This piece for The Sunday Telegraph came out around the time of the film of the same name. It subsequently got a lot of “clicks” because of the political rows that blew up around the film.
They wait for days, kill in an instant, then face the consequences. Does Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Iraq war hero Chris Kyle tell the truth about life as an American Sniper?
Jim Gilliland had watched this scene in his crosshairs dozens of times before. Seven hundred yards from his observation post overlooking a battle-scarred Iraqi town, just beneath a wall daubed with the words “Down USA”, a passer-by had stopped next to a litter-strewn roundabout, a known spot for planting roadside bombs. As the lone figure crouched and started brushing away at a crater in the road, Gilliland and his fellow sniper weighed up the odds.
Was it a member of the local insurgent cell, who were then unleashing 100 roadside bombs a month? Or could it be an innocent Iraqi, looking for something in a pile of litter? As if the call wasn’t tough enough, another dilemma also loomed large. For the figure in the crosshairs was dressed in a flowing black abbaya, the all-encompassing gown worn by Iraq’s womenfolk. To shoot an innocent man in Iraq would be bad enough. To shoot an innocent female could spark an all-out uprising.
“We thought, ‘we’ve got to be sure on this one’,” recalls Gilliland, who, with at least 65 confirmed kills to his name, was one of America’s top snipers in Iraq. “For a while we thought ‘maybe there’s water in the crater and she is washing her hands’. Then she stood up and walked away, but came back holding something in her hands. We agreed that if she went right back to the crater, we were going to shoot. But we looked at each other, and it was like ‘man, if we get this wrong, we are going to fry.’”
A near-identical scenario takes centre stage in the new film American Sniper, Hollywood’s take on the turbulent life of Chris Kyle, a Texan marksman who notched up even more kills than Gilliland did, and became the most lethal sniper in US military history.
During six years in Iraq, Kyle made 160 confirmed kills, angering the country’s insurgents so much that they took the extraordinary step of putting their own $80,000 bounty on his head. His biopic, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper as Kyle, now promises to do for the image of the long-range assassin and his .300 Winchester Magnum what Dirty Harry did for the lone cop and his .44 Magnum revolver.
But there is a twist in this latest reworking of the legend of the heroic American sharpshooter – one that never troubled Inspector Harry Callahan too often, much less the sheriffs of the Wild West. Namely that in the “Wild East” that was US-occupied Iraq, they had Rules of Engagement. Or, rather, one side did.
Like Gilliland, Kyle too finds a burka-clad woman coming into his sights one day, this time as she wanders towards a US patrol with what looks like a bomb hidden in her cloak. As his sniping partner next to him points out, Kyle can end up in jail if he gets it wrong. The trailer for American Sniper ends on that cliffhanger.
In Gilliland’s case, though, the woman that he and his partner were watching did return to the crater, prompting Gilliland’s partner to kill her with a single shot from 700 yards.
Only the following day did they discover that the corpse of the woman still lying on the roadside was actually that of a man, who was wearing the abbaya to disguise his long, Bin Laden-style beard. “We knew we’d been within the rules of engagement,” he says. “But the whole thing was kind of unsettling, I can tell you.”
It is precisely that kind of emotional rollercoaster that has built up momentum for American Sniper as a contender for next month’s Oscars, and earned it favourable comparisons to Hollywood’s other big Iraq war nail-biter – Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, which chronicled the life of bomb disposal experts on Baghdad.
But that is where the similarities end. Firstly, American Sniper shifts the action an hour’s drive west to the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, the self-declared “graveyards of the Americans” that make Baghdad look almost benign. And secondly, in concentrating on the role of the sniper, the film zeroes in on an altogether darker, psychologically murkier side of warfare.
For while bomb disposal men save lives single-handedly, snipers take them single-handedly, and often in very great numbers. Most soldiers can fight entire wars without getting anywhere near the tally that Kyle amassed, for the simple reason that gun battles are usually far too chaotic to be certain as to who shot whom. A sniper, by contrast, plays “God” over those who come in his telescopic sights, decreeing who lives and who dies, and watching the instant results in close-up telescopic vision.
Few other combatants in modern warfare see such a close link between cause and effect. And apart, perhaps, from professional hangmen, few others kill so many people in such clinical, countable fashion without spending the rest of their lives in jail. All of which makes a sniper a great asset to the front line infantry commander, and a fascinating case study to a military psychologist back at base. Hence, too, the motto that Gilliland adopted while serving in Ramadi: “Move fast, shoot straight and leave the rest to the counsellors in 10 years”.
