By Hayes Gardner
My elementary school’s mascot was the Patriots. Our school colors were red, white, and blue, and each morning we sang one of six different patriotic songs. But what we were never asked to do was consider what being a patriot really meant. We always knew it was a positive thing and had something to do with being American. I feel like many people use the term patriot without considering what the word means or should mean. According to Merriam-Webster, a patriot is “a person who loves and strongly supports or fights for his or her country.” But I would like to re-examine what a patriot is. What makes a patriot? Does it just take fatigues and a gun? Or does it require a certain set of beliefs?
The most recent patriot to inundate popular culture is Chris Kyle, the legendary sniper in the Iraq War, depicted by Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Kyle was an incredibly talented marksman—a courageous and impressive individual who saved hundreds of American lives in battle. Kyle bravely served his country, and because of that, those of us who can call ourselves Americans should be thankful for his service. Based on the dictionary definition of patriot, Kyle fits the bill perfectly. However, I believe that definition of patriot needs to be altered. As a country, America fights a variety of enemies. And many foes are not equipped with ammo. The United States faces problems of domestic racism, social issues, class dissension—all dilemmas that need to be fought, especially by patriots. The way patriot is currently defined may not include the more abstract use of the word “fight.” I believe that, in order to embody what a patriot truly is, the definition of patriot should expand to include that patriots fight “for the ideals of his or her country.” This is different from simply picking up a weapon and obeying orders without considering and agreeing with the values that inspired the fighting. This new definition gives patriots a more pointed and accurate purpose.
Patriots must believe in and protect American ideals. But, what are those ideals? It’s not a simple question. America means different things to different people, but one core theme of American life is that of progression towards equality. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” At the time, Jefferson’s definition did not encompass many Americans, but since then the push for equality has been ever-present in America. Slavery was abolished in the mid-19th century, and racism and sexism have been consistently challenged in public policy, and although they clearly remain unsolved issues, it is true that the United States is a country pushing for equality. To be an American patriot, you must believe in the fight for equality.
Before I go further, I would like to mention how moved I was by the film American Sniper. When the movie ended, I was speechless. The effects of war, both overseas and stateside, was realistically portrayed and I found it powerful. Time published a movie review by a Marine who served in Iraq. The author, Jon Davis, had almost entirely positive remarks to make about a movie he considered accurate and touching. I agreed with a lot of what he wrote. The movie was terrific. However, there are discrepancies between the real-life Chris Kyle and the Chris Kyle played by Bradley Cooper, which are problematic. I consider the real Chris Kyle to be a military hero worthy of our praise and thanks. Even after his service, he was killed in an attempt to help another troubled veteran, which is truly tragic. However, while I recognize it is easy for me to write this from the comfort of my apartment in Iowa, I would not classify Kyle as a patriot under my re-examined definition.
Rolling Stone published an article that criticized the movie as a whole, including a critique of the movie’s glorification of a man who is pictured much more positively in the movie than in real life. The article’s author is not eloquent in his analysis of Kyle as “kind of a dick,” but his point is valid. Kyle—not the Cooper character, but the man—was a xenophobe. In his autobiography, Kyle recounts the pleasure and fun he received while in the Middle East, killing hundreds of Iraqis. No doubt he killed many dangerous men and no doubt he saved American lives. But there is also no doubt that he viewed Middle Easterners as inferior to him. In his book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, Kyle uses language such as “savages” to describe the locals and indicate that he wouldn’t mind mowing down anyone he sees holding a Koran. He seemingly only abstains from doing so, not because it is morally indefensible, but because it is against orders.
The Washington Post points out that he treated Iraqis like a middle school bully treats the weak kids on the playground, looting the homes of locals and driving his car at civilians to watch them flee in terror. In his book, Kyle wrote, “Their high-pitched screams, coupled with sprints in the opposite direction, had me doubled over. Cheap thrills in Iraq were priceless.” The Guardian didn’t beat around the bush in arguing that at a “bare minimum, [he] was a racist who took pleasure in dehumanising and killing brown people”. Based on his own words, it seems Kyle was a twisted soldier with the proper tools to wreak havoc in a foreign world.
The United States is also a country based upon fairness; the Pledge of Allegiance ends with “justice, for all.” Yet, much of Kyle’s behavior appears unjust. Kyle was known as a legend for registering the most kills as a sniper, and Rolling Stone’s article implies that when his record was under attack, Kyle may have killed more people than required. There is no way of proving whether or not Kyle went out of his way to take more lives than necessary, but the idea certainly is troubling. According to a Slate article that referred to Kyle as an “unsavory human being,” after the war, Kyle had a “habit of publicly bragging about violence he never actually committed”.
In Iraq, outside of his xenophobic and mischievous behavior, Kyle followed orders to ostensibly do what was best for America in a military sense. He was an outstanding soldier. However, this alone does not make him a patriot. That title is more difficult to earn. The Guardian points out that it is hard to argue that Kyle could both be “a good soldier but a bad guy.” I argue that he was a good soldier, a tremendous one, even. But not a patriot.
In some regards, the definition of patriot has become too specialized, only applying to men with guns. In others, the definition has become too broad, applying to all soldiers, and not only those who understand the importance of what they are fighting for. Either way, the connotation and definition of the word need some retouching. We are doing a disservice to the true American patriots, in combat or not, when we apply the term to those who do not fit the bill. Let’s honor those men and women better. Let’s honor our true patriots.
Kyle, Chris. American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. Harper, 2013.