that for Morgan and the 150,000 people who liked his post, the fact that Chris Kyle fought in the Iraq War is both necessary and sufficient for Kyle to be considered a hero who defended our freedom. Is that the case?

What does it mean to defend our freedom? To answer this question, we need a theory of what our freedom consists of. I submit to you that when people like Craig Morgan talk about freedom in this way, they’re talking about a relatively narrow conception of freedom that revolves around preserving the US constitution and the explicit rights it delineates, especially freedom of speech. They’re not talking about metaphysical freedom or the various political freedoms that the constitution does not explicitly guarantee. So for Morgan, freedom means upholding the explicit rights guaranteed in the constitution, and to defend freedom is to defend those rights from threats.

So what constitutes a threat to our freedom? Here are a couple conditions that I think we will all agree must be met for a genuine threat to exist:

  1. Someone must exist who wants to take our freedom away.
  2. That someone must genuinely have the capacity to take our freedom away if we do not physically resist.

So for instance, there are a variety of people living peacefully in the United States who are political communists or fascists. These people would like to take our freedom away, but they don’t have the capacity to do so, so they do not constitute a credible threat. It’s not necessary for us to physically resist these people, and indeed we typically tolerate their presence so long as they do not break any laws.

Alternatively, let’s say that there existed some highly advanced alien race with immense military power that was aware of our existence but had no interest in us. This alien race would have the capacity to take our freedom away, but it would have no reason to want to, so it would not constitute a genuine threat despite its spectacular power. We would have no reason to physically resist them.

So what would be an example in which both of these conditions were fulfilled? The classic case is Nazi Germany. Hitler aspired to spread the Nazi political system across the world, and the Nazi political system was intrinsically hostile to our freedom. Additionally, Hitler was very well-armed and had the capacity to take our freedom away if we did not physically resist him. So the Hitler regime fulfilled both conditions and those who fought against Hitler can legitimately be said to have defended our freedom.

Is the Iraq War the same kind of war as World War II? Initially the Iraq War was against the Saddam Hussein regime. Hussein may have wanted to take our freedom away, but he certainly did not have the capacity to do so. His military was very weak compared to our own, and we possessed a nuclear deterrent that ensured that Hussein could not attack us at home without himself being destroyed. At the time, it was argued that Hussein might give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist organizations in an attempt to take away our freedom, but this scenario never really withstood analytic scrutiny. For one, if a terrorist organization were to detonate an Iraqi warhead in the United States, we would likely be able to figure out where the warhead originated from and retaliate against the Hussein regime. Even a small risk that we would find out and retaliate would have been sufficient to deter the Hussein regime from attempting this, because our retaliation would certainly be lethal. For two, even if Hussein did this, the terrorists would need a lot of weapons of mass destruction to destroy the United States and take our freedom away. Even a devastating attack would likely leave most of the country alive and free and ready to fight another day. For three, it turned out that Hussein did not even possess nuclear weapons in the first place. Suffice it to say that Hussein did not pose a genuine threat to our freedom. Defenders of the Iraq War may argue that it achieved other purposes (e.g. freeing the Iraqis from a brutal dictator, securing the oil supply, etc.), but even if these are convincing good reasons to have fought the Iraq War (a dubious claim in its own right), they have nothing to do with defending our freedom.

That said, what about after the Hussein regime was destroyed and the Iraq War continued to be fought, ostensibly to prevent the country from falling into the hands of extremists? Did that constitute defending our freedom? There’s little reason to think so. There are lots of countries all around the world where extremists live (e.g. Somalia, Nigeria, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc.), yet the injuries these extremists have been able to inflict on the American civilians have been relatively minor. Americans are far less likely to die in terrorist attacks than they are to be killed in a myriad of other ways:

If terrorists constitute a genuine threat to our freedom, than so do airplanes, automobiles, bodies of water, the police, lightning bolts, and hot summer days. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think most conservatives believe that people who shoot at police officers are defending our freedom. I certainly don’t believe that. The reality is that we can live in a world that has dangers, that has people who want to hurt us and sometimes will succeed in so doing, without living in a world where our freedom is really threatened in any serious way.

So Chris Kyle (and the other people who fought in the Iraq War) were not really defending our freedom in any relevant sense. They may have been doing good of some kind (depending on who you ask), but there’s no reason to believe that this good, whatever it may have been, consisted of defending our freedom. The reflexive thought that criticism of the troops or the military or US foreign policy is always inappropriate because they are defending our freedom is deeply misplaced. It’s a rhetorical device employed to silence dissent and help us feel comfortable as a nation with our past actions. While it may be deeply unpleasant to contemplate the possibility that our country waged a war that wasn’t about defending our freedom and that many Americans may have died in vain, it’s important that we have these conversations so that we can learn from our past experiences and do better next time.

This doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to blame or single out Chris Kyle. He was a victim of circumstances like everyone else involved in the war, and I’m sure he employed many controversial coping mechanisms to handle his situation. But it does mean that we need snarky comments–we need people to question whether or not the war Kyle fought in was really about defending our freedom, and if it really accomplished that purpose. Shouting down the critics with “they defend your freedom” and “if you don’t like this country, leave it” is no way to develop a better foreign policy.

The most insidious thing about this line of argument is the way it avoids addressing the question in the first place. If you ask “Do we really think that Batman is good for the city?” and I respond with “You should be more appreciative of the good things that Batman does for the city,” I haven’t really responded to your question. I’ve avoided it and just re-asserted the very premise you’re calling into question.  It’s fallacious argumentation on a basic level, and it makes me sad that there are 150,000 people out there who can’t see that, regardless of their views about the Iraq War.