So what kind of person becomes a sniper? If Kyle’s example is anything to go by, people who are not too plagued by inner doubts about what they do. The US military does rigid psychological screening of any soldier wanting to specialise as a sniper, but even so, it is hard to imagine them finding any better candidate than Kyle, whose God’n guns backstory – recounted in a 2012 autobiography that became a New York Times bestseller – sounds like something out of a US military recruitment advert.
Born in Texas to a deacon and a Sunday school teacher, Kyle got his first rifle at the age of eight, starting out by shooting quail and deer. Before enlisting, he worked as a rancher and professional bronco rodeo rider, chewing tobacco, sipping whisky, and never walking away from a barfight. He lists his priorities as “God, Country and family” in that order. And in his biography, he makes it very clear that those who tried to kill his comrades richly deserved the fate he dished out in spades.
“People ask me how many people have you killed,” he writes. “The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives.
On the final page, he adds: “When God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them.”
For Kyle, the sheer brutality of many of his enemies, who killed far more fellow Iraqis than they did Americans, eliminated any doubts: in the film, one of his targets is a torturer called the Butcher, whose more than lives up to his nickname. Besides, were the Almighty to decide he did want to scrutinise Kyle’s formidable kill list, it would talk a very long time to go through them all. His tally of 160 was a conservative estimate based on kills corroborated by other soldiers. The real figure, he reckoned, was more than 250, if one counted “the ones that got away” – those who crawled out of sight before dying.
Even so, Kyle did not claim to be a particularly outstanding shot. He simply claimed that Iraq gave him a lot of chances – especially places like Ramadi, where, to paraphrase Dirty Harry, people were queuing up to make his day. On one occasion, he shot seven dead in a single engagement. On another, he killed two insurgents on a motorbike with a single bullet.
As he put it: “When you’re in a profession where your job is to kill people, you start getting creative.” His confirmed kills also included one particular shot from some 2,100 yards (the record is held by a sniper from Britain’s Household Cavalry, who killed two Taliban at 2,700 yards in Afghanistan).
More to the point, Kyle’s skills also won the ultimate accolade from his enemies, who nicknamed him the Shaitan Ar-Ramadi (The Devil of Ramadi) and put up posters offering first $21,000, and later $80,000, for his head – or, more specifically, his left bicep and its crucifix tattoo, which they learned of from an informant among Kyle’s Iraqi army allies.
Kyle’s first reaction was to joke that his devoted wife Taya, whose nerves were understandably tested by his stints in Iraq, might choose to claim the bounty. His second was mild envy on discovering that another US sniper in Ramadi had earned an even higher bounty.
Back home, though, it was Kyle who got most of the glory. After leaving the military in 2009, the man who was still a faceless killer to his enemies became a minor celebrity in the US, featuring on the cover of Soldier of Fortune magazine and appearing on chat-shows. That he could even show himself on television is proof of how America still loves guns and those who excel with them, especially in service of their country. By contrast, the British military does not even release the names of its best snipers, partly for fear that they could be targeted by terrorists.
In Kyle’s case, though, the biggest feeder of the legend was himself. As well as setting up his own successful military training company, he also featured in Stars Earn Stripes, a reality TV show in which ex-soldiers helped celebrities like Todd Palin – husband of ex-Alaska governor Sarah – brush up their military skills.
And even though he was no longer in Iraq, rumours of new heroics continued to emerge. On one occasion, he was said to have shot and killed two Mexican bandits who tried to carjack him outside a petrol station. On another, he claimed to have holed up in New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina and shot looters from the top of the Superdome.
This, admittedly, is where the legend began to wear a little thin. The US media – naturally keen to stand up such remarkable stories – could find nothing to prove that they were anything other than barroom boasts. Nor did a libel jury back up his claims that he had once beaten up Jesse Ventura, a former US governor and fellow ex-SEAL, for allegedly saying in a bar that US troops in Iraq were trigger happy murderers who “deserve to lose a few” (Ventura denied even being in the bar that night).
But whatever embellishments Kyle made to sustain his myth back home, his account of his life in Ramadi gets a weary nod of recognition from Mr Gilliland, 37, who was interviewed by this newspaper during a media embed in Ramadi in 2006.
Now back in his native Alabama, he too remains something of a legend among his peers, with between 65 and 75 confirmed kills – “I tried not to keep a count”. And he too claims not to be any amazing shot, even though he once took out a man at 1,350 yards, and at his local range, can hit a target smaller than an I-phone eight of ten times at 300 yards.
