Court of Public Opinion Fails to hold “American Sniper” Accountable for Fatal Blunder


Most Americans recognize the need to keep guns away from dangerously troubled people.  Chris Kyle, however, was different than most Americans.  As a member of the elite Navy SEALs, Kyle survived four combat tours in Iraq while amassing a war record as the most lethal sharpshooter in U.S. military history.

After his best-selling memoir was published and his story filled the big screen in a movie directed by Clint Eastwood, Kyle became internationally renown as the American Sniper.

Physically, Kyle was uninjured when he returned home from Iraq in 2009.  He was a civilian again, back in Texas with his wife and two young children.  But Kyle was struggling with post-traumatic stress.  Much of that, he professed, was the feeling that he had failed to protect, have the back of more of his ”guys” — fellow American troops — while on the front lines in Iraq.  Kyle felt that way even though he had been credited with killing 160 enemy combatants in Iraq.

For his stress problem, Kyle was encouraged to help other war veterans suffering from PTSD.  He found a way while benefitting from it himself therapeutically. Kyle took other troubled veterans on hunting trips and to a Texas shooting range.  He liked the comraderie, especially if it helped fellow vets in the healing process.  Clearly, these experiences fit into Kyle’s own comfort zone.

Apparently the arrangement was working well enough until one day in February of 2013 when Kyle and his best friend, Chad Littlefield, took a former Marine corporal named Eddie Ray Routh to a shooting range in Texas.

Kyle didn’t know Routh, but the ex-marine’s mother had sought Kyle’s help without telling him just how troubled her son was.  Apparently Routh had been behaving erratically, smoking marijuana, drinking heavily and even threatening suicide. He was not a typical stressed-out vet.

What happened that day illustrates how unlikely it is in the court of public opinion for an American war hero to be held accountable for a serious mistake after returning home.  Even when questionable judgment cost the hero his own life.

Evidence presented in an actual court suggested that before they reached the shooting range that day, Kyle became acutely aware that Routh was quite unbalanced.

According to an attorney for Routh, it happened during the drive to the range. The lawyer read from text messages sent between Kyle and Littlefield about Routh’s behavior. Littlefield was seated next to Kyle, the driver, and Routh was in the back seat of Kyle’s pickup truck.

As described by Routh’s attorney, Kyle’s text said, “This dude is straight up nuts.”  The lawyer then read Littlefield’s return text to Kyle:  “He’s sitting right behind me. Watch my six” — a military reference for “watch my back.”

The situation remained under control.  That is, until the three men arrived at the gun range.

While on the range, somehow Routh got behind Kyle and grabbed his 9-millimeter handgun. Six bullets were fired into Kyle’s back and Littlefield was shot seven times.  The gun was specially engraved for Navy SEALS.

Both Kyle and Littlefield died on that shooting range, a tragic and most unlikely ending for the hero who tried to watch everyone’s back.  The text messages were revealed at the start of Routh’s double murder trial last year.

Routh pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury heard several bizarre reasons for why Routh turned the gun on Kyle and Littlefield.  Routh’s attorneys said the former Marine suffered from psychosis, paranoia and schizophrenia. The prosecutors maintained that Routh was a “troubled man” who struggled with a “personality disorder” but not insanity.  

After deliberating for less than three hours, the jury convicted Routh of capital murder.  The judge sentenced him to a life term with no possibility of parole.

Director Clint Eastwood’s film about Kyle’s heroic exploits in Iraq exceeded $500 million in box office receipts, making it one of the highest grossing war movies of all time.  It was based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same name and starred Bradley Cooper as Kyle.  Both the movie and Cooper were nominated for the motion picture academy’s top awards in 2015.

But unlike Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood’s Oscar-winning movie about a woman boxer’s tragic demise, the esteemed director pulled his punches when it came to portraying the actual ending to Chris Kyle’s life.

Eastwood has not been alone in sparing the fabled war veteran a posthumous fall from grace.  Scarcely anyone has sought to delve into the cruel irony in Kyle’s death.

At the end of the trial and afterward, virtually nothing more was said about Kyle’s fatal mistake, nothing about his failure to watch his best friend’s back, let alone his own, on that Texas shooting range.  Nothing was said about why he felt comfortable enough to take a vet who Kyle apparently described as “straight up nuts” onto that gun range.

More recently, Kyle’s widow insisted that her husband and his friend were caught by surprise.“Neither one of them saw it coming,” said Taya Kyle. She did not refer to the text messages raised during the murder trial.

Clint Eastwood decided not to deal with Kyle’s judgment in the ending of his blockbusterAmerican Sniper movie.  “I considered ending the film at the shooting range,” Eastwood told the Los Angeles Times.   “But that would have shifted the focus to his death and made it a different movie.  We were telling the story of Chris Kyle’s life and wanted to keep the focus there.”  Instead the movie ended with actual footage from Kyle’s funeral.

American Sniper was the highest grossing movie released in 2014.  It did far better at the box office than Eastwood’s fictional Million Dollar Baby, which had a riveting ending with no punches pulled by the director. Million Dollar Baby received the academy award for the best movie of 2004 while Hilary Swank, who starred as the ill-fated woman boxer, won the Oscar for best actress and Eastwood received an Oscar for his directing.

In contrast, Bradley Cooper failed to win the Oscar for his stirring performance as Kyle inAmerican Sniper and Eastwood wasn’t even nominated for his work in directing the hit film.

Whether the motion picture academy snubbed Eastwood for sidestepping Kyle’s lapse in judgment remains an open question.