Instead, he says, the real challenge in being a sniper is not the shooting, but the hunting. Just like special forces soldiers, a sniper’s job is to infiltrate into enemy territory, hide in a deserted building or clump of trees, and then watch and wait, sometimes for days at a time. If they give away their position, a “quick reaction force”, or QRF, will be called in to the rescue. But in very hostile areas, that cannot be guaranteed to come fast. And in Iraq, there were few places more hostile than Ramadi, a town whose volatile tribes caused trouble even for Saddam Hussein. Gilliland remembers having stones and even handgrenades thrown at him by locals. And they were just the children.
“When we first arrived in Ramadi I remember looking at everyone’s faces and you could feel the hostility,” Gilliland, now 37, told The Telegraph. “There were a couple of occasions when other sniper teams out there were overrun, and their bodies tortured and mutilated. If they got you, they were going to use you as a trophy. Sure, a sniper needs to be a good marksman, but pulling the trigger is just a small part of it. You have to be able to read intel, plan a mission, insert yourself into the location, and then extract safely again.”
The infiltration techniques Gilliland used in Ramadi varied, but often it would involve going into “non-conducive” areas at night under cover of a large-scale patrol, and then staying behind when the rest pulled out. While the idea was to hide well enough to shoot without being spotted, it didn’t always work.
“On one occasion, we had an engagement, and before the QRF could extract us, we had about 150 men surrounding the building we were in,” he said. “Eventually some Bradleys (armoured fighting vehicles) dispersed them, but it was pretty close. It makes you feel the pulse of life a little, shall we say?”
On one occasion, Kyle Claimed to have shot and killed two Mexican bandits who tried to carjack him
“During sniper training, you go through various psychological tests to prove you’re stable, but you never really know how you’ll react until you’re in the field. We had one guy in our team who was a very good soldier, but he found the emotional turmoil of staying in one place and hunting another human being was more than he wanted, so he left.”
Was Gilliland himself ever troubled by his work? He claims not. He says he only shot when he was sure he had the right target, for example someone planting a bomb by the side of the road, or carrying “certain weapons systems” such as rocket -propelled grenades or mortars. A man with a Kalashnikov, by contrast, could simply be a home-owner defending his property. If anything, he is haunted not by the memories of those he did kill, but those he didn’t.
“Once we saw this individual talking to some other guys next to two cars. He was well-dressed and seemed to have the respect of the people around him. A kid came up and gave him something that looked like an artillery round with a sheet over it, and he put it in a car and then wandered off. I was 99 per cent sure I had the right guy, but something wasn’t quite right, and I didn’t make the decision quick enough.
“When I got back to base, I looked up an intelligence file and recognised that the guy I had let go was the number three most-wanted insurgent in Ramadi. I knew I’d done the right thing, but that one really bothered me.”
Gilliland is still serving as a Master Sergeant in the US army, working on a rewrite of its marksmanship manual and living contentedly with his wife Melissa, a professional markswoman herself. He is also the father of four children, who by all accounts, are quietly proud of Dad’s days as a prolific assassin.
But for the man who really did write the book on being a sniper, there was no such happy ending. Despite the TV shows and the hero-worship, Kyle was not as invincible as his legend would have it. Like many other veterans, he sustained a degree of combat trauma, and it stemmed from the deaths of close comrades rather than his sniping duties, it made it hard to get used to life back in Texas. In local bars, where someone was always ready to buy the war hero a round, he became a regular fixture, downing whisky by the pint. At home, there were rows with his wife Taya(Sienna Miller) who, in the film, tells him: “If you think this war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong.”
Ironically, it was his own efforts to readjust that were to ultimately lead to his undoing. Having recognised his own post-combat difficulties, Kyle used his celebrity status to help start up the “Heroes Project” to provide fitness training and life-coaching to disabled and traumatised veterans. Among those he helped was a troubled young ex-Marine called Eddie Ray Routh, whom Kyle invited last year to a rifle range at Rough Creek Lodge in south-west Texas.
For Routh, it should have been the perfect therapy: a day’s shooting in the company of a modern American legend, and a chance to confide in someone would understand his troubles. Instead, Kyle became the target. For reasons that are unclear to this day, Routh shot Kyle dead, and also one of Kyle’s friends, Chad Littlefield. He was later arrested while driving Kyle’s pickup truck.
A memorial service for Kyle was held at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium on February 11, 2013, and on the route to his funeral in Austin the following day, mourners lined mile upon mile of Interstate 35. Meanwhile, Routh awaits trial for a killing that may earn him not an $80,000 bounty, but the death penalty.
Whether it was jealousy, a quarrel, or simply a flash of madness brought back from Iraq, will be for the court to decide. But one thing already seems certain. Nobody – perhaps not even the insurgents of Iraq – would agree it was a fitting end for the Devil of Ramadi.